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Look What the Tide Brought In

Sea glass, he discovered, is found in bodies of water large and small throughout the world. Transforming a shard of glass into a soft-edged jewel takes a lot of water in motion swirling it and twirling it until it is weathered and frosted. He believes that it takes up to 10 years for a sliver of glass to show significant etching, 20 to 30 years for edges to be completely polished and rounded by lapping waters.

The colors and sometimes the shape of the glass provide the keys to its age and history. In the book, LaMotte rates the rarity of sea glass, listing 24 colors divided into four categories from extremely rare (orange, red, turquoise, yellow, black, teal gray) down to common (Kelly green, brown and white/clear).

"I spent a lot of time studying bottles, glass and tableware from the 19th and early 20th centuries, the period from which most of the glass you find is from," he says. A few pieces actually came from the 1700s. He researched the bottle and glass industry in Baltimore, where a company called Maryland Glass produced Bromo-Seltzer bottles, whose cobalt blue fragments are now highly prized. LaMotte spent hours poring over books at the Chevy Chase Library in Maryland, which houses the Barger-Suppes Collection of more than 200 books on the history of glassmaking.

"Orange is the rarest color; red is very, very rare here in this area," says LaMotte, who finds only one or two pieces of red a year.

Sea glass snobs such as Sullivan say their glass must look very blasted. "If it's see-through, I toss it back in," says Sullivan. "But there are so many people collecting now, many are just picking up broken glass that hasn't been weathered or aged." There are even purveyors of faux sea glass. Buyers should be leery of glass "aged" in a rock tumbler. (Look for edges that aren't worn down and the lack of pockmarks, says LaMotte.)

Sea glass may be something of an endangered commodity. In the 1960s, plastic began to replace glass in many consumer products; the 1970s recycling movement shamed citizens out of littering. Beaches are being rebuilt with imported sand that has no old glass fragments in it. Rising water levels are burying stocks of sea glass. In many areas, the supplies of old sea glass are vanishing. The green, brown and clear bottles of today will predominate the supply in 20 or 30 years, but in smaller numbers.

"People aren't throwing as much out into the water as they used to," says LaMotte. He says the littering boaters of yesteryear are now more ecologically aware. Many fishermen are reluctant to carry things in glass bottles because they can get banged around on the boat.

"If people christened more boats with champagne," he says, "we'd get more sea glass for the future."


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