The Beauty of Sea Glass, or the Mermaid’s Tear

by Jan 17, 2017Across the Cape Fear, Art & Culture, Brunswick County, South Brunswick

Those glimmers of sea glass on the beach have stories to tell.        

Sea glass, also called a mermaid’s tear, is a shard of glass that has been tumbled by the ocean’s waves and sand over years until it is smooth and frosted. It is commonly found washed up on beaches in shades of brown, green and white, but the rare colors of blue, purple, red and orange also can be found.

Humans have been making and using glass since around since 3500 B.C. As people settled along shorelines discard glass, much of their trash eventually makes its way into the ocean. Therefore, beaches and waterways that have been settled by people typically offer a better chance for finding these tide-worn gems.

Sea glass hunting has gotten so popular that there are now numerous books available on the subject. Much of the research for this article came from the book “The Ultimate Guide to Sea Glass: Finding, Collecting, Identifying and Using the Ocean’s Most Beautiful Stones” by Mary Beth Beuke (Skyhorse Publishing).

Read on for a guide on where to look for sea glass, the best techniques for finding it and how to know whether or not your finds are unique.

Where to Look

Wherever people and water meet, you can expect to find sea glass. Certain areas within the United States are known for their sea glass–covered beaches. Fort Bragg, Calif., is one of the most famous. This area was once a dump and therefore the glass is in abundance. Time and nature have combined to convert trash into treasure, but you must not remove any glass form the northern section of the beach, as it is part of a state park. Kauai Island in Hawaii is also home to a famous Glass Beach, where millions of small, smooth glass pebbles in blue, aqua, brown, green and occasionally red can be found. The glittering beach is the result of the neighboring Swiss Cheese Shoreline of lava rock with a network of holes. The glass gets trapped and battered and then eventually makes its way up to the beach.

Though the Brunswick beaches are not as favorable to catching glass in lava rocks, we do have an abundance of coral that can act in the same way. The Brunswick Islands and the coastal areas of southeastern North Carolina offer tremendous potential for finding sea glass, and all colors of glass wash up on our shores.

Piers, boat ramps and launches, industrial seaside areas and shipping channels are very good places to start. The Brunswick Islands fit just about all of the criteria to find sea glass, and the Cape Fear River is another source that is promising. Think of where the most populated beaches are and, conversely, where the beaches are a bit secluded. The more isolated the beaches, the better because more debris means more places for the sea glass to get trapped and carried ashore with no one to discover it.

Digging into a shell hash is a great way to find sea glass. Shell hashes are large groups of broken shells, driftwood, seaweed, etc. that have washed up on the beach naturally.

Sea glass is becoming harder to find because beaches are becoming cleaner, and people are recycling their glass now and using more plastic bottles. Many beaches don’t even allow glass on them anymore and there are hefty fines issued for having glass on the beach. Beach re-nourishment projects, which tend to bury existing glass, also contribute to the rarity of sea glass. Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach have undergone re-nourishment projects, making it difficult to find glass there. Additionally, those beaches are also heavily populated and the competition is stiff for any sea glass that does wash up. With so many obstacles, actually finding a mermaid’s tear is all the more rewarding.

When to Hunt

Technically, you can walk on the shores at anytime of the day with as many people around you on a freshly pristine clean beach and still find a piece of sea glass. There are, however, a few tips to help make the search easier.

It’s a myth that you will always find the most sea glass after a storm. While finding an abundance of sea glass after a storm can occasionally happen, post-storm beaches can sometimes pull everything out to sea, having the opposite of the anticipated effect. In addition, many have noticed that after a heavy storm or hurricane no glass is found for a while.

It is believed that it’s best to start your hunt about an hour before the tide is going out. Near the wet sand is the best area to look for sea glass because it is easier to be seen, but be aware that certain colors of glass (like white) turn almost invisible when wet. The wet sand is a good place to find the blue and green glass. Dry sand close to the wet sand is great to find white and brown colors or the elusive red. Sunny days are better than overcast days, and remember that glass glistens a little more than wet shells. Walk slowly and scan the beach with your eyes. It’s not a race to see who can find something the fastest, and you don’t want to miss something along the way.

