Growing up on the Cape, our young daughters were fascinated by sea glass. They would drop them into their pails or use them to top sandcastle turrets that sparkled like gems in the sun. When we went to places such as Crane Beach in Ipswich or by Truro’s Head of the Meadow, we added to their collection. By the time they went to college, our collection of sea glass needed a supersize pickle jar to contain it.

Many households throughout the land have similar collections, and sea glass art is a burgeoning business.

Over the years sea glass has become scarcer, in part due to bottle redemption programs and companies turning to safer plastic packaging. As someone who regularly dropped glass shampoo bottles, which splintered in my porcelain tub while showering, I’m thankful for this transition. However, increased uses for plastic have spawned mega amounts of floating plastic debris that tangle the oceans and endanger sea life, which is not an environmental improvement. By comparison, glass discarded into the sea will sink and get worn down by tumbling, ultimately forming sea glass.

There is a technical difference between sea glass and beach glass; true sea glass is expected to be found by salt water whereas beach glass can be collected by rivers, lakes, ponds, etc.

Folk tales claimed sea glass bits were Mermaid’s Tears produced by their crying when a sailor drowned. It seems fitting then that seamen incorporated sea glass into their elaborate Sailors Valentines.

Mermaid’s Tears sadly has a new reference to plastic pellets or “nurdles,” which are a harmful offshoot of the plastics industry also found in giant clumps.

Colors and Characteristics

Mermaid’s Purse

One of the attractions of sea glass is the range of colors, with some colors being rarer. Black glass is an unusual find. Some of the earliest blown glass bottles, from the 1600s up to the late 1800s, included iron oxide for strength to help avoid breakage, resulting in black glass. Cobalt, that rich, lustrous blue hue, was widely used for early apothecary products. Boomer-aged people are familiar with the blue Vick’s Vapo Rub and Noxema face cleanser jars. Browns and greens often were medicine bottles; also, beers and sodas were canted into these colored bottles. Old pale green, surf-tumbled Coke bottles might still display those distinctive cursive letters.

According to collectors, the rarest colors are orange and turquoise. Red is another uncommon color, although it is found occasionally from broken taillights, from back when taillights were glass. Some perfume bottles also use reds. Patterned glass dish shards are another unique find. As Lynne Carreiro, a Falmouth artist and sea glass collector, noted, “Sometimes the sea spits out pottery.”

To aficionados, gemstone characteristics can be attributed to sea glass, such as clarity and color. Frosted may be more desirable than clear. Besides getting tumbled in surf zones and etched by sand, glass gets frosted and pitted through hydration that leaches the soda ash and limestone, varying the glass texture.

Sea Glass Hot Spots

Mermaid’s Catch by Judy Lacava

Avid collectors don’t share where they hunt, but information is available on where to find the better beaches. Locations near significant archeological sites can offer exceptional picking. For instance, after the devastating 1906 earthquake, most of the buildings in the San Francisco region were crushed into rubble and much of the debris was dumped into the surrounding waters. Over time the currents carried it, depositing it along the coast as rounded little gems. One such treasure trove is Fort Bragg, California, a phenomenal West Coast spot for sea glass hunters. Other beachcombers prefer spots in Maine, Florida, and Mexico, and know that picking improves after a big storm.

Information about collecting can be found in the magazine Sea Glass Journal and through the North American Sea Glass Association. Some museums, including the Smithsonian, have sea glass exhibits.

Cape Artists Designing with Sea Glass

Besides finding and collecting it, creative people use sea glass for decorating or making art and jewelry. Here is a sampling of local people inspired by sea glass:

Earrings made of porcelain by Lynne Carreiro.

Ms. Carreiro has been collecting sea glass since she was young. “I probably have 20 or 30 containers around the house. She said.” That’s because she enjoys walking on the beach and often comes back with handfuls. “I’d have to say about 80 percent of all my glass was found on Falmouth beaches.She said.” Her simple advice for finding it: “Keep your eyes open.”

Occasionally, she does like traveling to other places known for glass. “There’s a spot we like going to that’s an island—Grand Manam.” Accessible via ferry from Black’s Harbour, New Brunswick, Ms. Carreiro believes it’s near an old glass dump because there’s so much to be found when wading out at low tide.

She began using some of her sea glass in various art projects. Under the name Callaloo Collage, she had been making jewelry and collages as a creative outlet while working in the Cape’s public libraries. After retiring, most recently as the assistant director of the Falmouth Public Library, she now has more time to dedicate to her art. “If I found something appropriate for what I was making, I’d use it right away. She said.”

Ms. Carreiro gives her creations as gifts for family and friends and sells at craft fairs, including the Hyannis Artists Shanty and Falmouth Artists Guild holiday sales. She said, “I much prefer the making and creating of art, not the selling of it.”

Judy Lacava, whose company name is Cape Cod Octopus Garden, became hooked on finding sea glass when she was a child who enjoyed tales told by her aunt about Mermaid’s Tears. For her, it isn’t any harder finding sea glass now compared to years back—”you just need a trained eye and to be attentive. She said.” In fact, just this week she said, “I picked up a red piece that resembled a half marble and another that was purple, probably from a vase.”

About nine years ago, she began making jewelry incorporating some of the treasures she found while beachcombing. To pull the pieces together, she doesn’t wrap the silver around the glass, shells, or stones. Instead, she said, “I weave fine silver around shell, sea glass and beach stones.” One design that she’s named a Mermaid’s Purse is a cascading cluster of sea glass bits encased in finely woven silver.

Sea glass is just one material from the sea that Lynne Carreiro uses to make picture frames.

Ms. LaCava sells her jewelry at Cape crafts fairs, including the weekly Falmouth Winter Market at Mahoney’s Garden Center, the Brewster Farmers’ Market, Falmouth Art Market and at annual events such as Brewster in Bloom, Falmouth’s Arts Alive and the Arts and Crafts Street Fair. Her work also can be found in the Falmouth store Homespun Garden.

Carousel Stained Glass in Monument Beach is owned by Rhonda Messier. A nurse for 45 years, Ms. Messier opened her colorful shop on Beach Street in 1988. Multihued examples of her and her students’ stained glass works are on display. “My students love to incorporate pieces of sea glass into their stained-glass creations. She said.” She mentioned one student from Maine who came in to the studio with some sea glass she had found there. “It was that beautiful (cobalt) blue. Just some small pieces, so she used them as blueberries in a panel. She said”

When creating with sea glass, Ms. Messier tends toward abstract designs. She said it works well in Cape-y stained-glass panels that have a beach color palette. “Sea glass tends to come in those natural colors, so the work has a more organic look.”

When collecting, she has a special go-to place located off Cape. Finding mainly greens and brown glass now, she is sad not being able to find much richly colored antique glass. “When you come across those colors, they’re so beautiful; they’re a treasure. She said.”

So, the next time you are near the water’s edge and feel inspired, see if you can spot some sea glass. But, take Ms. Carreiro’s advice, “Don’t stay hunched over for too long otherwise, you’ll get achy and need Advil.”