Made in France

By Muriel Gaultier

sea glass from france

Bottle (Marie-Hélène Allenou).

France is known around the world for its charm, its gastronomy, and its museums. Visitors come from far and wide for the beautiful landscapes, the natural diversity, and, of course, for the coasts and beaches. With its history of conflicts and battles, archaeologists and amateurs search the beaches for traces and treasures of the past. Sea glass collectors, however, are more rare. France has world-renowned glass and crystal factories such as Baccarat, Daum, Lalique, and Gallé, but they are located mostly in the Vosges, a mountain range in the east of France—far from the coast. Sea glass is therefore quite difficult to find on French coastlines, which makes it even more precious.

Plage de Sainte Croix, Martigues (Muriel Gaultier)

France has about 5,800 kilometers (3,600 miles) of coastline: the English Channel to the north, the Atlantic Ocean on the west, and the Mediterranean Sea to the south. Three distinct coastlines, with unique climates, landscapes, and topography, have names that evoke magical places: Côte de Lumière, Côte Bleue, Côte d’Opale, Côte d’Azur.

Along these coastlines, there are large sandy beaches, cliffs, pebble beaches, busy ports, towns, and cities. There are no maps of where we find the most sea glass, because from one tide to another, from one area to another, the surf deposits its nuggets of glass in different places. Like other places in the world, most good quality frosted glass can be found near cities or seaside resorts. You can find beautiful glass on all the coasts, if you look hard enough.

The sea glass community in France is very small. With no local organization, publication, or festival dedicated to this frosted glass, it is hard to know how many people are combing France’s beaches. Recently, social networks made it possible for 50 or so people to come together to share their discoveries and creations. The sea glass community is growing, little by little.

Most people who collect sea glass in France use their finds for decorative objects, paintings, or jewelry. Their beachcombing journeys are often similar: starting with the discovery of a colorful nugget on a beach. Following are portraits of two beach glass artists, examples of sea glass craftspeople in France using the sea glass they find on the beach.

Pascale on the beach, framed art by Pascale, and Pascale in the studio (Pascale Birbili).

Pascale Birbili lives near Royan, on France’s Atlantic Coast. She fell in love with sea glass thanks to her husband who took her to the beaches to collect driftwood for his own craft creations. One day she found herself face to face with a mauve, lavender-colored piece of glass. Inspired by this extraordinary find, Pascale began to research these small pieces of glass, finding most of the information on American websites. For her, it was a revelation. She first started by selling the pieces of glass in bulk, then turned them into jewelry. Not being a trained jeweler, she quickly got bored. Inspired by the work of Sharon Nowlan, a Canadian artist who creates designs using beach pebbles, Pascale began to create small, minimalist “paintings,” which she sells in local boutiques and online. Pascale has never taken drawing lessons, but her observation of nature and everyday life is enough to conjure pretty landscapes, portraits, and flowers with soft contours.

Amber sea glass (Muriel Gaultier). Belle-île-en-Mer (Marie-Hélène Allenou).

Pascale has her favorite places to find glass, each one with its own special treasures. In a cove known only to her, she finds the triangular pieces of beach glass used to make sails. In another, she knows that she will only find round pieces of sea glass. According to Pascale, everything is important and affects the appearance of each piece of sea glass: the shape of the beach, the rocks, and the ocean floor. The tides do the rest. Today, Pascale works mostly as an artist and rounds out her income as a hairdresser. She is pleased to have been able to pay for her daughters’ studies thanks to her craftsmanship. With gratitude, Pascale explains that searching, collecting, and sorting sea glass has become essential to her—a sort of meditative passion. You can find Pascale on Instagram @birbili.pascale.

Marie on the beach (Marie-Hélène Allenou).

Marie-Hélène Allenou also lives on the Atlantic Coast of France, near Nantes, about an hour’s drive from the ocean. Marie’s favorite area is called the Isles of Ponant, an archipelago of 15 islands scattered around the Brittany coastline. Bordered by the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean, these islands have evocative and dreamy names, such as Molène, Sein, Glénant, and Groix. Marie has not visited them all yet, but her goal is to visit them all in the next few years.

Côte Bleue (Muriel Gaultier).

It all started for Marie five years ago when she lived in Florida with her partner. She often beachcombed on Amelia Island and found a passion for collecting all kinds of shells to make jewelry. Back in France, she noticed little pieces of glass on one of the Ponant Islands, Hoëdic, and decided to turn them into jewelry. Her hobby soon turned into a full-fledged occupation. Marie gave up her job as a special education teacher and now designs artisanal jewelry crafted from sea glass and shells. She goes in search of treasures about two to three times a month, watching the tides and jealously guarding her secret troves, which are sometimes difficult to access.

Calanque des Figuières, near Marseille (Muriel Gaultier). Cowrie shells Monetaria moneta (Muriel Gaultier).

With a friend she has explored unusual places that only they know about, where finding sea glass is practically guaranteed. She unearths shells such as cowries shaped like coffee beans, tellines, sea urchins, mussels, and sea glass. She gushes, “I smell the air, I breathe deeply, I feel connected with the elements, and when I make a discovery, I feel an immense joy that leads to a creative idea. It’s rejuvenating and a meditation.” The finest piece Marie has found is a beautifully frosted orange bottle neck, as well as a stunning teal piece found in a lot of sea

Marie at a French market (Marie-Hélène Allenou). Mediterranean Coast find (Muriel Gaultier). Marie at a market along the harbor (Marie-Hélène Allenou).

Marie exhibits in markets, sells in designer boutiques, and plans to do some more online sales soon. She is passionate about her profession and the encounters brought about by her hunting and creating. You can find Marie on Instagram @bijouxmarieh.

On the beach of Carro, Côte Bleue (Muriel Gaultier). Ile de Molène (Marie-Hélène Allenou).

France is full of places to find pieces of sea glass, but you must be patient while exploring. The little finds are earned after hours of walking, but the prize is always worth the hunt. Though rare, you can find very beautiful pieces on French beaches. Which makes “Made in France” even more precious!

This article appeared in Beachcombing Magazine Volume 40 November/December 2023.

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published