By Kirsti Scott
When sea glass festival season comes around, it’s time to dust off your favorite finds for the year and bring home a prize! Many sea glass festivals feature a sea glass contest, where attendees are invited to bring their best finds and vie for bragging rights, winner certificates, and even cash prizes. We spoke to judges who have been on the selection committees in festivals throughout North America to see what they’re looking for when they’re picking the winners of these contests.
Each festival has different award categories, some of them long-standing traditions. The Mermaid Tears Sea Glass Festival in Prince Edward Island, Canada, awards prizes for Best Overall Shard, Best Sea Pottery, and Most Unusual, plus one new category each year, for example, Best Marble, Best Bottle Stopper, or Best Heart-Shaped Shard.
“We also have a People’s Choice award,” says Anita St. Denis, one of the judges for the annual contest. “Visitors choose the one entry that they love the best and cast their ballots.”
The North American Sea Glass Association (NASGA) Shard of the Year contest has 10 categories, including Art Glass, Buttons/Beads, Figural, Most Unusual, Whimsical Toys, Pottery/Ceramics, Historical, Marbles, Frosted Bottles, and the grand prize, Overall Beauty.
“There’s a vendor contest each year at the Northeast Sea Glass Expo that I wish existed in every other contest,” says Mary McCarthy, who is a judge in many shows across the U.S. “Many vendors are great hunters and have some of the best collections in the world!”
Judges examine the pieces using a jeweler’s loupe, a regular flashlight, and a UV Light. “We look for markings on the glass, bubbles, age, quality, rarity, and uniqueness,” explains Anita. Judges sometimes do online research during the judging process to date pieces and find out more about their rarity. They place colored stickers on the entry cards for pieces they want to discuss with other judges.
The judges then follow up with the pieces that have stickers and start to eliminate from there. “We eliminate anything that is too new, not perfectly smooth all the around, with sharp edges or sides,” says Teri Hall, a judge at the Mermaid Tears festival. According to Kim Hannon, “If a piece is clearly not genuine, not frosted, or something that does not fit into any category, we eliminate it.”
“Sadly some fake sea glass does get entered despite most shows now having rules that pieces must be personally beachcombed, not bought online,” adds Mary.
The judges are mostly looking for the same things in choosing a winner, and contests can draw up to 900 entries, so it’s important to know what judges want to see. They look for smooth finish and patina, special markings, beauty, rare colors, unique shapes, whimsical finds, and large pieces.
Jennifer Reed, organizer of the Great Lakes Beach Glass Festival and judge at many other festivals, recommends that entrants choose well-worn pieces that will catch the eye of the judges. “Colors that are rare and anything with historical relevance could be a potential winner!” She adds, “Generally speaking, clear pieces do not stand out unless they are figural, and letters on the glass (e.g., coke bottles) or heart shapes aren’t considered special.”
Mary suggests finding out what the categories are before you go, and researching what has won in previous years. “If a shooter marble won last year, it probably won’t win again this year so hang on to yours for a bit,” she advises.
Jennifer remembers past entries that were not glass, including “a metal cover to a journal dating to the Civil War, the kewpie doll head in our collection, and cannon balls.”
Mary has a whole list of favorites. “The UV elephant a the Northeast Sea Glass Expo will always been of my favorite Best in Show pieces because as a hunter I know how many heart attacks I would have if I found it.” She continues, “I loved the bird bath from Massachusetts, the amber button at the Santa Barbara festival, and the ship deck prism from the Eastern Shore Sea Glass Festival in 2018. The tiny owl from the LBI Sea Glass & Art Festival in 2018 was a stunner.”
Anita recalls when a young boy won the grand prize at the Mermaid Tears festival. “The excitement still thrills me. He was so over the moon with joy and all the people gathering around were smiling, clapping, and cheering.”
Photos by Mary T. McCarthy
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine March/April 2019 issue