Gifts of Nature: Sea Glass

"I’ve collected sea glass since I was a child. Small bowls filled with sea glass rest on windowsills and tables throughout our house. A huge mason jar on top of the bookcase in our study holds the largest pieces." — Photo by Alison Shaw

When the northeast wind blows the winter beach smooth and wipes the sand clean of footprints, I call my friend Gina and invite her to go beachcombing at Lambert’s Cove Beach. We walk along the shore, our eyes fixed on the high tide line. Amid the bits of shell, seaweed, and driftwood there just might be a few pieces of sea glass.

Bundled up in parkas, scarves, and boots, we still can’t avoid the damp cold that seeps into our fingers and toes. Too quickly the afternoon bleeds into a purple evening and we need a sign, an omen, some bright piece of color. Usually we find a few small pieces and pass them back and forth to admire their color and wonder about their salty history. Any jagged pieces we toss back into the sea to weather some more, but we slip the smooth pieces into our pockets or mittens so we can rub them between our fingers.

Old-timers like my neighbor Cary Luckey easily filled their pockets with sea glass when they walked the Cove in the fifties. With little plastic and no recycling, sea glass was being manufactured all the time then. But times have changed, and now it is a dwindling treasure.

I’ve collected sea glass since I was a child. Small bowls filled with sea glass rest on windowsills and tables throughout our house. A huge mason jar on top of the bookcase in our study holds the largest pieces. It is almost full. I’ve always appreciated the shape, color, and feel of sea glass. Although I’ve known that it can take twenty years for a piece of sea glass to weather, I’ve never given much thought to where the glass came from, what it was used for, or how old it might be.

A friend who knew of my interest in sea glass gave me a copy of Pure Sea Glass: Discovering Nature’s Vanishing Gems by Richard LaMotte. Organized by color, the book gives the composition and history of many kinds of glass. Now I am acutely aware that each piece of sea glass is a nugget of history, and by matching the color and shape to the book, I can uncover that story.

This afternoon Gina and I filled our pockets with heart rocks, but we also found three small pieces of sea glass. When we came inside from our cold walk, I lit the fire and made us hot cups of peppermint tea. After we warmed up, I got out the book and we compared our little pieces to the book’s lovely pictures.

The kelly green chunk was probably part of a Coke bottle made in the 1950s, possibly even bottled at the old Coca-Cola Plant in Vineyard Haven. Our cobalt blue piece likely started as a medicine bottle manufactured in the late 1800s. The tiny, pale, lime green chip that Gina found near Coca-Cola Brook is a green I’ve never seen before. Too thin to have come from a soda bottle, we learn this color is uncommon. Found only once for every fifty pieces of glass, the pieces are usually shards, small and rounded. According to the author, it was probably made in the mid to late 1900s.

After Gina leaves, I decide to sort my whole collection of sea glass by color, according to the author’s rarity scale. I could never do this in the frenzy of summer, but the short winter days make space for this.

I place four sheets of white copier paper on the dining room table and label each one: Extremely Rare, Rare, Uncommon, and Common. The wind rattles the storm windows, so I add more wood to the fire and put on a Mozart piano concerto before gathering up my stashes of sea glass and pouring them into a large salad bowl. I begin sorting. There are many colors I don’t have, like orange and yellow, but the range I do have, including a few nuggets of red found on the island of Vieques, surprises me.

My daughter Lila joins me. We hold each piece of glass up to a light, compare it to the photographs in the book and try to decide which pile it should go in. We look back at the book, read the history, and then reexamine the glass, savoring its beauty. It is late when we finally finish, leaving a sea glass pie, organized by colors, in the center of the table.

Lila looks over my shoulder to the display of old bottles on the dining room windowsill. This is another collection I’ve created over the years with bottles harvested from Island beaches and various bottle dumps in our back yard. Tomorrow I’ll delve into the chapters on bottle history and identification, but for today I am satisfied. Sunrise is early tomorrow and I want to be up.


Extremely Rare: Orange, Red, Turquoise, Yellow, Black, Teal, Gray

Rare: Pink, Aqua, Cornflower Blue, Cobalt Blue, Opaque White, Citron, Purple/Amethyst

Uncommon: Soft Green, Soft Blue, Forest Green, Lime Green, Golden Amber, Amber, Jade

Common: Kelly Green, Brown, White (Clear)