By Kirsti Scott
Pieces of glass that we find on beaches around the world usually started as utilitarian bottles, jars, plates, and other glassware. Waterways were commonly used as a place to discard trash, so discarded glassware ended up in rivers, lakes, and oceans. The pieces tumbled in the waves for decades or even centuries and turned into the frosted glass found on beaches today. Just like the original pieces of glass that were thrown in the waves long ago, beach glass comes in every color of the rainbow.
One fun part of collecting sea glass is coming up with a list of items on your “bucket list,” mentally checking each off as you find them. Collectors, jewelers, and those who purchase sea glass and sea glass jewelry are often challenged to describe the color of the item they are selling or buying. This has given rise to a selection of books, charts, and posters designed to help give people a common reference for beach glass colors, their origins, and their relative rarity. In this article, I’m going to try to introduce you to some of these resources plus provide a bit of information about the sea of colors we find on beaches around the world.
First off, there are endless variations of each color of beach glass. Differences in the ingredients, changes in temperature during glass manufacture, the thickness of the glass, and exposure to the elements can make glass made by the same manufacturer look different. How each piece appears to the eye depends on a combination of factors, including your lighting, which can vary the appearance of a single piece of glass.
Paint manufacturers make color swatches with actual paint, so if two people miles away have the same swatch, they know that they are looking at the same color. Pantone creates ink-color swatch books with actual inks and fabric swatch books with pieces of fabric so different designers can have a common reference point.
When we print colors in a book, on a poster—or on the pages of this magazine—every color is created using a combination of only four ink colors: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK). Yellow and magenta dots are used to make orange, blue and yellow to make green, etc. This limits the range of colors that can be printed. Even the same CMYK color mix on different papers or printed on a different day can come out differently. However, comparing the pages of this magazine with someone else who has the same magazine will give you a common frame of reference. So the color called “red” on page 63 of your magazine should look similar to the one on page 63 of someone else’s magazine.
Visit a paint store and you’ll be overwhelmed by the number of paint color names. Similarly, every sea glass color system has different names. If you are talking to someone about a color, instead of getting hung up on the actual name just make sure you both have the same book, chart, poster, or magazine.
The selection of colors of glass found on any particular beach varies greatly depending on many factors. Visit a beach near a medicine bottle manufacturer and you might find an abundance of blue glass. Near a seaside amusement park, you might find common beverage bottle colors. An industrial dump might yield lots of sea foam window glass or glass tiles. Beachcomb near an art glass studio such as Davenport, California, and you might pick up multicolored pieces. While you might never find a particular color of sea glass on your beach, it could be common elsewhere. Just be aware that rarity varies with each beach.
Glass of every color can be found in art glass, stained glass windows, sculptures, and other one-of-a-kind glass pieces. However, most beach and sea glass started out as bottles, jars, tableware, and other household items that were thrown away and eventually ended up on the shore. Shown here are some colors found on beaches around the world and a bit of information on where they may have originated.
What's your favorite color of beach glass?
pink: Pink sea glass mostly came from decorative glass pieces, such as pink plates, glasses, and housewares that were mass produced in the 20th century. Additionally, selenium used by glassmakers to clarify glass can turn clear glass a peach color after years in the sun.
purple: Most purple sea glass came from clear glass made in the 1800s and 1900s, when glassmakers used manganese to clarify the glass. Over time, sunlight turned the manganese a lavender or amethyst color. Some of the sources of amethyst or dark lavender sea glass are art glass, decorative glassware, flasks, decanters, or bitters bottles.
blue: Blue glass was used for poison and medicines, such as Milk of Magnesia, Bromo-Seltzer, and Vicks VapoRub, to warn people that the contents should be handled carefully. Ink bottles, perfume bottles, flasks, decorative items, and beer bottles were also made in a range of colors of blue glass.
aqua: Some sources of dark aqua sea glass are fancy tableware, art glass, stained glass, and seltzer bottles. Another source is electrical insulators used on early 20th-century power poles. Lighter aqua sea glass originated from canning jars, ink bottles, and medicine bottles.
teal: Teal glass is a deep blue-green color and was made mostly as utilitarian glass bottles and jars that contained primarily liquids. Depression glass was also produced in teal, as were ink bottles, wine bottles, and glass electrical insulators.
