Top Menu

What is sea glass?

Sea, beach or ocean glass, mermaid’s tears, sea foam, Neptune’s jewels …….. Romantic names, but what is it?

Sea glass is discarded glass that has found its way into the sea; its edges softened by the movement of the waves and sand to make smooth frosted treasures with a hidden history. Sometimes colour, shape, pattern or writing will hint at an origin and age. It is estimated that most pieces of sea glass will have taken decades to become the smooth shapes that I use for my jewellery and beads. Rare colours, such as blue, amber and aqua can be from glass discarded over 50 years ago. Black, often a very dark green, can be several hundreds of years old. Lilac may have taken its colour from the chemicals used in clear glass manufacture reacting with strong sunlight.

A little more about sea glass

Found on beaches, tumbled and smoothed by the movement of the water and sand to create small pieces of smooth, frosted glass, sea glass includes glass made from various techniques and for various reasons: end of day glass, flashed glass, pressed glass, milk bottles, poison bottles, the list is endless……... Sea glass is one of the very few cases of a valuable item being created from the actions of the environment on man-made litter. Most sea glass will be 50 - 100 years old, some much older.

“End-of-day" glass is often from items made by the glass workers in their own time at the end of the day using up the remaining molten glass in the crucibles. It therefore tended to be a mixture of colours.

Another name for the items they made was "frigger" (UK) or "whimsy" (US). Often the items they made from the glass were walking sticks, rolling pins or animals; sometimes items for their own home or for their sweethearts and sometimes the items were made for sale.

End of day sea glass is an even rarer vintage find than ordinary sea glass and much will be from the early 1800s. Much of English ‘end of day’ glass is found at Seaham in County Durham where the glass works were on the cliff edge – so any spoils not used were dumped into the sea.

"Flashed glass" equally as rare as ‘end-of-day’ glass is usually clear glass that has been hand blown and then dipped in molten coloured glass to build up thin layers of colour. The piece was often then engraved to cut through the coloured layers to show the pattern in the clear glass beneath or could be left solid coloured to give the impression of a heavy piece made from an expensive colour such as ruby red.

Is it real sea glass?

It is possible to make imitation ‘sea glass’ using tumbling machines and acids to etch and smooth rough and unfrosted surfaces. The glass may be last week’s wine bottle, or even rough glass from a beach. The unscrupulous will market this as genuine sea glass. Look for the characteristic ‘C’ shaped pitting which frequently is visible on genuine sea glass compared to the completely smooth frosting which is probably man made. Ask questions of the vendor. Whilst they may not disclose which beaches they comb, they should be able to tell you enough to convince you it is genuine. Price can be an indication of origin but may not be. Perfect pieces of rare colours such as cobalt blue or red are not often sold for pennies!

I only use genuine sea glass, most of which has been personally collected from beaches around the South West of England. Other pieces have been sourced from fellow collectors around the world, when UK beaches will not yield the colours I am seeking.

Collecting sea glass is unpredictable; sometimes a few pieces, sometimes none. Seasonal tides can change expectations from one day to the next. Discovering the beach is often as exciting as discovering the sea glass. Rarely is sea glass found lying on the sand waiting to be collected – usually we have to wade through banks of kelp, or scramble down rough paths to get to the shoreline. If we are lucky the beach will be deserted and we can enjoy sun on our backs with the cry of the sea birds for company.