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Look What the Tide Brought In
Sea Glass, Once Just a Bottle, Is Riding a Whole New Wave

By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 11, 2005

Not long ago, sea glass was just something you plunked in a plastic pail, along with shells and baby crabs, when you were taking a beach walk with Grandma.

Today, those frosted, shimmery shards -- softened and smoothed by decades underwater -- are being sought by collectors, artisans and would-be archeologists. Bags of sea glass are sold by the pound on eBay. Chunks of light-catching greens and ambers are crafted into (frequently pricey) earrings and bracelets. Some collectors have grouted their glass finds into kitchen backsplashes. Manufactured glass tiles for shower stalls and bathroom floors by high-end purveyors such as Ann Sacks have been cut and colored to mimic the real thing. Watery, serene shades of oceanic blues and greens are among Benjamin Moore's most popular paint colors this year and are showing up in room after room in shelter magazines and show houses.

What's more, according to a new book by a Maryland author, the Chesapeake Bay -- for centuries a shipping channel where bottles aplenty were tossed overboard -- is one of the best places in the country to find this treasure from the sea.

"Pure Sea Glass," by Chestertown writer Richard LaMotte, 45, is a wealth of nuggets like that from a man who has spent hundreds of hours combing beaches and trolling remote shorelines looking for the elusive pieces of the past. After particularly fierce storms in the bay, LaMotte hauls out his lime green kayak and paddles to a deserted stretch of beach he knows, hoping to add to his stash. His trained eyes scan the water's edge for sun sparkling on bits of icy amethyst, jade or citron among the rocks and driftwood. A day's haul, he says, often includes glass fragments or bottle stoppers that have been churning underwater for more than 100 years.

Like any canny collector, LaMotte won't divulge the best spots where he and his wife, Nancy, have salvaged the 30,000 specimens they have in their home. But his self-published book (Chesapeake Sea Glass Publishing, 224 pp., $34.95) describes where sea glass comes from, how it is formed, and how to find and identify it. The text is lavishly illustrated with photographs by Celia Pearson of Annapolis, whose work occasionally appears in the Home section.

After working on the book, Pearson produced a series of art photography prints of beach glass that are selling briskly for $300 to $1,700. (She has showings at the Packard Reath Gallery in Lewes, Del., through Aug. 15 and, starting on Aug. 18, at the Aurora Gallery in Annapolis.) "These pieces have a story like a message in a bottle," says Pearson. "This glass has been on a journey."

Since writing the book, which has sold an impressive 19,000 copies, LaMotte says he has discovered something of a cult of sea glass groupies who fill bowls, bags and windowsills with multicolored shards. People show up at book signings with fistfuls of glass, some pieces dating back generations, curious to learn more about their history.

"There seems to be a nostalgic, emotional attachment to memories of collecting sea glass," says LaMotte. "It takes people back to a childhood activity at a very happy time."

Increasingly, the sea glass people are linking up. Last fall, hundreds showed up for the Northeast Sea Glass Festival in Rockport, Mass.; another is planned for next year. Earrings, rings and bracelets made of glass polished by the sea, long popular in beachy boutiques and nature shops, are moving into high-end specialty stores. And rare red or orange sea glass, which sold for $5 or $10 a few years ago, is now fetching $50 to $100 apiece for good specimens.

Dora Sullivan, an uber-collector from Cape Charles in the Eastern Shore of Virginia, has turned her collection into hanging fish sculptures luminous with sea glass scales. She sells them, starting at $295, as a sidelight at Sullivan's, her family's office supply shop, along with bags of beach glass and sea glass jewelry she gets crafted in Greece.

The LaMottes' enthusiasm grew from a small jar of sea glass they had collected with their daughter and son at the Outer Banks years ago. In 2000, Nancy, who had studied jewelry making, was looking for a second career, and decided to incorporate sea glass in her designs.

Richard, who works in his family's water-testing company, started roaming the Chesapeake beaches looking for glass. On a good day, he says, he can find 100 to 150 pieces in his special spots, many of which are between Rock Hall and Great Oak on the Chesapeake Bay. As he found more and more pieces in different colors, he became curious as to their provenance and began researching the history of American glass bottles.

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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