brown: Brown sea glass in a range of colors from golden amber to brown came mostly from bottles for root beer, beer, medicine, spirits, bitters, and cleaning products, such as Clorox and Lysol. Darker brown pieces often contain iron, added to strengthen the glass and protect the contents from sunlight. Iron in the glass can turn even darker in the sunlight over time.
black: Most black sea glass is actually dark green, brown, red, or blue from bottles that were designed to protect contents from sunlight. Black glass can also be from dark purple light bulb insulators or glassware. The glass is so dark that it appears black, but holding a piece of black sea glass up to a very bright light sometimes reveals its actual color.
grey: Most grey sea glass came from leaded-glass tableware, cut glass, and decorative glass that was clear. The lead oxide used in the glass to make it more brilliant turned grey after years in the sunlight. Some grey sea glass came from television screens or glass tiles that were thrown away and ended up on a beach.
red: Red sea glass often came from decorative glass pieces, such as platters, vases, and perfume bottles. Early glassmakers used gold to create the red color of stained glass windows. Later, copper and selenium were used to create red beer bottles, car brake lights, boat lanterns, train signal lights, and tableware. Some red glass glows under black light.
orange: Orange glass was never made in large quantities, so orange sea glass mostly comes from art glass or decorative items, such as vases, plates, and sculptures. Orange glass was also used in reflectors and signal lights on cars. Some orange sea glass came from Carnival glass in bright red, orange, and yellow, made in the early 1900s. Some orange glass glows under black light.
yellow: Yellow was used in art glass, stained glass, and fine tableware, as well as for glass jars and signal lights on cars, boats, and trains. Some pastel yellow sea glass started out clear, but selenium used when making the glass turned the glass a pale yellow after years in the sunlight. Some yellow glass glows under black light.
opalescent: Opalescent glass is translucent and casts an orange shadow or appears orange along thin edges, due to fine particles suspended in the glass and scattered by the light. In the early 20th century, it was used in decorative glassware, and early pieces of opal glass are highly collectible today.
canary: Vaseline glass, or canary glass, is a yellow-green glass mainly produced for tableware and household items from around 1840 up until World War II. Uranium is the most common ingredient in this glass. The uranium in canary glass gives the glass its bright-green color in natural light, and causes the glass to glow vivid neon green under a black light.
lime green: Most lime green glass sea glass comes from the 20th century. Sodas created from the 1920s through the 1970s were bottled in this bright yellow-green glass. Several beers also came in lime green bottles, but green glass doesn’t protect against light as well as brown glass. From the 1800s until the 1950s, some medicinal products came in lime green glass, and it was also used in art glass and Depression glasswares.
green: There are endless shades of green sea glass. It came mostly from beer, juice, and soft drink bottles, dark green wine bottles, and sea foam green, jade, teal, and olive green bottles of all types. Most glass naturally has a green tint from iron in the sand, so even when not intentionally colored, glass often ended up with a green tint.
sea foam: The soft and soothing pale green and blue that beachcombers know as sea foam or sea mist is often the natural color that results from iron often found in the sand used to make glass. While many bottles sport this light aquamarine naturally, Coca Cola bottles, canning jars, ink bottles, and more were intentionally made in this beautiful shade.
clear: Clear sea glass came from bottles, jars, glasses, plates, windows, and industrial glass of all shapes and sizes. Years of exposure to the sun and air can turn white glass a light pastel color, from yellow to blue to purple to pink, so no two pieces of clear sea glass are exactly the same.
opaque/translucent: Originally made in 15th-century Venice, opaque and translucent glass were made by adding tin, zinc oxide, fluorides, phosphates, arsenic, antimony, or calcium during manufacture. In addition to white “milk glass,” this glass was made a rainbow of colors. Light yellow “custard” glass was made with uranium oxide, which fluoresces in black light. Costume jewelry, dishware, cosmetic jars, and decorative opaque and translucent glassware were popular from the late 19th century through the first half of the 20th century.
Finding the origins of beach glass is not always easy, as pieces may be from one-of-a-kind handblown glassware, art glass, or industrial waste.
Some of the most famous sea glass comes from two art glass studios 5,000 miles apart. Hartley Wood and Company made colorful swirled glass vases and glassware in Sunderland, England, and the multicolored glass found on beaches of the local coast may come from the discarded remnants of this glass. In Davenport, California, Lundberg Studio glass artists produced exotic-colored vases, bottles, paperweights, and more. Discarded pieces have ended up back on the beach, tumbled into smooth nuggets by the huge surf. Multicolor pieces can be found on beaches around the world, perhaps from cast-off pieces of art glass, stained glass, and even bonfire glass.
