In a Grain of Sand

 By Alex Scott

close up photo of a grain of garnet sand

Ethan Beckler is an accountant who collects sand from all across the United States, both sand he picks up and sand he receives from friends. But, the crown jewel in his sand collection hails from a beach just north of Bandon, Oregon. Here, the huge winter storms that hit the Pacific Northwest churn up the water and deposit an exquisite treasure onto the shore: garnet sand.

macro views of sand

These microscopic red crystals are miniature versions of the large gemstones that adorn necklaces and rings and that come from garnet-rich beaches on the Australian and Indonesian coasts and are often used for sand blasting. But Ethan does something quite different from making jewelry or sand blasting. With a super macro lens, Ethan collects individual grains of garnet sand, stacks several on top of each other, and takes photographs of the resulting structure to create otherworldly images.

sand grains compared to a dime

How small are the tiny crystals of garnet sand? Geologists define sand as rock and mineral particles from 1⁄16 of a millimeter to 2 millimeters in size. Grains of Ethan’s garnet sand are typically around 1/4 of a millimeter. To give you some visual scale, the stack of garnet sand is shown above next to the edge of a U.S. dime.

microscopic sand photos

Ethan grew up in Bandon and now lives in Illinois, but he only started collecting garnet sand when he returned to his hometown on a trip with his wife and children. His love of macro photography started several years ago with snowflakes, then insects, and now sand. In the years since he began traveling back to the Bandon beach, he has collected thousands of garnet sand pieces to photograph. These one-of-a-kind photos are almost unbelievable, and to some people, they definitely are.

“Many people do not believe me that (1) the garnets are as small as I say they are, or (2) that they are found in the sand right on the coast,” Ethan says.

garnet sand magnified

“I was receiving messages from at least one doubter every day for a while, saying there was no way to do it and I was using Photoshop, or I was laying them down.” Even after showing behind the scenes evidence that he really does stack these grains of sands without glue or computer help, Ethan still gets the occasional naysayer, but that hasn’t stopped him from photographing and selling prints of these tiny treasures.

taking photos of sand grains

Though he keeps secret the location of the garnet sand beach where he and his family hunt, Ethan does recommend visiting Bandon during the late spring and early summer to see their cheese factory, the local fish restaurants, and the souvenir shops downtown. The Coquille River Lighthouse, which sits across the river from Bandon, is also a must-see. For beachcombers, however, you can start your hunt for the greatest export of Bandon, Oregon: the tiny red gems that wash up on the shores, ready to be cherished forever.

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine March/April 2020 issue.

Learn more about sand

View macro and micro views of Dania Beach, Florida in this short video

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