The Origins of Sea Glass Colors and How to Use Sea Glass Like Gemstones in Jewelry

Are you a fan of beach combing? I sure am. I could walk for miles on the beach and do, every chance I get, picking up whatever catches my eye. Lately, sea glass is my favorite to find, though I’m getting partial to old pieces of metal and pottery as well. I’ve started following the #seaglass tag on Instagram and I’m in awe of the treasures people find and share from all over the world.

I have a secret, special spot in Louisiana where I find more sea or beach glass than I can pick up. I’m always a bit baffled by the fact that most of the pieces I find there are the same beautiful blue. The shape, color, and location of where I find them implies they all came ashore together, as unlikely as I know that is. Yet, that’s how I find them, all lined up like turtles on a log.

ABOVE: Jen Soderberg’s Atlantis bracelet. Photo courtesy of Jen Soderberg. 

beach glass or sea glass found on the Wisconsin shore of Lake Michigan makes great gemstone alteratives for jewelry. Photo by Tammy Jones

I found this pile of sea glass (or beach glass) on the Wisconsin shore of Lake Michigan. That blue pebble on the middle left is actually a piece of Leland blue! Yes, I squealed when I found it. The pink, lilac, red, and cobalt blue pieces are also rare, treasured finds.

Mountain “Beach” Glass?

I’ve also found beautiful aqua blue “beach glass” on a creek bed near my home in Tennessee. This find, too, baffles me a bit–who knew that mountain creeks can make beach glass? And lakes, too, though technically the shores of Lake Michigan (where I found all of the beach glass above earlier this week) look and behave more like ocean beaches.

I love the search and surprise of finding beach glass, and the colors are lovely, but my favorite thing about beach glass is how the ocean (or creek, or lake) turns trash into something so beautiful, somewhat rare, and coveted if not always highly valued. That sounds a bit like gemstones, doesn’t it? No wonder so many jewelry artists are inspired to use sea glass as substitutes or partners for gemstones in jewelry making.

Legend has it that shipwrecked sailors used to put pleas for help into empty glass bottles and toss them into the ocean, hoping for rescue.

Making Sea Glass Jewelry

You can set pieces of beach glass in various types of bezels just like you would set cabochons. Here’s a look at the legend of sea glass, where the various colors come from, and how three jewelry artists use it in their designs, from the January/February 2010 issue of Colored Stone magazine.

sea glass jewelry: from Colored Stone magazine Jan/Feb 2010

Jen Soderberg’s Atlantis necklace, set in sterling silver, combines sea glass with labradorite, citrine, and diamonds. Photo courtesy of Jen Soderberg.

Message from a Bottle: Sea Glass Jewelry

By Karla A. Rosenbusch, Managing Editor, Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist

Legend has it that shipwrecked sailors used to put pleas for help into empty glass bottles and toss them into the ocean, hoping for rescue. Now tide-tumbled shards from those bottles (and other sources of glass) are providing rescue to sales-distressed retailers as an inexpensive gem substitute called sea glass.

As consumers become more conscious of environmental concerns, recycled and “upcycled” materials become more attractive to designers and retailers looking for the next “big” thing. Jewelry made out of “found objects” like bowling balls, industrial waste, and automotive paint residue is one of the latest fashion trends. And perhaps the most beautiful of these recycled materials is sea glass, bringing splendor from the sea.

What is Sea Glass?

Sea glass is quite literally glass that was thrown out with the rest of the garbage. Before the world become more ecologically aware, trash and waste were often dumped directly into our lakes, rivers, and oceans. Among this sea of garbage was, naturally, glass from a variety of sources–bottles, jars, drinking glasses, mirrors, automobile parts, and much more. As these bits of glass were broken and tumbled by the rocks and waves over time, they became polished and smoothed. Eventually, the small fragments of glass that remained were endowed with a gem-like appearance, making it hard to distinguish many of the bits of sea glass from actual gems.

Today, many sea glass aficionados devote their time to strolling the shores, seeking out pieces of gem-grade glass which have become rarer as humans learn to recycle instead of dump. But even those jewelry designers who purchase their sea glass rather than finding it themselves end up with a terrific bargain. As a gem alternative, sea glass is inexpensive and, therefore, highly attractive to retailers.

sea glass jewelry: from Colored Stone magazine Jan/Feb 2010

Sea glass necklace by Cindy Kuhn. Photo courtesy of Tears From the Deep.

Beach Combing for Jewels

Sea glass can be found in a variety of colors, depending on the original source of the glass. The most common colors are Kelly green, brown, and white. Most soft drink, juice, or beer bottles come in these colors, and as those bottles make up a large percentage of our trash, they are quite naturally abundant. White sea glass also comes from mirrors, windshields, windows, drinking glasses, etc. Other sea glass colors include aqua, seafoam green, lavender, purple, lime green, and rosy pink. The rarest of the rare of sea glass colors are deep red and cobalt blue. The reds might have once been automotive taillights, very old bottles, or even stained glass windows. Cobalt blue sea glass might well have come from specialty bottles and jars like those for Noxema, Milk of Magnesia, and Vick’s Vap-o-Rub.

Some jewelry designers have begun to devote all of their work to designing with sea glass. Jen Soderberg of Jen’s Jewelry says, “I love the way nature makes something beautiful out of broken bottles thrown in the ocean and how every piece I find is unique.” Cindy Kuhn of Tears from the Deep also finds are in the glass. “All of the sea glass in my jewelry is used as found and not altered in any way except to drill some with a small hole. It is considered highly verboten to alter the sea glass by tumbling with abrasives or etching with chemicals.”

sea glass jewelry: from Colored Stone magazine Jan/Feb 2010

Meg Carter’s green sea glass pendant with sterling silver wire. Photo courtesy of Meg Carter.

Meg Carter of Made by Meg (@madebymeg on Instagram) takes a wider view of sea glass. “Since glass is made out of sand, you can think of it as a natural object which becomes a man-made object. When it is thrown into the sea, it becomes a natural object again–a part of the Earth. When the sea glass is pulled from the sand and made into jewelry, it becomes a beautiful man-made object again–and has come full circle.” –KR

Free project: Make these sea-glass inspired earrings!

Updated August 3, 2018. Originally published June 17, 2016.

Discover more ways to use sea glass in jewelry designs!

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