A Buying Guide for the Sea Glass Jewelry Consumer

By Meg Carter

Being an educated buyer is always a good idea and buying sea glass jewelry is no exception.  Navigating the purchase of your first or 50th piece of sea glass jewelry can be tricky.  Sea glass jewelry is unique compared to other types of jewelry and requires different questions to ask yourself to be confident in your purchase.  Fear not.  Listed in this article are the main points you need to consider.

What materials are used?

It’s important to know what type of metal was used to create the jewelry you are considering for purchase. You want to know how it will wear overtime, how to care for it and (if you have allergies) how it might react with your skin.

Base metal (craft wire)—Don’t assume that because a wire wrapped piece of jewelry has a silver color wire, that it’s sterling silver.  Many artists work with what is referred to as “craft wire”. The term loosely refers to less expensive wire that can contain a number of different metals including brass, bronze, copper, zinc, nickel, stainless steel, and/or aluminum.  Some craft wires are a mixture of metals and some can be coated, colored or anodized.  If you have any kind of allergy to particular metals or sensitive skin, you may want to limit the use of this kind of wire to pendants that you would wear on top of clothing.  These wires may tarnish, change color, and wear down to the metal color underneath if they have an overlay of another metal.  Craft wire offers a great place for beginners to get started with the art and build their confidence to work up to finer metals.

Meg Carter Authentic Seaglass Jewelry Display

Sterling silver—The term “silver jewelry” can be broken into 4 categories.  The first two categories are sterling silver and fine silver.  The difference between these two is the amount of copper that is mixed with the silver.  Sterling silver is an alloy of 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper and might be stamped with .925.  Fine silver is 99.9% silver and might be stamped with .999.  Fine silver is more resistant to tarnishing in comparison to sterling silver but is also much softer which makes it more prone to scratches and bending.  Sterling silver on the other hand, is stronger due to the added copper, but it’s also more prone to tarnish.  It’s important to keep in mind that if the silver is soldered, the solder will most likely contain nickel.  If you have an allergy, it may be an issue for you even though the silver doesn’t contain nickel, the solder usually does.  The third kind of silver is argentium silver.  This type of silver is 93.5% silver, 6.5% copper and >1% germanium—a silvery-white metalloid—and might be stamped “.935” or include the symbol for true argentium silver, a winged unicorn.  Argentium silver will resist tarnishing for a longer period of time than traditional silver.  The fourth category of silver is silver-plated or silver-filled.  This is normally copper wire that is coated with a layer (the thickness varies) of silver.

Gold—white or yellow gold is often the strongest metal you will find sea glass jewelry set in.  The karat of the gold indicates the purity of the gold.  14kt is most commonly used for jewelry.  The higher the karat, the purer the gold; but with the increase in purity, the level of how soft the gold is also increases.  Keep in mind that white gold is usually yellow gold with a nickel alloy.  Again, if you have allergies to nickel, you may want to stick to yellow gold.  White gold can also start to show wearing back to yellow gold over time.  This process can happen more quickly based on your body’s chemical makeup.  It’s possible to rhodium plate your white gold to slow this process or cover it up. Rhodium is a hard silver-white metal added to white gold or silver jewelry to increase shine, luster and durability.  Gold filled metal and wire is another type of gold available and can be found with yellow gold or sometimes rose gold on the outside of a copper/zinc alloy as a base.

Is the piece constructed well?

You want your new jewelry to last and you want to be able to enjoy it for a long time. Examining how the jewelry was made and what practices were used to create it will help to make a sound purchase.

Bezel set dirt trap—Sea glass offers a unique and beautiful jewelry medium, but it comes with one major flaw, it’s see-through.  When sea glass is bezel set with a full backplate it creates an inescapable trap for dirt.  It is important to ask the jeweler that created it if the glass was set in such a way that the glass is air and watertight.  If the glass is set with no type of barrier such as silicone, epoxy or adhesive, you will get dirt under the glass and it will ruin your jewelry.  The lighter the color of the glass, the more apparent the dirt will be.  You can try to avoid this by not getting it wet, but this can prove to be difficult - especially for rings.  Some bezel settings are made with an open back.  This helps with the problem, but it still leaves a small area that is exposed and therefore vulnerable to trapping dirt. 

