For the Love of German Sea Marbles

By Alicia Cockrum

swirl sea marbles

I can still remember the day I found my first German sea marble, “Mr. Swirly.” It was very early one August morning. A thick marine layer kept the beach cool and the air crisp, and I used all of my marble finding techniques. Now—in the spirit of full disclosure—I had probably been wandering around that beach for more than a few hours before I found him.

swirl marble on the beach

Then it happened. I was inspecting a large rock between the high tide line and the shoreline and there he was. Mr. Swirly—a little yellow glowing ball of goodness. 

“Yay, Yay, Yay ! I found a yellow one!” I thought as I scooped him up. That’s when everything fell silent as I realized he was a very special yellow marble with his multicolored swirls on the outside and the yellow net-like swirl on the inside. I was absolutely stunned, too afraid to even breathe for fear of it not being true. Had I just found my very first German sea marble? It was a dream find I had not thought possible on the coast of California.

I tucked Mr. Swirly in for safe keeping and rushed home to find out everything I could about him. When I got home, I looked up everything I could find about German sea glass marbles. Then a friend told me about the Facebook page “Marble Collecting” and after a few minutes of scrolling through photos of vintage marbles, there he was in all his glory. Mr. Swirly is a two-stage yellow Latticinio Swirl made in Germany between 1860-1920. I was in love and my passion for collecting these beautiful handmade sea glass marbles was born.

What are antique cane-cut marbles?

Antique cane-cut marbles were handmade in Germany beginning in the early 1800s. Each marble was individually crafted by skilled glass artisans. The first stage of making the marble involved rolling a rod of clear glass over partially molten colored glass rods or “canes.” The glass rod was then covered with another layer of clear glass and twisted and pulled to create the net-like inner core. The glass maker would add more clear glass before rolling it over more colored canes of molten glass to make the outer swirls. The glass maker would then add another layer of clear glass before shaping the glass into the desired size.

marbles with pontil marks

The marble was removed from the rod by marbelscheres, or marble scissors, a tool that rounded the marble and sliced it off from the glass rod leaving behind a pontil mark. These pontil marks can be used to identify the marble and are the hallmark of an antique handmade marble. The pontil marks are almost always worn away by the waves in sea marbles.

kinds of marbles

Types of antique cane-cut German marbles

Latticinio core marbles have a net-like core created by twisting and pulling the molten glass.

Solid core marbles are created using
single-color rods or rods comprised of a ribbon of colors.

Divided core and ribbon core marbles have ribbons of color in the middle of the marble that spiral to both ends of the marble, leaving a pontil mark at each end of the spiral. 

banded peppermint swirl marbles

Banded or coreless swirl marbles are marbles with outer bands of color with clear or opaque cores. These types of marbles include the popular red, white, and blue Peppermint Swirls or “Flags,” which were made in 1876 to celebrate the American Centennial. This category of marbles also includes the Clambroth, Gooseberries, Indian Swirl, and the Joseph Swirl or Joseph Coat of Color Swirl. 

Onionskin marbles have a clear core covered by a thin opaque base color, usually white or yellow, which surrounds the inner core. The outer layers of colors were created by rolling the hot glass rod over crushed pieces of glass creating a speckled brightly colored marble. If the glass was pulled to form a cane, the crushed pieces of glass turned into streaks or bands of color creating a layered effect like the layers of an onion. Onionskin marbles look very similar in appearance to end-of-day marbles, however onionskin marbles have two pontil marks whereas an end-of-day marble has one. 

golden lutz marble

Lutz marbles are the crown jewels of antique cane-cut glass marbles. Lutz marbles are prized for their glittering band of adventurine. Adventurine is a yellowish colored glass that contains tiny copper or gold crystals that give the Lutz marble their glittering brilliance. Bands of adventurine were added to most types of antique cane-cut marbles. If it sparkles like a diamond, then, it is very likely a Lutz marble.

swirly german sea marbles

Why are German swirl marbles so special?

Sea glass is celebrated for the history it holds and for its embodiment of what it means to be resilient. German sea marbles have both the history and the resilience we covet as beachcombers. Some of these handmade marbles have survived almost 200 years, tumbling in the ocean for decades and landing on beaches in California, New York, the Great Lakes, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. It amazes me that something made by hand years ago in Europe is found on beaches across the world. I appreciate their ability to survive and retain their beauty and whimsy through the years.

Sea glass marbles hold a special place in my heart because they remind me of a time when life was simpler. When children in countries around the world played outside, shooting marbles across dirt circles. Sometimes I think about the children who circled the photos of the cane-cut marbles in catalogs and think about the youthful sense of excitement they must have felt waiting for their prized marbles to arrive by mail in their corner of the globe. 

They remind me of the beauty that can be found in something that is handmade and truly one-of-a-kind. German marbles were never perfectly round, some were too big, and some were too small. They were never the fastest marble in the race. They didn’t roll as well as the mass-produced machine-made, perfectly round marbles that replaced them. Instead, they were prized for their uniqueness. 

I wish for a world like that today where we celebrate what makes us special and different. When I hold a swirly marble in my hands, it feels like that dream of acceptance is a little closer to becoming a reality and for those moments, life feels perfect and peaceful. I am thankful for those moments.

All photos courtesy of Tide Charmers except the photo of the Lutz marble from Shelley Thomas @washed_up_artist on Instagram. All marbles except the yellow Mr. and Mrs. Swirly were found by Sabine @seaglassnz on Instagram.

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine November/December 2019 issue.

More about marbles:

1 comment

What a wonderful column this is! I’ve always been a marble collector but had never heard of “Sea Marbles”! I can’t wait for the next time I go to the beach. I will be looking for “Sea Marbles”!

Donna Finnie April 18, 2023

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published