Color Rarity

Before the 1960s plastic was not widely commercially used, and glass was the main way to preserve and transport goods. Just about every household product was sold in glass packaging, and home cooks preserved food in glass jars. Tin was also used, but in coastal communities tin would rust so glass was preferred.

Most sea glass that is found in our area is in shades of green or brown. Green sea glass can be a wide range of shades and hues, and can be common (think beer, wine and soda bottles) or rare, if it’s bubbled, patterned, embossed or textured. Brown glass is also an old and new color. Common products like modern beer bottles are brown, yet very old Clorox and Lysol bottles were brown, and some of these still bear the imprinting.

There is also a good amount of clear or white glass off our shores. From a new soda bottle to an old pane of glass, you can usually establish how old your white glass is by the thickness and any markings or bubbles. Clear glass from early in the last century contained manganese and has turned light purple form exposure to the sun. A lot of older white glass, however, had a greenish tint, and depending on thickness and whether bubbles are present, it could be an old piece of rarer glass. New glass of this shade is still used for wine bottles.

Sea glass can also be aqua, blue, purple, red, yellow or orange. Collectors say some of the most rare sea glass is the color of blue, orange and red. They are among the rarest because they have not been commercially reproduced in abundance for many years and there is no new source for them.

While the most common source of sea glass in the shade of aqua was most likely an old Coca-Cola bottle made in various parts of the country, the shades vary depending on the silica that was used. Cobalt blue glass is fun to find and stems from countless old products packaged in blue glass, such as medicines and even poisons.

Purple sea glass can be found in abundance in certain parts of the world, but the United States is not one of them. Glass in its raw state usually has a greenish tint to it; to make glass white or clear, a bleaching chemical agent was added. When World War I broke out, because of new regulations, the chemical could no longer be used and the replacement chemical that was used turned glass lavender over a period of time. It’s quite thrilling to think that when you find a piece of sea glass in this color, you can date it! True purple glass is much rarer. Most pieces of true lavender sea glass found in European countries dates back to the Monarchy or Royalty and was reserved for the Bishops in the church.

Finding Sea Glass on the BeachRed is the Holy Grail of sea glass and will make any sea glass collector’s week or year. One of the most common sources for red glass was made by Anchor Hocking Glass Company for decorative household items, from vases, kitchen wares and railroad lanterns to Avon products and many more. In the 1950s the Schlitz beer bottle was also a ruby color and there was brewery on Long Island that made a beer called Red Bottle Beer. True red sea glass contains gold, which turned the molten glass its vivid red hue. This is why even today red glass is very expensive. Orange glass was most likely from an old decorative household item or from warning lights on boats. The odds of finding a piece of orange sea glass are very slim, for this color is the rarest and was seldom produced.

What to Do with Sea Glass

When you get your piece of sea glass home, be sure to inspect it thoroughly. Wash it and hold it up to the sun like a jewel to see its true color. Closely look at some of the markings on the pieces and see if you can find raised letters, as those pieces have more value. Look for curves or indentions to see if you can distinguish what the item may have been. Identify numbers because they may hold the key to distinguishing the origins. The fun in sea glass hunting is that every piece is a treasure with a story.

You can make things with your glass — jewelry, wind chimes, intricate mosaic sea glass tiles — or just store it in a jar. If you don’t find your own, you can buy sea glass products in local shops. Although the art created from sea glass is remarkable, there is something therapeutic about just holding a piece of sea glass and running your fingers over it.

Next time you take a stroll on Holden Beach or Oak Island be sure to scan the soft wet sand for glimmers that could be a piece of history. A clean beach is a happy beach, but for a true sea glass hunter, someone’s trash can be the next person’s treasure. It’s all about the thrill of the find.

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