By Rebecca Ruger-Wightman
The color gray (or grey, as is more common outside the U.S.) is a timeless and practical color, not quite as defined as black—the absence of color—nor as filled with the possibilities as white—a blank canvas—but somewhere in between, the color of detachment and indecision and lack of emotion.
Gray sea glass, on the other hand, will usually elicit greater emotion than detachment, as it is so hard to come by naturally. Found at the rare end of the sea glass spectrum, you might mistake some lighter pieces of gray glass for clear glass (white sea glass), until you’ve spread your treasures out for the quintessential “paper towel pic” and you note the gray hue compared to the perfect whites. These so-light-I-thought-it-was-white-sea-glass gray pieces will possibly have the same history and beginning as your favorite sun-colored lavender or lightest sea foam pieces—unintentional. The sand used in the glass likely contained too much iron and copper and what initially was made to be a beautifully clear glass was just a soft gray. Or sometimes, the manganese added to cancel out the iron might react, depending upon the temperature, atmosphere, and heat history, and result in a muted gray color.
There was intentionally made gray glass, but it is very rare, and these grays—made with iron oxide or selenium—are a more robust gray, as found in old Depression glass patterns. Most of these tableware pieces were produced during the 1920s and 1930s. Gray glass bottles and jars were very rarely produced in mass quantities, so these are not likely where your gray sea glass originated.
Everyday glass items that might have been the sources of gray sea glass are old television sets and tinted automobile windows. However, chances are much greater that gray bottles and tableware ended their life in the ocean than did cars and televisions. Glass was often used for industrial and electrical purposes and in making early batteries. Since the color of these pieces was unimportant, much of this glass was not treated to be clear and ended up a light gray color. As with most sea glass, the general rule of “the thicker the chunk, the older it is” applies to gray as well.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, along with the avocado green used in kitchens, a gray glass called “smoked glass” was popular as glassware, lighting fixtures, and decorative pieces. These grays are deeper and darker than soft or dove gray, often with a slight brownish tone. Smoked gray glassware includes a range of colors, from glass with only hints of gray to deep almost-black colors.
We think of “Coca-Cola green” and “Vicks VapoRub blue” and even “Depression Glass pink,” but gray glass has no consistent origin. And yet, as a perfect balance between white and black, and so rare that you might only find a true gray one in every 3,000 to 5,000 pieces, it is still a delight to find, whether it is your first gray or your hundredth.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine September/October 2019 issue.