Visitors to Sunset Beach on the Delaware Bay, in West Cape May, New Jersey, have delighted in collecting Cape May Diamonds for many generations. Actually, the smoothly tumbled, translucent gems were first discovered centuries ago by the Kechemeche, a Native American tribe who believed the stones possessed supernatural powers. The tribe is even known to have traded larger, flawless specimens with colonial settlers during the seventeenth century. Fast forwarding to the mid-twentieth century, the remnants became especially desirable to local jewelers who found that when polished, the stones resemble sparkling diamonds to the untrained eye. Soon thereafter, nearby shops began to market bracelets, rings, and earrings with the locally found wonders, and the creations quickly became coveted souvenirs for thousands of tourists who flock to Cape May each summer. However, many would argue that even more impressive than the uncanny resemblance of the polished stones to authentic diamonds is the mysterious history of the gems.
Those who uncover Cape May Diamonds for the first time often believe the remnants are derived from slag glass, or excess glass that was commonly discarded into the Delaware River during the heyday of glass-blowing factories, many of which operated along the river. However, the glistening finds are not associated with former glass factories and in fact, do not originate from any objects that were tossed into waterways by previous generations (as much of the sea glass that rolls ashore is derived from), nor are the “diamonds” remnants of shipwrecks (another, although less common method of which sea glass initially enters the waterways). Actually, the jewels are formed from crystal quartz rocks that fall from the upper echelons of the Pennsylvania Mountains and proceed to slowly meander down the river for thousands of years, during which time they are transformed into smooth shiny stones.
What is particularly fascinating is that although the stones tumble in the river for thousands of years, they travel only a very short distance before washing up in the Sunset Bay area. This fact long puzzled admirers of Cape May Diamonds since according to the laws of nature, it is logical that the remnants would continue to float down the river for numerous miles, rather than end their journeys near Cape May, only a mere 200 miles from their starting point. The mystery is tied to an experimental WWI concrete fighter ship that was towed to the area in 1926 with the intention of sinking the ship to protect the entrance to the newly built Cape May Canal. Yet after sinking, the ship unexpectedly floated one to two miles towards shore before encountering a sand bar and miraculously became a permanent barrier to the Atlantic Ocean, thereby also taking credit for trapping the stones in the bay. To further the mystery, despite the close proximity of the remnants to the shoreline after becoming confined to the bay, they encounter another natural phenomena of which significantly prolongs their arrival ashore. Since the Sunset Bay stretches for seventeen miles, yet the belly of the bay is twenty-six miles across, there is a strong flow on both outgoing and incoming tides so the stones undergo extreme turbulence and require several years to propel to shore. Nevertheless, the especially smoothly tumbled coats boasted by Cape May Diamonds could be considered the silver lining of their long, arduous voyages.
Cape May Diamonds are discovered in an array of sizes, yet are generally quite small, about the size of a tiny pebble; however, it isn’t unusual for those who search frequently to amass several marble-sized specimens. The largest “diamond” ever discovered reportedly weighed in at just under a whopping eight ounces – almost a half a pound! Those who desire to venture to the area to search may want to keep in mind that the larger (and more coveted) specimens tend to be transported to shore during the wintertime when the currents are notably stronger. A final tip, as well as one that rarely receives the credit it deserves in the literature, is that the “diamonds” are known to occasionally escape across the bay to the Delaware Coastline for lucky beachcombers to find.
by Ellie Mercier
Side Note: When visiting Sunset Beach, be sure to leave at least one night open to join us for the evening flag ceremony held daily in season (May through September). A tradition for over 40 years, all of the flags that are flown at Sunset Beach are veterans’ casket flags that families bring with them from their loved one’s funeral. There is nothing as thought provoking than to watch the sun set over the Delaware Bay while taps plays and Old Glory is lowered for the evening. If you have not experienced this emotionally moving tradition, be sure to participant in this celebration of being an American. And while you’re there, catch one of the most amazing sunsets you will ever see!