Aug 29, 2016, 06:58AM

Stop Buying Fake Sea Glass

It's like a plague.

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This past weekend I had the privilege of speaking and judging the sea glass contest at the North American Sea Glass Association festival. This association, whose mission is to educate collectors and consumers about pure, natural sea glass, requires that its commercial members “leave sea glass in its natural state and not create imitation sea glass; meaning that the sea glass will not be altered by, acid etching, sand blasting, tumbling, or by any other means so as to artificially replicate genuine sea glass.” In fact, if they don't abide by this, and show up with fake glass, they can be asked to leave the festival. “Craft glass” has its place at other festivals, but not at the NASGA event where it’s strictly forbidden.

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with (let’s just call it) craft glass, but the artists who create with genuine glass can't compete with those using those much less expensive materials. As long as vendors at other various regional sea glass and ocean arts festivals don't label their items "pure,” "genuine," or "wave-tumbled" sea glass it's not a huge problem because essentially they can use whatever materials they want. But consumers should know what they’re buying. Sometimes it can be easy for people to tell the difference between real or tumbled glass, and sometimes it can't, especially online.

The number in manufacturers of artificial sea glass has grown in recent years as demand for pure sea glass has increased and its supply has dwindled. Beaches are “overfished,” with more and more people hunting for sea glass; competition is stiff. Entire businesses have been created in which “sea glass” is being created nowhere near the sea by savvy individuals with a good working knowledge of what real sea glass should look like.

These new “manufacturers” trying to pass off fake sea glass as real go to a great deal of trouble to make the counterfeits look natural, and they're making a lot of money. Unlike the rock tumblers of the past that made fake glass easier to spot, they're using advanced tumbling, sandblasting and acid-washing processes that give the glass a similar appearance to real sea glass, and buyers think if they see the "c" marks and white-coated "frosting" layer on glass, it must be real, and this isn't always the case. The con artists are buying vintage glass (and marbles, perfume stoppers or figurines), from antique stores, putting the glass into cement mixers and in some cases into cages in the ocean and letting it tumble around for a period of time and then selling it online in Facebook groups, Etsy shops and on eBay as real sea glass.

I’ve been watching the sellers and obtaining samples of fakes from several different countries in order to put together a lecture and exhibit for sea glass shows next year so that collectors can see and feel the differences between the quality and texture. Feeling the glass in your hand is the best way to tell real from fake. In the above photo, a natural “boulder” from California (right) is beside a fake one sold from China (left). Even without holding them, one can see the difference between the two. The real sea glass boulder on the right doesn't have a perfect shape, and there are irregularities in the surface. Unfortunately, people are spending a lot of money on fake sea glass in many colors like the one on the left every day online.

Signs the "sea glass" you're buying online might be fake:

1. Does the seller only sell "ultra rare" colors in repeatedly the same colors?

2. Does the appearance of the glass have "too perfect" of a shape or a finish on it?

3. Does the seller keep selling similar batches of the same rare styles and colors and shapes of glass?

4. How trustworthy is the seller? Do you know them personally? The sea glass community is small enough that if you want to buy, often someone can point you in the right direction (whether it’s a Facebook group or reputable eBay seller) without having to buy from complete strangers. Only buy from people you trust.

5. If you’ve bought a piece you suspect is fake, does it feel unusually smooth compared to other pieces in your collection? Sea glass normally has a rougher texture to it after tumbling in the ocean. It shouldn’t have an odd perfect satiny sheen on it. This can often depend on which beach it comes from as sea glass surfaces depend on ph levels in the body of water.

6. Another way to spot sea glass that’s been in a tumbler is tiny diamond “glints” on the surface. If you turn the piece in your hand, often the tiny “cuts” will catch the light and will reflect in a diamond-like glinting fashion that pure sea glass generally does not.