Wire ends—If the jewelry is made with wire wrapping techniques, it’s a good idea to examine the wire ends.  Check to make sure the ends are secured in such a way that they will not scratch you or catch on things while wearing the jewelry.  In some cases, the wire ends might be welded down.  This is ideal, particularly for wire wrapped rings.

O-Ring ConstructionO-rings closed or open—Many types of jewelry contain pieces that are called “O-rings”.  These are circular rings that create/attach chains or connect various components together.  Often you will find these rings open, meaning you could see a definitive seam where the two ends meet.  Jewelry that has these joints closed, meaning they are welded or soldered shut, will be much better from a buying perspective.  When the rings are open, it leaves the opportunity for them to be pulled apart and jeopardize the pieces being held together.  Open O-rings in jewelry are common and safe to buy - it just requires a little extra care.

Secure Setting—Wire wrapped, bezel set or prong set—the glass should be secure.  Particularly in wire settings, the glass should be wrapped in such a way that it is not moving within the setting.  Any movement in the setting should indicate it’s in jeopardy of falling out.  In bezel settings the glass should not rattle or move.  Make sure the glass is tight.

Is the sea glass glass authentic?

Authentic SeaglassThere’s no doubt that manufactured glass is present in the genuine sea glass market, so you need to become educated in the difference.  The best practice when it comes to identifying authentic sea glass is experience. Just like spotting a knock-off Rolex, those with experience notice the signs quickly.  Experience goes a long way with who you are purchasing from as well.  Sellers with more years under their belt will be able to spot manufactured glass and know not to sell it as authentic.  Purchasing from those that have been in the business longer may work to your advantage.  When it comes to sea glass, sometimes it’s easy to spot and other times more difficult.  The “C” marks can help you in determining the authenticity of a piece though plenty of authentic pieces of sea glass do NOT have “C” markings.  On the other hand, some very believable manufactured pieces have “C” markings.  Keep in mind the phrase “sea glass” in an item description does not mean it’s authentic.  The phrase is used loosely by many jewelers to describe the general idea of “frosted glass”.  Always go with your gut.  If you question it, usually there’s a reason. 

Is it priced correctly?

Jewelers have a difficult decision when it comes to pricing their work.  The balance between what the market determines and what is deserved for hard work and talent is a difficult call. When considering the price of a piece, it is important to take four things into consideration: materials used, rarity/quality of the glass, labor, and talent. 

The material used can determine much of the price. If you are considering two different pieces and they are made of different materials, you should consider which should be priced higher or lower.  Familiarize yourself with an idea of market prices for different jewelry metals, or use the chart below. Also consider the amount of metal the piece contains. For example, a heavy silver chain is going to reflect in a higher price compared to a dainty chain.

Metal Prices Comparison

When rare colors or unique pieces of sea glass are used in jewelry, an increased price is to be expected.  The artist has gone to greater lengths or spent more to get their hands on these pieces and they should charge for it. Further, the better quality pieces will yield higher prices than craft quality glass.  Look for chips, interior cracks and thin pieces - all of which are fine to purchase but should be taken into consideration with lower price compared to flawless pieces. 

The amount of time taken to make a particular piece of jewelry may vary with each jeweler and experience, but it does play into the price.  Bezel settings, although the look of them is fairly simple, involves a process that is much longer than other techniques.  A jewelry piece that has multiple bezel settings is labor intensive.  Wire wrapping, depending on the intricacy, will take a shorter amount of time or an extensive amount of time for complex designs.

Meg Carter Seaglass Jeweler

The artist’s time and talent should be a major factor in the price.  You are purchasing a handmade piece of art that the jeweler has put their heart, time and talent into.  They have spent possibly years or decades learning their craft and had many failures to get to the piece you hold in your hands. 

Now having this information, you should feel like you have a foothold on what to look for and the questions to ask before you purchase. It’s important to work together to create a dialog between yourself and the artist. On the other side of the purchase, jeweler’s reading this should be prepared to answer these questions and help guide customers through making their purchase a memorable experience. Happy shopping!

Learn more about Meg Carter ›

This article appeared in the Glassing Magazine July/August 2018 issue.

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