Genuine, Artificial and Altered Sea Glass

“When any true item becomes of value, a faux or artificial product is not far behind.” –Mary Beth Beuke “Genuine Vs. Artificial Sea Glass: Why It’s Important

It is the mission of the North American Sea Glass Association (NASGA) to educate collectors and consumers about pure, natural sea glass. NASGA requires that its commercial members “leave sea glass in its natural state and do not create imitation sea glass; meaning that the sea glass will not be altered by, acid etching, sand blasting, tumbling, or by any other means so as to artificially replicate genuine sea glass.” This article is provided to provide information to consumers in order to help identify some of the differences between genuine, imitation and altered sea glass.

At the North American Sea Glass Festival and certain other festivals where noted, only genuine sea glass is allowed. At some events, craft glass and other altered sea glass is used and it is up to the consumer to determine what they’re buying.  NASGA feels our commercial member artists who create only using genuine glass can’t compete with those using those much less expensive materials. Ideally, as long as vendors at various regional sea glass and coastal festivals don’t label their items “pure,” “genuine,” or “wave-tumbled” sea glass it’s not a huge problem because essentially they can use any materials they want. But consumers should know what they’re buying. Sometimes it can be easy for people to tell the difference between real or tumbled glass, and sometimes it can’t, especially online.

The number in manufacturers of artificial sea glass has grown in recent years as demand for pure sea glass has increased and its supply has dwindled. Beaches are overpicked, with more and more people hunting for sea glass. Entire businesses have been created in which “sea glass” is being created nowhere near the sea by savvy individuals with a good working knowledge of what real sea glass should look like. Some of the manufacturers of eco-friendly or “green” glass very clearly label their product this way and make it clear to consumers that what’s being purchased is not glass from the sea, and some do not.

Many producers trying to pass off non-genuine sea glass as real go to a great deal of trouble to make the counterfeits look natural. Unlike the rock tumblers of the past that made fake glass easier to spot, they’re using advanced tumbling, sandblasting and acid-washing processes that give glass a similar appearance to real sea glass, and buyers think if they see the “c” marks and white-coated “frosting” layer on glass, it must be real, and this isn’t always the case. Sometimes manufacturers purchase vintage glass (including marbles, perfume stoppers or figurines) from antique stores or other venues and put the glass into cement mixers or even cages in the ocean and let it tumble around for a period of time, then sell it online in Facebook groups, Etsy shops and on eBay as real sea glass.

Feeling the glass in your hand is often the best way to tell real from fake because textural differences in the surface make the consistency of genuine sea glass in your hand nearly impossible for a machine to reproduce. The depth of the pitting in the surface of genuine glass is something that goes nearly to the center of the glass that historically spent time in the body of water; while in a tumbled piece, only the surface has been made smooth, leaving a shallower appearance to the glass. Real hydration over time in a natural body of water in random wave patterns will always leave a different finish on a piece of glass than anything a machine or artificial process can produce.

Unfortunately, people are spending a lot of money on fake sea glass at shows, in shops and online every day and may not know the item they have purchased is not genuine sea glass. Here are some things to consider.

Signs the “sea glass” you’re buying might be fake:

  1. Does the seller keep selling similar batches of the same rare styles and colors and shapes of glass over long periods of time with hundreds of sales? No beach in the world produces endless hundreds of pounds of rare colors in repeated jewelry quality perfect shapes and sizes.
  2. How trustworthy is the seller? Did they beachcomb the glass themselves or purchase it from another party? Do you know them personally? The sea glass community is small enough that if you want to buy, often someone can point you in the right direction (whether it’s a Facebook group or reputable eBay seller known by a friend) without having to buy from complete strangers. Only buy from people you trust. This is simply the best way to know you are buying genuine glass. Reviews on eBay and Etsy are not always the best way to get information, since people have been buying fake glass and not knowing it for a long time from many sellers.
  3. If you’ve bought a piece you suspect is fake, does it feel unusually smooth compared to other pieces in your collection? Sea glass often has a rougher texture to it after tumbling in the ocean. Fake glass is more likely to have an odd perfect satiny sheen on it. However, this can often depend on which beach it comes from as sea glass surfaces depend on ph levels in the body of water. For example, sea glass from different parts of the world can have a more satiny sheen. There is still a difference between the finish in the glass from these beaches and the glass a machine tumbler produces- the main clue being the similarity in shape and size and color across batches. So texture can be one clue to determine genuine glass, but is not always the best one since some beaches do produce silkier glass. If you hold a handful of genuine glass in one hand and a handful of tumbler glass in the other, you can feel the difference in a very clear way. At NASGA’s annual show, educational samples showing the difference between genuine and manufactured glass are available to help you learn the difference.
  4. Another way to spot sea glass that’s been in a tumbler is tiny diamond “glints” on the surface. If you turn the piece in your hand, often the tiny “cuts” will catch the light and will reflect in a diamond-like glinting fashion that pure sea glass generally does not. (This feature can be found on genuine sea glass sporadically because of the way it broke in the surf, but if you are holding a handful of fake glass, you can find these glints consistently across the pieces).
  5. It is very difficult to tell genuine from fake glass, especially in photos. Knowing your seller (and whether they have beachcombed the glass themselves or know exactly who did) is key! Keep in mind that when you buy sea glass from North American Sea Glass Association members, you can be certain they are required to sell only genuine sea glass, so ask if the seller is a member of NASGA.

In addition to manufactured fake glass, other methods are used to alter sea glass from its original form. Some are allowed by NASGA as part of our commercial memberships and some are not. For example, the drilling of sea glass in order to create a jewelry piece is not restricted, because this method is used by the artist in order to create the piece of jewelry and it is also clear to the consumer that a hole has been drilled, so no effort to cover up the alteration has been made. Similarly, some artists paint on top of the surface of sea glass in an artistic manner. For example, artistic renderings of sea life are depicted on the top of a piece of white sea glass. This is also allowed since the alteration of the sea glass is clear to the consumer purchasing the art piece.

A newer method of altering sea glass called “colorization” has entered the industry in which sea glass is permanently altered using a chemical process from the backside of a piece of white sea glass (see photo on the left), which is then placed into a bezel setting and sold as genuine sea glass. Also “staining” (see two photos on the right) sea glass is taking place where the color of white sea glass is changed in a dyeing process. It is the opinion of NASGA that since the color is being presented to the consumer as an “illusion” this violates our guideline that commercial members should “leave sea glass in its natural state and not create imitation sea glass”and that “sea glass will not be altered by …any other means so as to artificially replicate genuine sea glass.”  These artificially created colors have the potential to confuse consumers both at sea glass shows and online since in a bezel setting or (with staining) even loose, individuals cannot tell the difference between genuine and artificial colors, especially when natural sea glass colors are being replicated.

It is the opinion of NASGA that sale of colorized sea glass undermines sale of genuine rare and common sea glass colors by artisans and sea glass hunters who obtain these colors in natural bodies of water and that this glass should not be labeled “genuine” since it has been permanently, irreversibly altered and therefore does not represent genuine colors found in glassmaking history.

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