It can take a long, long time for mother nature to produce just the right piece of sea glass to make a perfect piece of jewellery. Decades of natural tumbling on ocean tides eventually turns what was once scrap glass into lovely frosted gems, perfect for making beautiful jewellery which is both rare and precious. It’s easy to see why these alluring gifts from the sea are sometimes called ‘mermaid tears’.
Almost all the sea glass in my jewellery has been hand-collected by my partner, Clive, and me from the beautiful beaches of Northumberland. And, let me tell you, you have to collect a lot of it before you can find two pieces that are a close enough match to make a pair of earrings. It’s that scarcity which makes them so precious and desirable, of course.
Seaham, in Northumberland, is something of a mecca for sea glass enthusiasts. Not long after the end of the First World War, a glass factory on the cliffs there closed its doors, dumping all its scrap into the sea. This has eventually become most of the treasure which is washed up on local shores today – if you can find it.
The place to look is on the strand – that line of flotsam and jetsam left behind by the retreating tide, especially after a storm. A pebbly beach is usually best, but not always. What’s certainly true though, is that where you find one piece, you will usually find more – it’s mainly just a question of just re-focussing your eyes. You won’t be on your own either because, when you forage for sea glass, you become part of a special community. You can spot fellow sea glass hunters by what I call the ‘lumbago walk’ – people walking very slowly, upper back and neck hunched, examining every inch of sand, completely oblivious to what’s going on around them. Seriously, I once spent so long beach-combing like this that my back went into spasm and I couldn’t move for about a week. Collecting sea glass is a serious business!
Of course, there’s an element of competition – you don’t want someone else to find the very piece of glass which would have made a beautiful pendant, or a piece in that rare rich blue everyone hopes to find. And you may have to be restrained from mugging someone who is lucky enough to find a piece of especially rare and precious red glass just a few feet from where you’re standing. But there’s also a real sense of camaraderie – no-one can resist talking about what they collect, and what they do with their sea glass, whether they make pictures, models, jewellery or just put it in a pretty bottle on a sunny windowsill.
It was when I was out beach-combing for sea glass that I was reminded of the kindness of strangers. I was staying in the north of Northumberland and had decided to make the trip to Seaham, further south. The day I had allocated for this turned out to be thoroughly miserable – windy, grey and wet. But the tide was right and a mission is, after all, a mission.
A local chap, clad in waterproof jacket and shorts and out walking his dog, expressed some curiosity about why I was going down to the beach in such filthy weather. When I told him, he was kind enough to give me some tips on where to look for glass, before disappearing off in the opposite direction.
After two hours getting soaked and with very little to show for it, I passed the same man coming back in the opposite direction. “How have you got on?” he asked. By way of answer I held up my plastic bag, flapping pathetically in the wind with just a few fragments of glass rattling around in the bottom. “Well you’d better have this then,” he said tipping the contents of his own, very full bag of glass, into mine. “Can’t have you going home empty-handed!”