Flashed and stained glass
Sometimes the ingredients to make colored glass were expensive, so glassmakers came up with ways to reproduce the look at a lower cost. Flashed and stained glass were made by combining a thin layer of colored glass or colored enamel paste with a thick layer of clear or white glass. The overall effect mimics solid-colored glass, but the layers are visible from the side.
There are two types of slag glass. The first type of slag glass is also known as “Malachite” or “Marble” glass and is opaque white glass purposely mixed with a variety of glass colors to create a marbleized look. It was made by several British companies and a few French companies in the 1880s and 1890s, and it is still manufactured in the U.S.
The second type of slag glass is a byproduct of an industrial process. Leland Blue Stone was created by iron smelting by the Leland Lake Superior Iron Company in Michigan in the late 1800s. Similarly, Frankfort Green came from the Frankfort Iron Works in Elberta, Michigan. Pieces of blue and green waste glass can also be found along the northeast coast of England. With many foundries in the Great Lakes region and along the English coast, these remnants from the smelting process still wash up on local beaches.
Along the coast of Lake Erie, several factories discarded the glass used to make insulators for lightbulbs. Local beachcombers find cobalt blue and amethyst/black chunks of this glass.
In Shippersea, England, waste glass can be found in a variety of shades, sometimes with white barnacle-like crystals on the outside or speckles of color inside. These are perhaps waste products from industry or simply the results of glassmaking mistakes.
Sometimes you find a color of beach glass that just doesn’t match any that you’ve seen. It could be from a piece of handmade glassware or might just be the result of a manufacturing flaw. This mistake made a long time ago created a piece of beach glass to treasure today.
Carter Sea Glass Color & Rarity Guide by Meg Carter
Includes over 75 sea glass colors, each with an indication of relative rarity on a scale from 1 to 10. 9"x12" or 18"x24" with optional lamination. $14.99–$24.99. madebymeg.net
Lake Michigan Beach Glass Rarity Chart by Beach Glass Jewelry
5.5"x8.5" card with optional lamination. $8–$10. Facebook.com/ReneeAscherEllis
The Peblsrock A-Z of Seaham Sea Glass Poster
Poster print (A3 or 11.75"x16.5") of sea glass colors found in Seaham, England, arranged alphabetically by name. $9. PeblsArt.etsy.com
The Peblsrock Pocket Guide to Seaham Sea Glass
Pocket-sized (A6 or 4.13"×5.83") reference that covers the history, colors, types of glass, and information for collectors. $6. PeblsArt.etsy.com
Pure Sea Glass: Discovering Nature’s Vanishing Gems by Richard LaMotte and Celia Pearson
Comprehensive history of glass manufacturing and the sources of sea glass colors. 9"x 9" with over 200 color images on 224 pages. $34.95. schifferbooks.com
Pure Sea Glass Identification Deck Cards by Richard LaMotte and Celia Pearson
Boxed set of cards with information about sea glass colors on the front and sources of each color on the back. 3.5"x4.75"x 1.25" with over 150 color images on 35 pages. $19.99. schifferbooks.com
Sea Glass Rarity Chart by West Coast Sea Glass
5"x7" card or 11"x17" Poster with colorful photos showing sea glass colors and their names. $12–$26. westcoastseaglass.com
Real Sea Glass Rarity Chart
Sea glass colors arranged into five groups according to relative rarity, from limited to ultra rare. 5"x 7" card. $7. realseaglass.com
The Sea Glass Color Index by Margaux Anne Siegel
A handheld researching tool for sea glass collectors, with over 100 sea glass colors on front and possible sources of the glass on the back. Available as a fan index or as an 11"x17" poster. $12–$25. seaglassindex.com
The Ultimate Guide to Sea Glass by Mary Beth Beuke
Information about the sources of many colors of sea glass and a sea glass rarity chart can be found in this hardback book. 150 color photos on 272 pages. $32. westcoastseaglass.com
Sea Glass Rarity Chart by Anita St. Denis
If you want to make sure the sea glass colors on your chart are realistic, check out this beautiful artwork with actual sea glass from Prince Edward Island, Canada, along with names and relative rarities. Mounted in an 11"x21" wood frame. $289. sourisbytheseaglass.etsy.com
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine May/June 2021 issue.