-—Read more of Mary McCarthy’s articles about beachcombing or follow her beachcombing finds on Instagram

  • I applaud your effort(s) informing the public of fake, non-authentic, non-surf tumbled sea glass. "There's nothing intrinsically wrong with (let’s just call it) beach glass, but the artists who create with genuine glass can't compete with those using those much less expensive materials”. However I have to take exception to your definition of "beach glass". The only difference between beach glass and sea glass is the pH factor in the water. I have lived my life on the shores of Lake Erie - we refer to our gems as beach glass, never looking at it as "substandard". I have owned and operated a business using beach/sea glass as my medium, have authored a book with several tutorials using beach/sea glass, an am an instructor at several art communities. In these classes I actually take the real and fake glass and have each student observe the difference(s). I am truly disappointed that you refer to this use as "craft glass". If you place an authentic piece of beach glass and sea glass next to each other, there would be no difference. My etsy shop "Beach Glass Shop" offers only authentic and surf tumbled glass from the shores of Lake Erie (with the exception of a few pieces of sea glass from the Caribbean). I am in the hope that you and others continue your quest informing the public of the scams using found glass, however I am also hoping that you understand that beach glass from the shores of Lake Erie and other Great Lakes holds its value as the same glass found on the ocean beaches. Beth Martin beachglassshop.etsy.com Beachglassshop.facebook.com

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  • Actually Beth I totally agree with you. I shouldn't have used the term "beach glass" I used it in the way that craft stores use it, not in the proper definition for bay or lake found glass, and I apologize. It was brought to my attention in the Seaglasslovers Facebook page, and I made the change to the article right away so the term "beach glass" doesn't appear here anymore and I apologize for the initial oversight.

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  • Thanks so much, Mary - I appreciate your correction AND you getting back to me - now let's go to the beach!

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  • Hi Mary, Thank you for this carefully written article. I have some questions and feedback. I have been making sea glass jewelry with authentic sea glass for thirty years. I lived in Puerto Rico for fifteen years and that is where I got my start. You may already be aware of this but a lot of sea glass from Puerto Rico and elsewhere in the Caribbean has a very silky texture. Some of it is not at all frosty etc. I am often hesitant to share this information because I fear the fakers will exploit this knowledge and claim that their satiny fake sea glass is from Puerto Rico. I just want to point out for your readers that there is a such thing as authentic satiny sea glass. Also, could you elaborate more on the diamond glints that are created by artificially tumbling? Some very frosty authentic sea glass will also sparkle in the sunlight so i would like a better understanding. The nuances of authentic sea glass can be very confusing for people. I think the best tool is the reputation and the behavior of the seller. Thanks, Lisl Armstrong

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  • You're welcome and goodness sakes yes let's go to the beach! Especially if you're going to take me to the secret Great Lakes beaches where the world's best marbles come from ;)

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  • Lisl thanks for reading. I agree the nuances of authentic versus fake sea glass can be very confusing, especially when it comes to glass from certain geographical locations like PR and Bermuda where the glass has that silky texture. If you had a jar of PR glass next to a jar of machine tumbled glass, you'd probably be able to tell the difference on sight probably at first glance but definitely on examination under a jeweler's loupe. The glint from a tumbler is a deeper cut and not the same as the "sparkle" from authentic Caribbean glass. Unfortunately (besides a jeweler's loupe), holding it in your hand is the best way to tell the difference and of course people buying online can't do that. I agree the best tool is the reputation of the seller.

  • It is not unusual for heavily frosted sea glass from any region to sparkle in the sunlight. This could be confused for the glint by some. To my eye Caribbean sea glass that is silky is easy to tell from fake sea glass. I worry that it is not for others without years of experience. We use to tell people look for the "c' shapes then the fakes started creating fake sea glass with "c" shapes. Social media is also a good tool. The authentic sea glass folks tend to hang out together.

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  • Let me clarify "We use to tell people look for the "c' shapes then the fakes started creating fake sea glass with "c" shapes" Many of us would advise people to look for the "c" shapes and also tell them "but not all sea glass has them" You point out the feel of the sea glass. That is a really good point.Often the feel will tell you everything!

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  • I believe you're correct that people who care about authenticity "hang out" together both online and at sea glass festivals and will hopefully identify and not allow those selling fakes labeled as real glass to affect the livelihoods of artisans selling genuine glass.

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  • Good article for people who want to buy them.I will never buy them at all. It has only value for me because I found it, had the delight of looking at it after picking it up. Sometimes only after looking for quite some time between the stones. It doesn't mean a thing to me if I had a beautiful piece, bought from someone, not connected with the delight of the moment of finding!

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  • Great article Mary, especially the advice to buy from someone known in the sea glass community. I believe that is the very best way for a buyer online to make sure he/she is getting the real thing. I am including a link to this article on our pages about buying sea glass.

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