Searching For Sea Glass
Sea Glass Hunters Travel For Hours, Withhold The Whereabouts Of Their Quests And (If They Must) Fend Off Wild Dogs, In Pursuit Of The Smooth, Frosted Treasures That Were Once Someone’s Trash
There’s a spot on the North End, not far from where the ocean meets the bay, that’s the best place in Virginia Beach to find sea glass.
Among locals, it’s the worst-kept secret in town. It’s a private beach and has a “No Trespassing” sign, but nothing stands in the way of a hunter and his or her sea glass. You won’t find the specific location in this article, for fear of inviting the collectors’ wrath.
“Good sea glass hunters don’t give away their favorite spots,” says Virginia Beach resident and sea glass scourer Joy Haycox.
Many people think of sea glass as something peddled in beach gift shops, next to the baby shark fetuses preserved in jars. But any sea glass hunters worth their weight in glass have no use for the gift shop stuff. Most of it is man-made and mass-produced. The real value is searching for the glass that takes the ocean a lifetime to mature—and finding a piece of art made by nature. When it comes to sea glass, the long game is the only one that matters.
Plenty don’t know that sea glass has been tumbling onto the shores of Virginia Beach for decades. It’s not as plentiful as it once was, but look around a home on the North End, and you’ll likely find a jar or bowl filled with sea glass of all shapes, sizes and colors. And there’s even better glass to be found, locals say, if you cross the bridge to Virginia’s Eastern Shore or head south to Nags Head.
On one May morning, Richard LaMotte, a noted sea glass expert, chooses the Eastern Shore.
He stands on a beach that he hasn’t visited for a decade. And he wishes he’d worn a hat. The wind tousles LaMotte’s wavy brown hair.
The son of a preacher who grew up in Portsmouth, LaMotte first found this secret spot when someone asked him to come to town to give a sea glass presentation. His first book on sea glass came out a couple years earlier, and a local tipped LaMotte, who now lives in Chestertown, Md., off to the site.
It’s a place where beachgoers find beautifully frosted sea glass that has been bumping around the floor of the Chesapeake Bay for a century or more.
LaMotte, whose notoriety as a sea glass expert landed him on Martha Stewart’s talk show, agreed to let this Coastal Virginia Magazine correspondent shadow him on a hunt.
Top: Sea glass expert and author Richard LaMotte examines a piece of glass he
found on a beach on Virginia's Eastern Shore.
Bottom: Sea glass author Richard LaMotte scours the sand on a beach known for
sea glass on the Eastern Shore.
Things start off kind of slow. LaMotte, 57, wonders aloud whether other hunters had already harvested the beach that morning. But, as it turns out, there’s plenty of glass to be found.
The beauty of sea glass is also its burden. It was once trash.
But Mother Ocean wouldn’t stand for it. Her salt water and rocky bottom smoothed out the sharp edges—just like life does to people—and frosted its clear complexion.
Sea glass mostly comes from bottles, broken after they’ve been dumped into bays, the ocean and other waterways. But it takes many moons—30 to 50 years—for a piece of glass to become frosted and rounded.
Two different processes give it that look, LaMotte says: The salt water extracts soda and lime from glass, and the glass grinds against rocks and shells.
Mary Paul Callis has a jar of mysterious pastel blue tile that has been washing up on
the shores of Virginia Beach for at least five decades.
Haycox, a 51-year-old television producer, calls herself a “sea glass freak.” She even fended off a pack of wild dogs on a beach in Morocco in her search of it.
Her home in the North End is evidence of her obsession. She has jars of it in her living room and home office and some in her yard and driveway. The most special pieces, though, are organized in bags and dated. “Until I find out what to do with them,” she says.
Haycox knows the best time to hunt for it is during low tide, after a storm. But she takes her sea glass forecasting a couple steps further, researching places where marinas used to be—they’re fantastic spots for sea glass—and arriving 45 minutes before low tide.
“To beat the people,” she says.
There’s one item that some collectors in Virginia Beach treasure more than sea glass. For at least five decades, mysterious chunks of a pastel blue tile have been washing ashore. It’s harder to find than sea glass—and the soft blue is as pretty as can be when found in a bed of sand.
North End resident Mary Paul Callis, 57, believes that it’s from a hotel’s oceanfront pool or bathhouse that got washed into the ocean many years ago, possibly during the infamous Ash Wednesday storm in 1962. (LaMotte thinks that’s a good theory.)
“It’s a good day when you’ve found sea glass, but it’s a great day when you find the blue tile,” Callis says.
