Google "sea glass rarity chart" lately? If you have, or if you do, you’ll find dozens of possibilities, glossy and laminated visual aids to help you know (what you already know) that two out of three pieces of glass you comb from the beach will be white (clear, frosted), and that orange may well elude you forever. It’s not easy to determine which chart might be the original, or to whom the chart’s idea might be credited. That is of little consideration, as the any of the dozens of sea glass color rarity charts all pretty much give you the same information.
Generally, sea glass is divided into the following categories in regards to rarity: Common, Uncommon, Rare, and Very Rare, though occasionally you will see variations, or subcategories of these, as fairly common, most common, extremely rare. But the guts of the chart remain the same: white, green and brown are the most common, and orange, red, yellow, and black will be found in the smallest of numbers, if at all. For the most part, the various charts all agree with each other, with minor exceptions, about placement of each color into which category.
But who decides this? Who made up these determinations of what is rare, or what is common? Well, not any of the sea glass experts, though they’ve done a great job of categorizing it so neatly and creatively for us. It may be true that nationally, sea glassing has been a popular pastime and hobbyist’s dream for more than 20 years, (though you may find many localities and regions where beach glass and sea glass have only gained popularity within the last decade), but the fact of the matter is that glass itself has been around for thousands of years.
Glass and bottle collecting is a huge business and attracts a multitude of followers and enthusiasts and businesses—who happen to have converged a plethora of great records of what seems like all of the glass (in every color, pattern, shape and size) ever made.
Hence, the sea glass color rarity chart. Not conceived by one prolific beachcomber sorting through his hundred pounds of glass in all different colors, but gleaned from the very history of glass making. Red glass, made with chemically treated gold particles, is costly to make, and thus was produced and used not for everyday glass (bottles), but mainly for specialty products of glass (perfumes, art glass, tableware) where the cost might be justified and recovered, or where the need of the bright red outweighed the cost of the red glass (ships warning lights, brake lights on cars prior to 1950s and the advent of plastics). You are not finding 20 pieces of red sea glass on your morning beachcombing venture because it just wasn’t mass produced the way the clear, the green, and the brown were.
Familiar with the sea foam green of the old Coke bottle? You should be, it’s nearly as synonymous with the drink as the shape of the bottle itself, and likely you’ve many remnants of Coca-Cola in your sea glass collection, marked or otherwise. The now iconic ‘hobble- skirted’ Coke bottle was patented in 1915 and millions were made over the next many decades (Coke introduced its beverage to aluminum cans in 1960). The famous light green color of the Coke bottle was originally a natural result of the copper and minerals in the on-site sand used by the glass manufacturer, Root Glass Company of Terre Haute, Indiana. Because this bottle was mass produced, along with so many others made with the natural ‘sea foam from the sand’ color, it places under “common” on the rarity chart.
Depending on the chart you are looking at, olive green finds itself listed either as common, uncommon, or on the lower end of rare, if you will. It is possible that the numbers of olive glass produced and the actual number of the shades of olive glass in existence might prove to be equally obscure. Olive green, yellow olive, forest green, olive emerald, pea green, medium olive amber, dark olive amber... the list actually goes on. The old amber olive, and the darker olives of the 17th and 18th century—made as mineral waters, ink bottles, medicinal, and nearly all liquor bottles—are long gone. In the 1900s, and mostly true today as well, the olives were brighter, and used almost exclusively for wines and beer and spirits. With so many different uses and shades, the bottle collecting information itself is a bit vague, and so the differing designations for olive glass in the assortment of rarity charts.
Remembering that it is very possible that 90% of any glass culled from almost any beach was once a bottle, the rarity chart makes perfect sense. Glass bottles were produced in the millions in the United States, and the vast majority of bottles were simply clear, and after decades tossed around by the sea, now a happy white. All those old beer and soda bottles are now your green and brown beach glass, and the old Ball canning jars, and the aforementioned Coke bottles and so much window glass gives you the fan favorite sea foam glass. Get away from beverage bottles and move into utilitarian bottles—medicines, poisons, at one time toothpaste, for instance—and you move into the rarer, or uncommons of Cobalt, Aqua, and Cornflower. Move further away from household products or consumables, towards specialty glass for ships and autos, perfumes, art glass, and fancy tableware, and you’ll find the less produced red and yellows, pinks and oranges.
The rarity charts may be both very pretty to look upon—all those colors in one handy picture—and useful for precise categorizing, but you probably only need to look at your own collection to see your own version of a rarity chart. You’ll have three times as much white glass as sea foam, maybe ten times as much as cobalt, and your really rare finds will likely be relegated to much smaller storage containers, telling you that they actually are better placed on a scarcity chart.
This article appeared in the Glassing Magazine July 2017 issue.