What is Sea Glass and Where Can You Find It?
There are so many treasures to be found along the shores of the Outer Banks. As you stroll along the beach you’ll find conch shells, nautilus, mermaid purses and if you’re lucky, sea glass.
With an ever-changing shoreline and waters constantly being churned by storms, what you can find during a walk along the water on the Outer Banks changes daily. So keep a sharp eye out and don’t forget to bring a bucket with you.
What is Sea Glass?
Sea glass is glass that has ended up in a body of salt water one way or another that has been worn down so that it’s smooth and takes on a frosty look. Sea glass is different from beach glass. Beach glass comes from freshwater and is often less frosted. Saltwater is harsher so it wears on the glass more and frosts it.
Essentially, the salt water is acting like a giant rock tumbler. As pieces of broken glass roll in the waves, scrape along the bottom and get blasted by particles in the water, it smooths out.
Sea glass can come from many sources, whether it’s from a time where people didn’t know better and threw bottles into the water, glass from a broken tail light that washes into a storm drain and out to sea, or even glass items that were on shipwrecks.
Regardless of how the glass ends up in the water, it takes anywhere from 10 to 40 years for glass to become sea glass.
Why is Sea Glass so Collectable?
Sea glass is incredibly collectible. Just as some people collect coins or stamps, there are sea glass hunters who enjoy beachcombing as a hobby. Some make pieces of sea glass into jewelry, while others just enjoy displaying their finds in their homes.
As with any hobby, there are guides to help newbies identify glass, there are festivals dedicated to sea glass and there are online groups where fellow beachcombers can share tips and celebrate great finds.
Part of what makes sea glass so collectible is that various colors of sea glass are rarer than others, so you can spend years hunting for a specific color and once you find one, it’s incredibly special.
The most common colors of sea glass are those that would have come from common jars and bottles. Clear, brown and green are the most common colors. These come from regular beer and soda bottles, windows, jars, wine bottles and medicine jars.
Some less common colors include seafoam green, lime green, forest green, amber and lavender. Seafoam glass comes from bottles from the 1800s and early 1900s. The color comes from iron that was naturally occurring in the sand used to make the glass. Much of the seafoam sea glass comes from old coke bottles. Forest green, lime green and amber come from old lemon lime soda, root beer and beer bottles. Lavender sea glass comes from pre-World War I glass containing manganese. Glass made with manganese turns lavender after being exposed to sunlight for a long period, just as old glass door knobs turn purple over time.
Rarer still are pink, aqua, cornflower blue and cobalt blue. Pink sea glass is likely depression glass or perfume bottles. Aqua glass comes from old canning jars, glass insulators that were once used on electric poles and seltzer bottles. Cornflower blue glass comes from sources like old Vicks Vaporub bottles and inkwells. Cobalt glass comes from sources like old Noxzema bottles, perfume bottles, poison bottles and milk of magnesia bottles.
The rarest of all sea glass that are on any beachcomber's bucket list are orange, red, yellow, turquoise and black. Orange glass primarily comes from car warning lights, Avon containers and art glass. Red is the absolute rarest sea glass. It comes from old Anchor Hocking Ruby Red glass and old Schlitz Beer bottles. Some red glass comes from boat running lights and ship lanterns. Turquoise glass comes from glass insulators, seltzer bottles and art glass. Yellow sea glass comes from glass produced during World War I that was made with selenium. Similar to lavender glass, this glass turns yellow over time. Black glass is some of the oldest sea glass. Between the 1840s and 1880s, liquor and beer bottles were made in a deep olive green. With the wear of salt water the glass begins to look black. Keep a sharp eye because black sea glass can often look like a common rock.
For more information, check out this handy guide.
Sea glass isn’t the only old treasure you can find along the beach. Keep a sharp eye out for shards of pottery, old dishes and crockery.
Where to Find Sea Glass on the Outer Banks
Many hardcore sea glassers have a favorite spot that they return to over and over, but if you’re just hoping to come home with a beautiful souvenir from your vacation, you don’t need to be picky about where you hunt.
A good way to start is to just stroll up and down any spot you’re set up at along a sound or the ocean on the Outer Banks. You’ll always find something interesting, even if it isn’t sea glass. Really, beachcombing just takes patience.
One tip that beachcombers use is to collect sea glassing after a storm. The storm churns up the water and things that have been settled on the bottom for a long time can wash ashore during a storm.
If you want to increase your chances of finding a gem, head to the point of Cape Hatteras. You’ll need a four-wheel drive vehicle to get there and you may have to walk a ways from where you park to reach the actual point, but the waters colliding along this stretch of beach are constantly churning things up. It’s important to note that swimming right along the point is extremely dangerous, so stick to walking on the beach. In fact, the sands off Cape Point are shifting so frequently that occasionally they produce new beaches.
This is a great stretch of beach to explore, especially because south of the point there are a lot of areas of over wash and small tucked away patches where water and debris get caught.
To access Cape Point, drive south to Buxton and enter the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Follow the signs to the lighthouse, but continue past it and drive along Lighthouse Road until the paved road ends and the beach access ramp begins.
To drive on the beach, you’ll need a permit and a little know how, check out this guide.
If you really want to be a great beachcomber, bring a separate bucket or trash bag with you and pick up any garbage you find along the way!
Whether you’re a newbie just hoping to find something cool or you want to dive headfirst into the world of beachcombing, the Outer Banks is a great spot to explore. With tons of shipwrecks off the coast and hundreds of years of inhabitants having called this area home, the beaches of the Outer Banks are littered with treasure just waiting to be found.