By Alexis Myers
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Chicago beaches open for the summer this weekend, beachcombers may find that sea glass is not as prolific as it once was. This glass, when it is produced by lakes is known as beach glass. The recycling movement, the phaseout of glass for plastic and aluminum, and rising lake levels have reduced the amounts.
Thousands of gemlike stones wash ashore every year, pounded into smoothness by the rough surf of Lake Michigan.
Some local residents have been collecting them for years; others have only recently discovered what they call natural treasures. Often they end up as accessories or household items.
“The most stunning and rare pieces are quite frequently made into exquisite jewelry,” said Richard LaMotte, a Maryland author and sea glass expert. “At every event I go to, women there always say they get 10 times more comments or questions about their sea glass jewelry than anything else they ever wear.”
But as Chicago beaches open for the summer this weekend, beachcombers may find that sea glass is not as prolific as it once was. This glass, when it is produced by lakes is known as beach glass, but many people use the terms interchangeably. LaMotte said the recycling movement, the phaseout of glass for plastic and aluminum, and rising lake levels have reduced the amounts.
“Every collector who has been beachcombing for 10 years or more has noticed a decline in sea glass,” LaMotte said. “It’s popularity in jewelry, as well as a general collectible in the 21st century, has increased the number of beachcombers looking for these washed-up gems.”
Lakeview resident Lindsey Warner is one of those collectors.
She has built up a collection of more than 5,000 pieces in two years. In between yoga classes, she combs the North Side beaches along Lake Michigan almost every day, no matter the season.
Warner, 34, acknowledges her hobby isn’t the typical young person’s activity, but she said she enjoys the simplicity of being able to put her phone down and spend time with herself.
“Even if I can only get out there for even 45 minutes, I’m happy,” she said. “For me, it is really my time to clear my mind … I like the space, I think it is really rejuvenating and healing to hear the waves in the background and to just focus on one thing.”
Her apartment is filled with oversized mason jars, baskets and containers holding different colors, sizes and shapes — all organized accordingly.
“Whatever pieces are not completely smooth I end up throwing back into the lake because I had to start being kind of picky,” she said. “If I kept it all, I would run out of places for it.”
Others have turned their passion for beach glass into a business.
Renee Feldman, 50, of Schaumburg, has sold hundreds of pieces of handcrafted jewelry through her Etsy shop after discovering beach glass last year.
She noticed glimmering green and brown colors mixed in with the sand while walking along the beach with her two sons.
“I was intrigued by the smoothed edges and frosty look,” she said. “I had no idea how popular sea glass art was until that day.”
She began working with metals 30 years ago and strives to use natural elements in all of her pieces.
“Since each piece of beach glass is unique in shape and dimension, it adds to the challenge of creating something beautiful,” Feldman said. “It allows me to have more creative thoughts and allows for more metalworking techniques.”
According to LaMotte, more than 80 percent of sea glass is from discarded bottles. About 15 percent is from tableware and 5 percent comes from other glassware, electrical components and unusual items such as perfume bottles.
“While some of these objects are tossed at sea, most were dumped near the shoreline or along rivers that flowed out to larger bodies of water,” he said. “There, they are tumbled along the shore and rugged surfaces below the water, then through a long hydration and dehydration process, the surface of the glass is slowly pitted … the end result is a softly rounded gem with a frosted patina.”
On some larger pieces of beach glass, it is possible to identify where they came from. LaMotte said a maker’s mark is usually on the bottom or wall of a bottle in embossed letters.
Some people might not expect to find sea glass near big cities like Chicago and New York, but it is actually quite common in urban areas, according to Hannah Milman, the founding craft editor at Martha Stewart Living. She often bikes underneath the Brooklyn Bridge at low tide or after a big storm, and finds a lot of sea glass and china. “You will get a bucketful every time you go.”
She said the glass comes from old ships, recycling plants and when people used to burn garbage near the sea, which is how a lot of dishware and things like porcelain dolls end up washing ashore.
“It might be from a Budweiser bottle or a Heineken bottle, but it could also be from the turn of the century,” she said. “You just never know what you are going to find, and that’s the exciting part.”
The best spots to find beach glass around Chicago include Montrose, Kathy Osterman and Loyola beaches, as well as North Shore beaches and some in Wisconsin and Indiana, enthusiasts say.
LaMotte said as people get closer to the city they tend to find more common colors, such as whites, greens and browns. Purple, yellow and red are some of the rarer colors. But shape also comes into play. In the Racine and Kenosha areas, some collectors have found soft green marbles from old Coke bottles, which LaMotte said are extremely rare.
Collecting has increased significantly over the past 10 years, according to LaMotte.
“In 2005, people began to realize which colors were rare and understood their value so there was a bit of a gold rush on for a few years,” he said. “That has somewhat leveled off because supplies domestically are so limited — supplies are dwindling fast, as well as the most desirable color varieties.”
Kim Hannon, president of the North American Sea Glass Association, said as sea glass became popular and it became harder to find the rarer types, more fake glass began appearing at auctions and online.
“There are many places and people trying to sell it online, and without actually seeing it, it can be very difficult to determine whether it is real or not,” she said. “When you touch it you can see the difference, but to people who are novices and haven’t been doing this for a while, they might not know the difference.”
However, Milman said collectors usually don’t want to buy sea glass online. “When it’s not real, it kind of misses the whole point. It’s really about gathering it yourself, and that aha moment you have when you find it.”
Over 25 years of working with Martha Stewart, Milman has come up with many different ways to use sea glass in coffee tables, vases, candleholders and jars — she even retiled her entire bathroom shower with it.
“Sometimes the best pieces are when you just let the sea glass be itself, and you leave it the way it is,” she said.
Warner said her collection mirrors her yoga teachings, where she sometimes helps others smooth out rough patches in their lives.
“These pieces of beach glass that I find, they once were very broken, sharp and jagged pieces of glass that over time with the water, the sand and the other rocks … helped shape them and smooth out those sharp edges,” Warner said.
“Even if it’s the most beautiful piece, it still can get a little bit chipped or break, and then you can always just throw it back into the water to get what it needs to get smoothed out again.”