Jun 29, 2015, 06:24AM

The Lure of Sea Glass

An interview with author Richard LaMotte. 

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In 2004, Richard LaMotte wrote a book called Pure Sea Glass: Discovering Nature’s Vanishing Gems. Since then, it’s been the single most popular book about the classification, identification and history of wave-tumbled glass found on beaches around the world. LaMotte, founding member and past president of the North American Sea Glass Association, has this month published the sequel to his first book. The Lure of Sea Glass: Our Connection to Nature’s Gems focuses less on identification and more on the personal stories behind sea glass collecting.

Splice Today: In the last decade of traveling around speaking about sea glass, what have been a few of your favorite moments?

Richard LaMotte: It’s truly about the people and seeing their enthusiasm for these wonderful gifts. On a trip to Maine a man drove his wife over three hours for her birthday to come meet me and get a book—it was a total surprise for her! He should’ve been husband of the year. Then in Annapolis I was contacted by a man who wanted to surprise his mother by bringing her to a signing on her 80th birthday. She’d been collecting for most of her life and just behind her in line was a girl who just turned eight. The short conversation I watched between those two was priceless.

Being part of the first sea glass festival in Gloucester, Massachusetts in October of 2004 was special since there I met friends I still have today, along with the dear host Joanne Schreiber who passed away a year later from lung cancer. Most likely my favorite moment was in Cape Cod at a very busy national festival when a writer stopped by for an interview from The New York Times. I was swamped but was told she could come back and was excited when she finally returned. We sat down and before she said anything I quickly said, “I want you to know right off the bat I’m a huge fan of one of your writers and her book was the only one I plugged in mine since I thought it was great, it was Against the Tide by Cornelia Dean.” She paused for a second… seemed surprised and said, “I am Cornelia Dean.” Imagine our mutual shock! She had no idea I’d mentioned her in my book and was simply there to cover the environmentally-friendly sea glass festival. It was apparent she’d undergone recent cancer treatments and she later commented that this was her first trip out in public in quite a while—one that neither of us will forget. Of course the story about the red sea glass heart found west of Seattle is epic but I'll let readers learn about those stories.

ST: How do you think the Internet and social media have changed the hobby of sea glass collecting?

RL: I like Turkey Hill chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream but too much of a good thing can lead to unpleasant side effects. For the most part the web has been a great device for sharing information and triumphs about special finds. A few of the unique stories shared in my new book came via email but most were first-hand accounts. Many collectors want to keep their sea glass beaches private, while others are more open to sharing. Global collecting sites are often exposed these days to the masses and those who live nearby are understandably unhappy after seeing their beach picked clean. There will always be differences of opinion and on the Internet, sometimes it can bring out selfish acts that lead to hard feelings. The good normally outweigh the bad so helping others learn about events or how to identify unique finds is a great thing. Now a collector can show their prizes to hundreds overnight instead of just a few indifferent family members.

ST: After all these years as a sea glass collector, how do you and your wife display your collection of tens of thousands of pieces? Are favorites pieces displayed separately?

RL: Around 2010 I had a custom made coffee table done by artist Bob Ortiz that has four large panels under glass. My wife routinely places special finds in the case and in another room we have a large bookshelf where shards sit alongside matching bottles. A special side table is grouted with sea glass and numerous vases host either specific colors or collections from single destinations. My wife Nancy is careful not to go overboard with sea glass around the home. Special shards, like the ones on the cover of Pure Sea Glass are kept in a safe place for now.

ST: Your wife Nancy, to whom the book is dedicated and who wrote the book’s foreword, is a sea glass jeweler specializing in custom work at Chesapeake Sea Glass. Does she sell most of her jewelry in shops and at shows or has online purchasing become more successful for her? Do you still hunt for sea glass together? Do you “sea glass travel”?

RL: She rarely does shows and only has one shop carrying her work since most are custom requests by online clients. She’s also posted some items online. The publishing side of the business takes up 90 percent of her time but she loves to get in the studio a few times a month. So online is her primary outlet but she’s not pressing hard on that, what comes her way is just meant to be. When time allows we do hunt when we travel. She had success in Ireland and Scotland but we both had a great time on guided tours last year. This became a significant contribution to the new book since the shards we found and especially those of our guides are now featured on the cover and inside. We still have two kids in college and a new puppy so travel will be limited for now.

ST: What first inspired you to write the new, long-awaited book?

