Unlikely Gems

Whether you're a casual collector or an entrepreneur, sea glass makes the world a more colorful place.

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Unlikely Gems - 1

Jean Allsopp

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Ever daydreamed about leaving your 9-to-5 job behind for the beach? Charles Peden of bythebaytreasures.com found strolling the shore more lucrative than running the rat race.

That's because Charles discovered the growing demand for genuine sea glass. Having quit his day job last year, Charles now spends the bulk of his time combing the beaches south of San Francisco in search of glass that, after decades upon decades of tumbling in the sand and surf, has developed the perfect frosty patina many now equate with precious gems. He sells such mature sea glass through online auctions or on his personal Web site. As demand rises, so do prices―Charles recently sold a piece of rare orange sea glass for $185. "Sellers on eBay such as myself are now selling individual pieces of sea glass at the same price that lots of 70 to 250 pieces used to go for," Charles says.

Even if you're not planning on shelling out a lot of money, starting a collection can be fun and rewarding. Before you begin, you should know some basics.

When you find a genuine shard, you're finding a little piece of the past. The process through which sea glass becomes frosted, called hydration, takes many decades to complete. A particular piece may have been part of an object lost or dumped into the sea years ago―in some cases more than a century ago. Maybe it was a piece of tableware from a shipwreck or part of a medicine bottle discarded long ago at a village's seaside dump.

Genuine sea glass is becoming increasingly rare due to the rise of plastic packaging during the '60s and '70s. In the past, glass bottles appeared in a wide variety of colors. Today, most colored glass is the brown or green beer-bottle variety. As a result, collectors especially prize certain uncommon colors such as red, orange, turquoise, and cobalt blue.

If you happen to stumble upon a rare shade of mature sea glass, count yourself lucky. It's certainly not unheard of, but the odds of finding a real treasure diminish every day, and people turn to the Internet to fill out their collections.

Many reputable online vendors sell authentic sea glass; however, a number produce imitation pieces using rock tumblers and acid baths. Some openly acknowledge that their sea glass is not the real deal, while unscrupulous sellers pass their fakes off as genuine.

Be wary of offers promising "great deals" on rare colors such as red and cobalt blue. Also, anytime you find sea glass of uniform shape and color sold at discount rates "by the pound," it's possibly mass-produced. People who collect and sell authentic sea glass are usually happy to answer questions about their products.

Once you assemble a collection, you'll find that there are a variety of festive uses for these unlikely gems. Consider turning your favorite piece into a necklace or similar ones into matching earrings. Add some coastal flair to a room by filling clear containers with sea glass and putting them on a widowsill or end table. Although the supply of genuine sea glass may be dwindling, the ways to enjoy it are endless.

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