Kara Swensen shows off the first Virginia Beach sea glass she has ever found after
going on a hunt on the North End.
Kara Swensen has lived at the oceanfront for six years and never found a piece of sea glass. She’s found some along the New Jersey coast and Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay but none at the beach she calls home.
“I feel like it’s more like a quest,” says Swensen, who grew up in Florida and graduated from Arizona State University. “I’ll be so giddy when I find it.”
Coastal Virginia Magazine had no choice but to pay forward LaMotte’s goodwill and take Swensen on a hunt for local glass.
On a sunny June morning, Swensen grabs a bag before she heads on a search, not far from her home. The blond-haired aviation enthusiast is optimistic that she’ll need something to put all the sea glass in.
This isn’t an ideal morning for a hunt, though. It’s neither low tide nor has a storm just passed through. And the army of biting flies that make it their mission in life to ruin walks for North Enders seem to not want this hunt to happen.
Swensen finds a few pieces with some help, but it’s not until she’s on her way back, when the tide has dropped more, that she discovers her first piece on her own. And, judging by her yelp, that makes all the difference.
Walking along the low tide line and scanning the sand, Swensen sees the reflection of glass at her feet. “Oh, look!” she blurts out, bending to pick it up. “I found it! This is like the piece that I found. Fun!”
The glass is large and clear, but it needs more time in the water, more time to frost.
It’s not until a few minutes later that she finds the piece, her first quality piece of glass. A wave recedes from the sand, exposing the glass that would become the piece of the day.
“Ooh, look at that one,” she says.
She holds it between her fingers and admires it. It’s also a clear piece, but this one is nicely frosted, about two inches long and appears to be the bottom of a bottle.
“It’s so big, it’s perfect,” Swensen says.
Sea glass jeweler Valerie Duus-Jamieson holds a piece of her glass up to the light at
her office near Mount Trashmore Park.
Valerie Duus-Jamieson, 64, hasn’t harvested local beaches for glass, either.
She makes and sells sea glass jewelry in Virginia Beach, but she and her husband get their glass from the Eastern Shore. And they say it’s worth paying the $18 roundtrip toll. She overheard a customer talking about the spot more than a year ago and now relies on it to supply all her sea glass for jewelry.
She, too, doesn’t want to divulge the location. Her husband, Tommy, jokingly offers to take this correspondent there blindfolded.
Duus-Jamieson has been making sea glass jewelry for three years. She started out using fake sea glass but switched over to the real stuff when she learned of the location that she now holds so dear.
“Gold mine,” she says.
Duus-Jamieson sells her glass online and at a half-dozen arts festivals per year. Her husband drills holes through the glass—not an easy task to master—and she turns it into necklaces and earrings and such.
She said the couple’s home near Mount Trashmore is so covered in sea glass that she doesn’t allow visitors there.
“I used to play ping pong,” Tommy Jamieson says. “All of a sudden, the next thing I know, it’s a work table.”
On an evening in mid-May, Duus-Jamieson is at her office, preparing for two upcoming festivals, first the Pungo Wine Festival, then the Steel Pier Classic and Surf Art Expo. She packs two large black bags with plastic bins filled with sea glass jewelry. She doesn’t have to work hard to get people to buy her jewelry; sea glass sells itself.
“People are fascinated when you have real sea glass,” she tells.
They’re even more thrilled when someone like LaMotte, the sea glass author from Portsmouth, can identify the pieces’ age and origin.
On his Eastern Shore hunt, when LaMotte finds a light green piece, he notes that it came from a “hobble-skirt” Coke bottle, likely from the 1940s or 1950s.
Then this correspondent discovers a large chunk of curved white ceramic, probably three-quarters of an inch thick, and shows it to LaMotte.
He identifies that too. “It’s probably from a toilet bowl.”
LaMotte doesn’t find any red or orange glass—the rarest colors—but he does find some beautiful pastel green and blue pieces. It’s enough to make his two-hour drive to the Eastern Shore worth it.
He doesn’t hunt for sea glass as much as he used to; he and his wife, Nancy, stockpiled 50,000 pieces for her sea glass jewelry business.
But she’s out of town at a festival this weekend. And there’s little LaMotte would rather be doing than scouring the sand for the ocean’s artwork that was once someone’s trash.
Richard LaMotte has written two books about sea glass, Pure Sea Glass and The Lure of Sea Glass. Readers can order them through his website: SeaGlassPublishing.com.
Valerie Duus-Jamieson's sea glass jewelry can be purchased through her Facebook page: Facebook.com/shopbeachykeen.