RL: My wife and hundreds of fans of the first book who wanted something new. But the first step was accepting I left one big thing out of the first book. Though I had touched on the healing aspect of sea glass it was after the first book was out that so many people came to me to share their stories of miracles by the sea. After about a dozen or so I knew we had some content but not enough for a whole book. It was my wife who kept telling me to profile the uniqueness of sea glass by regions around the U.S. so that was her idea too and she helped us round up most of those collections. But it was that tour that really helped launch the second part of the book. It inspired me to cover more on the unique shards and special stories one can find when studying the history behind just one or two shards. It’s like detective work and can be frustrating at times. But when you have someone place something in your hand and a week later you can tell them it had ties to Merriweather Lewis and George Washington—that is amazing. The best part is the excitement shared by the one who found the item.

ST: The quotes and photographs throughout the book are gorgeous. How long did it take to put together the words and images and stories? Were there any challenges along the way?

RL: The first story was provided to me in June of 2004 at my first signing. Those kept coming over the past 10 years and many were stored in a file or in my head. The tough part was hunting down many of the folks who told those: in most cases we found them and actually got their shards to use in the book. The most extraordinary were the red heart and soldier story. Some of the quotes I found in books and online while searching very specific phrases. I was on PEI when poet Bryan Cook came up to me and shared his poem and said, “If you ever do another book…” These are the gifts we received from doing the first book and they needed to be shared with others. The core writing took about nine months on weeknights and weekends. The main challenge—time! A secondary one was my reluctance to move forward without substantial content. I felt collector stories and profiling regional collections was not enough. Once I had the content for the last two chapters it was like hitting the accelerator and things moved along well. One major challenge was getting some collectors to part with their very dear heirloom shard or shards for obvious reasons.

ST: Did the book’s photographer Celia Pearson visit the private collections to get the accompanying photos?

RL: In most every case she shot those in her Annapolis studio. The red heart, for example, was nearly an on-site visit to Washington. Our photographer had a flight booked to Seattle to shoot it when the collector learned she was coming to NYC for a trip and our photographer traveled up to NY to meet her. She agreed to loan the shard to her for shooting in her studio and we insured the heck out of it to get it safely back to Seattle. Sue Jostrom is a very special person and a talented writer whose story can be found under the title Scrambled Heart, which I believe she wrote before she found the red heart. The trust to get these shards from people who are deeply attached to these gems was extraordinary. Until those shards got back to their rightful owners I was not sleeping well.

ST: You speak in both books about the “vanishing nature” of sea glass. How do you think the rising water levels will affect this hobby in the future?

RL: I’m hearing from folks along the east coast that beach replenishments are covering up shards all the time. Keeping beaches open and useable is critical to our national economy and after strong storms some of the gifts embedded deep in the sand can still come out. The big tragedies are when folks choose rip-rap or other artificial means to cover up a beach to stop erosion—those beaches are then lost for good. It’s the bays and tributaries that hold the best opportunities for sea glass at the moment; sea glass along most ocean beaches is vanishing even faster than I anticipated.

ST: I teared up reading many of the beautiful and poignant stories in the book. Menopause is a bitch that way, but I think even non-menopausal folks will get teary-eyed reading the emotional stories of collectors finding meaningful pieces on the beach at turning points in their lives. It must be a joy to share the stories.

RL: Absolutely! Some collectors had been reluctant to tell their stories to others, feeling they may not understand. I’m so fortunate to be one they eagerly told and felt these needed to be shared along with beautiful images and not simply part of an Internet message. When one learns all that Sue Jostrom went through with Zeke and Dave Sharrett losing his son it’s hard not to feel their pain. Several years ago I was contacted by a Rev. MacDonald in Bel Air, Maryland who was using our first book in therapy classes he held for parents whose children had recently passed away. So although I vaguely touched on healing in the first book people found that aspect between the pages and ran with it. Just last week in Duck, NC a woman shared a story about losing her mother and dog and then finding a special shard on the beach.

I’m becoming more convinced there’s a unique force along the shore that allows the departed to send gifts of hope. This sometimes takes time since those that pass on need time to learn the ropes in their new world before they can guide us in the ways they can. My father, the minister, studied Life After Death experiences for about 30 years and I learned a lot through him. One thing is we know only a fraction down here of what really goes on—it needs to stay that way for now but he claimed this is the millennium of enlightenment and I’m betting he is right.

—Find out more about Richard LaMotte and his new book at seaglasspublishing.com.

Sea glass photo by Mary McCarthy. See more of her beachcombing finds on Instagram.


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