Real or fake? How to tell authentic sea glass from the knockoff stuff
Searching for sea glass along the shores of P.E.I. is a popular pastime.
Especially at this time of year, Islanders and tourists alike can be seen with their heads down, slowly walking along beaches, bending down every so often to pick something up.
Many find it relaxing — and then there's the thrill of picking up that perfect piece of sea glass.
But people who create art with sea glass say it's becoming harder and harder to find authentic material on the beach.
While that rareness has made the real thing more valuable, it has also led to more manufactured sea glass flooding the market.
"For anybody who knows what sea glass is, they don't fool anybody," Peter Llewellyn from Shoreline Designs said of the imposter glass. "You can tell whether it's real or not."
Llewellyn makes jewellery with sea glass, and has many years of experience scouring the shores for it.
He said he's seen lots of fake sea glass, and will show customers the difference. He doesn't have kind words for those who try to pass off ersatz pieces as the real thing.
"If you try to sell it as sea glass, then you've taken away the joy that people have in getting the true memory of P.E.I." he said.
Patricia McLean-Ettinger owns a sea glass store on Souris Beach called The Sea Glass Shanty, as well as sitting on the board of the annual Mermaid Tears Sea Glass Festival held the last weekend in July in Souris.
She too can tell a piece of sea glass from glass that hasn't spent years in the water.
"Fake sea glass is smooth. It's been in a tumbler or cement mixer or however people are making them nowadays; there's lots of ways," said McLean-Ettinger.
"But it's not real. It's doesn't have the feel of sea glass. It's very smooth, like a polished rock.
"On real sea glass, you'll find scratch marks from being tumbled around in the waves in the ocean and the sand. And you'll see that they're not perfect. No two pieces are exactly alike. If it's fake, a lot of them are broken to look like a set of earrings, and they're almost perfect. That's not sea glass. Sea glass is never perfect."
McLean-Ettinger said white, brown and green are the most common colours — and reds and oranges are extremely rare.
"People are going into shops and finding, oh, look at that perfect orange piece of sea glass. Well, it took me probably 10 years to find an orange piece. And probably another 15 years afterwards to find my next orange piece. So if you're walking into shops and they have 10 orange pieces to choose from, you know they're not real."
She said fake sea glass is putting a damper on those who sell the real version.
"They're calling it sea glass and they're getting $10 apiece for a red piece. And I'm selling my red piece for $50 or $100 depending on the size of it. Well, which are you going to buy? You're going to buy the $10 one because it looks the same."
For Llewellyn, regardless of where it comes from, all sea glass has a story.
"I've had couples come in that are on their honeymoon and find a piece of glass that is only fair. But to them, it's invaluable because they found it on their honeymoon," he said.
"I've had people come in here who have bought sea glass and want to show me the piece, and I don't tell them that it's fake because they're absolutely, absolutely enthusiastic that they've found this beautiful red, and it's not real."
Lllewellyn grew up collecting sea glass, and while his love for it hasn't wavered, his favourite thing to do with it has changed over the years.
"My greatest joy used to be sitting at the table with a plate full of sea glass colours and run it through your hands and watch it fall and see all the different colours.
"Now, I like making jewelry. I like finding unique pieces," he said.
He thinks there's less sea glass now because there's more plastic and most liquid products don't come in glass.
"There's less there because we're not adding to [the supply]. There's less there because more and more people are picking it up. And also the ocean is reclaiming it because the ocean is — remember now — it's making it smaller and smaller."
Llewellyn thinks that adds to the challenge and reward of finding a nice piece.
He said it's gotten so that people who do find a good area sometimes won't tell anyone else in order to keep it a secret.
McLean-Ettinger's love of sea glass also started early.
"I drove my mother crazy. I'd have it in my pocket, so it was in her washing machine. It was everywhere," she said.
"When I first started collecting sea glass, everybody thought I was strange as a kid because this was garbage on the beach. But to me it was pretty garbage. So I picked it up and I liked it."
She said over the years, more people have been drawn to looking for sea glass.
"There used to be a lot of sea glass. I could be down and fill an ice cream dish in no time. And now you're walking further to get that sea glass. A lot of beaches have absolutely no sea glass on them," she said.
Despite how rare it is, she said she personally throws back pieces of glass that aren't opaque or what she calls "fully cooked" yet.
Sometimes people approach her with their own collections.
"A lot of people will bring me a bucket of sea glass: "We're on vacation. We've picked this sea glass. We don't want it. We can't take it back with us. We picked way too much. Here you go. You can have it." That happens a lot," McLean-Ettinger said.
She said one man gave her his wife's collection — buckets and buckets of glass she'd been collecting for 40 to 50 years.
"I was blown away. He didn't want anything. He just didn't want to dump it back in the ocean. He wanted it to go to somebody that would love it as much as she did and would do something with it."
McLean-Ettinger made sun catchers for the woman because she was in a nursing home, and she could still look at the colours in the window.
As for whether real sea glass will always be there, McLean-Ettinger is optimistic.
"I think there's always going to be sea glass. There might not be the colours that we used to pick years ago. There used to be tons of blues and all colours. Now blue is getting rarer to find, and these pieces are getting smaller and smaller."
Maggie Brown has been with the CBC on P.E.I. since 1992, working in radio, television and digital. Contact me at [email protected] if you have a story to share.