Jan 09, 2017, 05:59AM

Is Seeded Glass Sea Glass?

Beach treasure is a personal matter.

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In traveling around the country last year visiting beaches, lecturing at sea glass conferences and seeing many Instagram photos, I noticed a rising trend in the discovery of seeded sea glass. Seeded sea glass is any glass that was purposefully thrown into the ocean to be discovered later by sea glass hunters. I’ve heard beachcombers argue that all sea glass is trash because it was all thrown into the ocean (or body of water) at some point or another, and this is true.

One of the best-known online resources for sea glass information is the Sea Glass Journal, published by Gary DeBlois, which defines sea glass as follows: “Sea glass, also called beach glass, is any glass that has eventually found its way to a body of water that has a sufficient combination of surf, sand and stone to naturally tumble smooth and frost the shard into a genuine sea glass gem.”

By this definition it could be argued (“any glass”) that a vase bead (sometimes known as craft, floral or aquarium beads, as shown in the above photo) is sea glass if it is well-finished by the ocean. Yet the North American Sea Glass Association (NASGA) is clear in its Genuine vs. Artificial article that “littering is discouraged.”

I asked Sea Glass Journal publisher Gary DeBlois about his thoughts on the matter. "I am not a fan of seeding," he said. "It is littering and has become pervasive because it's lucrative, corrupting the mystique and allure of sea glass."

Some of the most commonly “seeded” sea glass items are marbles and vase beads, which can now be found at many sea glass beaches around the country. At the International Sea Glass Museum in Fort Bragg California near Glass Beach, the owner Captain Cass Forrington not only sells glass to seed the beach with, but started local political action to seed Glass Beach (where many vase beads are now found) with tons of new broken glass three times a year as a “replenishment” policy to replace glass being taken by tourists, which is illegal but still takes place at the famous state park beach. The chunky glass is similar to what’s sold in craft stores and is sold cheaply by the bag labeled “for the next generation of sea glass hunters.”

In photos online, I’ve seen vase beads found at dozens of different locations coast to coast. There isn’t much information about the history of the manufacture of vase beads, but I remember seeing them as a kid, so perhaps it was sometime during or after the 1970s. They’re sold in every major retail outlet very inexpensively, making them a cheap, easy, colorful item for people to throw out into the waves in order to discover later. And if some of them have been tumbling around for 25 or more years, they have a decent finish on them, if not as much as a well-worn piece of sea glass from a century-old pharmaceutical bottle.

Gary has some thoughts on vase beads. "After many years of observation of sea glass listings on eBay I can definitely say they aren't the first glass used for seeding and aren't the most common type of glass product used in seeding," he points out. "Why people don't view marbles and stoppers with such skepticism and/or loathing is puzzling since these types of glass have been used in seeding for a long time."

"Let's face it, seeding wasn't a big concern until people realized that easy money could be gained from selling such glass," he adds. "The popularity of sea glass caught the attention of disingenuous non-collectors but it shouldn't come as a surprise. It's just the natural, albiet dishonest, progression of such things that are considered valuable." 

I’ve seen debates on seeding take place in some of the Facebook sea glass groups that get heated. Some argue that if it comes out of the sea, it’s sea glass, period. They don’t care what the source is or how it got there. Especially when it comes to marbles. I’ve had people ask me if marbles are seeded and told them that it’s impossible to determine. How are you supposed to know in what way a marble got into the sea? You can make assumptions about high volumes of marbles showing up on the same beaches day after day, but you can never really be sure and even then, there are lots of reasons why many marbles show up on certain beaches. Are there beaches where people go to antique shops and buy huge jars of vintage marbles, or vintage stoppers, and toss them off cliffs into the ocean so they can find them later, Easter-egg-hunt style? Absolutely. But does it make a difference in someone's excitement when a wave-tumbled one is found? Definitely not.

"If someone other than the seeder finds the glass does it make it any less of a sea glass find?" asks Gary. "Are you going to tell someone that what he or she found isn't real sea glass because it was 'probably seeded'? Do we now define sea glass as unwanted trash, something lost at the beach or any other manner 'except for the specific purpose' of making sea glass? Does the act of throwing glass in the ocean with the hopes of it being found sometime in the future automatically disqualify it as being genuine?"

Just like there are people who go to Wal-Mart and buy pretty red and orange swirl vase beads or aquarium glass and stand somewhere and pitch those into the waves and then maybe even themselves come back in five years, bend over and smile when they pick them up with some “frost” on them as “sea glass.” But there are many who say no way, it’s littering the ocean plain and simple.

