I walk head down, eyes roving, searching for a glint of green, a flash of sapphire blue. The waves lick my toes; the sand caresses my soles. And every so often I look out at that view(!) of water and sky, and all is right with the world.
Collecting beach glass (or sea glass, if you find it at the ocean) is meditation for thousands of beachcombers, who walk the shores hoping to find treasure: a rare pattern of sea pottery, a red sliver or purple jellybean of glass.
The hobby has swelled in the last decade, so that now there there’s a Glassing magazine and weekend festivals, an online artisan marketplace and Facebook groups dedicated to glass. At the same time, with cleaner waterways, the amount of sea glass is dwindling – making the search more intriguing and the pieces more valued.
“Being at the lake is like oxygen for my soul,” said Susan Hartung of Rocky River, who collects glass with her family. “If life starts smothering me, I stop by, even for a few minutes, and everything is OK again. It is such a calming and peaceful place.”
Christina Friedrichsen, near Windsor, Ontario, started collecting to give her a reason to get outside and away from her computer.
“As soon as I hit the beach it’s as if a chalk eraser comes and wipes away all the messages in my busy mind,” she writes in her blog. “All the negative thoughts. Anxieties. I’m left with a clean blackboard and a bucket full of joy.”
For me, collecting glass is a way to take the beach home. It gives me a reason to walk along the water, and it creates a bond with my kids (though they do get competitive over who finds what).
“Oh, look at this one!” my mom and sister and I call to each other, pocketing pieces for a future pendant or picture frame or just another piece in a layered vase.
It’s romantic to turn the glass over in your hand and wonder where it came from. And it’s thrilling to spot a unique piece, a beautifully frosted shape, a rare color.
The jagged, broken pieces tumble around the water for decades. The waves smooth the edges and buff them into frosted jewels before washing onto the shore for us to find.
Carter created a gorgeous chart of glass pieces, showing how rare each is.
A print of the chart hangs at our family cottage on Lake Huron, a present from my sister to my mom that us all a spot to judge their finds. In a phone interview, Carter said she loves how the chart can get a whole family interested in beach glass, or get a husband hunting for a rare piece.
Check out where the colors come from.
Green, white and brown: The easiest colors to find, which likely come from plain old beer and soda bottles.
Aqua: A sea foam green, which according to Glassing magazines, comes from old Coke bottles, canning jars and other glass made until about 1920. The irony is that most of that glass was never specifically colored; the color formed during glass making because of the amount of iron or oxidation.
Cobalt blue: A favorite, likely the remnants of pharmaceutical bottles, like Vick’s, Noxema or milk of magnesia bottles, said Meg Carter, a sea glass jeweler in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Red: Might originate from a signal lantern or boat light.
Pinks, purples and yellows: The rarest colors, which likely came from decorative pieces, like candy dishes that somehow ended up overboard.
But it’s getting harder and harder to find the rare colors, since people no longer throw trash into the water. (And most things come in plastic packages, rather than glass. Plastic on the beach is just yuck.)
Since beach glass rarely travels far, some people have started “seeding” beaches with glass pieces and marbles, Carter said. Others sell machine-tumbled glass they try to pass off as real.
Traditionalists shun the practice. Because the allure of beachcombing lies in its environment. Beach glass is a gift from nature, from the lake we love.
“Every now and then you find a piece that is so rare, so special, your heart skips a beat,” said Beth Lampe Martin.
Writes Andrea Rzeski Kustreba: “I really appreciate the history of what the glass represents and where it may have come from. I see it as a great privilege living so close to Lake Erie. It never disappoints!”