If you’re fond of strolling along the beach with a pail in hand in search of colorful sea glass, you’re not alone. The smooth, frosted glass fragments are popular among beachcombers, jewelry makers, and crafters alike. But have you ever wondered how this beautiful sea glass is formed?
Sea glass is simply regular man-made glass that has been weathered and worn down over time by the waves and sand. The tumbling action of the elements wears down the sharp edges, giving it a smooth, frosted appearance. The process can take years, and sometimes even decades, to complete.
So, as natural as it may seem, sea glass actually originates with human activity. But that doesn’t make it any less beautiful. In fact, many people find the history behind their sea glass to be part of its charm. And some of the most sought-after sea glass is rare and highly coveted by collectors. Let’s find out more about the history and formation of this beachcombing treasure.
What Is Sea Glass?
If you’ve ever walked along a beach and found a piece of colorful worn-down glass, odds are you’ve found what’s known as sea glass. Sea glass (on Amazon) originates from centuries-old man-made glass objects, like bottles and jars, that ended up in the ocean.
Over time, the waves and sand smooth out the edges of the glass, and sea salts dissolve the limestone and ash in the glass, which gives sea glass its iconic smooth texture and frosted appearance.
Sea glass is found worldwide, but it is most commonly associated with beaches in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Mexico, and the northeastern coast of the United States. Depending on the original glass composition and color, sea glass can come in various colors, from pale blues and greens to deep ambers and browns. But the most common sea glass color is white, followed by green and brown.
It’s rare to find red, orange, or yellow sea glass since these colors were not as commonly used in early glassmaking.
There is another type of glass called “beach glass.” It’s very similar to sea glass in terms of its creation, but there is a key difference: Beach glass is found on the shorelines of freshwater lakes and rivers. Because of the different composition of fresh water and less tumbling action, beach glass tends to be more shiny and less frosted than sea glass.
Where Does Sea Glass Come From?
Most sea glass originates from discarded bottles and other glass objects that were tossed into the ocean as trash many years ago. Other common sources of sea glass include shipwrecks, flood waters carrying glass debris, and even intentional dumping of glass objects into the ocean.
Whatever the source, all well-worn sea glass is at least fifty years old — and often much older.
You’ll most likely find sea glass on beaches near urban areas or shipping lanes. That’s because these areas have a greater likelihood of man-made glass objects ending up in the ocean. But it can also be found on more remote beaches if there’s been a shipwreck or the waves have picked up glass debris from another beach and carried it to a new location.
Interestingly, it’s often possible to identify the origin of sea glass by the colors. 18th- and 19th-century glass had more impurities than glass produced today. So the darkest sea glass colors, like black and very dark green, come from this period.
Purple or amber sea glass, meanwhile, is mostly from mid-19th century bottles. And the lighter colors, like pale green and aqua, are from bottles or tableware made after the mid-1900s.
Is It Illegal to Collect Sea Glass?
It really depends on where you’re collecting it. In the United States, collecting sea glass from beaches within national parks is illegal. However, there are plenty of beaches outside of national parks where it is still allowed to collect sea glass. If you’re unsure, it’s always best to check with local authorities beforehand.
Why Is Sea Glass Becoming Harder to Find?
Sea glass is made from regular glass made in factories, and it takes decades of tumbling in the ocean to turn it into those beautiful, frosted fragments. So obviously, the more glass produced, the more sea glass there will be.
But nowadays, we’re using less glass and more plastic. Most household items once made of glass, like bottles and jars, are now made of plastic. And when we do use glass, it’s often recycled. In addition, many beaches are now cleaned more frequently, and glass waste is quickly removed in the process.
Essentially, there’s less glass ending up in the ocean to be weathered into sea glass. On top of that, people have been collecting sea glass as a hobby for years, so there’s less and less to be found on beaches. For all these reasons, sea glass is only getting harder to find.
That’s why there are now laws prohibiting the collection of sea glass from national parks. That way, years from now, people can still enjoy the beauty of this unique beach gem.