I’ve made an effort to come to less of a hard-lined conclusion. I’m not a sea glass policewoman. I'm a new board member of NASGA, an organization with sea glass education as a mission, and though I certainly do not speak for them, I have personal feelings on the matter. I’m not a fan of seeding. I don’t think modern vase beads should be sold as vintage sea glass unless the buyer is informed of what they are. But I’ve seen how happy people are when they find them. I may like a different type of sea glass, and you’ll never see me with a vase bead in my collection except to show as an example of seeded glass, but it doesn’t take away from the enrichment of someone else’s discoveries. As always, the joy of beachcombing is truly in the search, not the find.

—Read more of Mary’s beachcombing articles here or find her sea glass photos on Instagram.

Photo by @iheartseaglass, used with permission.

  • Hi, I only recently went sea glassing for the first time, but I’ve been interested for a few years now. (I live in Utah, pretty far from the ocean.) Anyway, I’ve read up quite a bit on sea glass, the history, and the community.

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  • I’m particularly interested in seeding. It’s hard to research because it’s rarely mentioned except to condemn it, this article is probably the most positive thing one will see on the subject with a simple google search. I would like to discuss a few points you make in this article and the one you posted about it a few years ago.

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  • I agree that people shouldn’t be throwing already frosted (by tumbling or an acid bath) glass into the ocean, because underinformed glassers will think it’s something it’s not. Same with vase beads, aka glass gems or “flat marbles” (I’m also a marble collector, so that term irks me) because they can easily end up resembling glass that was once broken. I also agree that people shouldn’t be putting broken glass on beaches where people will step on it.

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  • However, other than that, I’m actually in favor of seeding. Please at least hear me out, even if you don’t agree. Glass is non toxic and almost completely inert. It’s basically just amorphous rock. The sharp edges wear off quickly in the sea (even the full smoothing frosting takes a long time), so if it goes far out enough that no one steps on it, it won’t hurt anything. As far as sea life is concerned, it’s just another rock. Few people seem to realize this.

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  • There’s also one simple fact that we can’t ignore. If new glass doesn’t go into the ocean, sea glass will become extremely difficult to find and eventually disappear. This is already happening in some places and the supply is decreasing almost everywhere. Is “sea glass purism” really worth the hobby dying out?

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  • If it’s not hurting anything and people aren’t led to believe it’s something it’s not, I think people should seed away. As the seeder “Hawaiian Sea Glass” on Instagram says, “Always give back.” As for glass out of context and depriving it of its history like you said on your older post, I can see your point.

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  • However, most sea glass does not have a glamorous origin such as a shipwreck. Most comes from former garbage and bottles thrown into the ocean. If someone seeds common bottle glass, it’s really not that different from how it used to form. While I agree with you on vase beads, a marble is a marble, no matter how it got there. (As a marble collector I disagree with seeding vintage marbles though, because those have value in and of themselves. Throwing them into the ocean where they’d lose their mint value and often not come back is wasteful.)

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  • When I was in California the other day I found some broken glass on a popular beach, including a thick blue piece. It was all common bottle glass, and anyone finding it years later as sea glass would not think it was something it isn’t. It was low tide, so I took it to a section of the beach where hardly anyone ever goes (past a lot of rocks that are hard to cross in any direction) and buried it in the surf. I found several lovely pieces of sea glass on the main beach that day, my first. No matter what people say, I’m still glad that I gave back more than I took so that future hunters will still have sea glass. I’m also glad for this chance to defend my opinion on seeding when almost nobody else will. Seeding is good as long as it doesn’t hurt anything and isn’t misleading.

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  • Sorry about making so many posts, I tried to post it as one but no matter what I tried I could not separate the paragraphs. I figure multiple posts is better that a wall of text.

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  • In the late 60s, on the Florida coast, my grandfather taught me how to fill glass bottles with seawater and throw them out into the surf for the express purpose of creating sea glass. Grandma collected sea glass, but only a small collection to look at and show to friends up north (they wintered in Florida). It all had the feel of tradition. I expect that a sizeable portion of the “pure sea glass" was actually seeded. I do not understand why anyone would rate such gifts to the future beneath garbage. I think it much more romantic that, should I find a piece of sea glass on a Florida beach, it just might have been thrown into the reef by Grampa.

  • Thank you for taking the time to make these comments. I am seeing them belatedly. I don't agree that throwing glass into the ocean is a great thing under any circumstances (tossing back glass already on the beach excepted, since it was already there), mostly because of the history/provenance/context argument as you described. Also there's the simple argument that throwing broken glass into the ocean is littering, and illegal. There is plenty of sea glass already in the ocean to be found. I am also perfectly accepting of the term "sea glass purist" and much prefer it to the alternative and the unfortunate embracing of the many alterations of genuine sea glass out there today. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  • I appreciate your family tradition. Throwing broken glass into the ocean is against the law though of course it has been done for many years and will continue to be done. One thing I would say is that for those who find joy in the discovery of sea glass along shorelines, it really doesn't matter how it got there.

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