This article originally appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of Cape May Magazine
Some of the best shorelines to find mermaid tears – sea glass – are right here in Cape May. The veteran hunters will tell you that the Delaware Bayside beaches, Sunset, Higbee, Townbank and remote seascapes off Route 47 North, produce more treasures than the oceanfront. Sea glass collectors are passionate, obsessive about searching the sand for these frosted, shimmery bits, ranging from orange and red, the most rare, to clear, the most common. Too, they scour the edges of the sea for pottery and porcelain shards, be they relics of Staffordshire and Limoges from fancy European estates or 18th century stoneware from American Colonists’ plain kitchens.
The ideal time to find sea glass is in spring at full moon after wicked winds stir up waves that leave behind new deposits. Or, there are eroding surfs that dig deeper in the beach, removing layers of sand that have hidden mermaid tears, pottery bits and bottles for decades, perhaps even centuries.
Cape May Point artist Carol King Hood and her husband, Ned, can’t wait for a bad storm. As soon as it calms, they’re off to their favorite hunting grounds, losing themselves to the search, in boots, with buckets. After last year’s nasty November nor’easter they made a memorable find along a newly eroded stretch of Delaware Bay. Dressed in layers, facing stinging rain, they discovered old pottery shards, chunks of light-catching greens and ambers – and, an old brown poison bottle, considered very rare. The bay, long a shipping channel, is one of the abundant places to find sea treasures. “Each has a story to tell,” says Carol. “Each has a history.”
The search is a togetherness hobby for Carol and Ned. But once on the beach, it’s serious competition to find the best piece. Their trained eyes scan the deserted shoreline for a sparkle, perhaps pink, aqua, amethyst, jade, citron, amber, sapphire. Sometimes the jewels are in clear view glittering in the sun. Other days, they’re hidden among the pebbles, sea grass and driftwood.
“We have faced intense wind, rain, bitter cold, frosted fingers, wet socks and clammy feet,” says Carol. “We have hunted in steam heat and humidity, fog and snow, but no matter the elements, we scream with joy at each great find. A collector is pressed on thinking the next piece will be the greatest find. We have surprised each other at Christmas and birthdays with a special piece we pocketed and kept secret. We have found perfect shaped hearts and given them to each other for Valentine’s Day. The sea glass hobby is a really nice part of our marriage.”
Their collection is under glass atop a large indented coffee table in their quaint Amber Rose Cottage at the Point. Always the artist, Carol has arranged the results of their 15 years of searching in categories by color, type of glass or pottery, quality, history. The display is a mosaic of sea treasures. Carol delights in telling a story of each piece, different as snowflakes, sharing what she has learned about the many types of pottery and glass: depression, opalescent, patterned, pressed, amberina, carnival, custard, hobnail. There are to be found old doorknobs; remnants of china dolls, whiskey, bitters, ink, wine, medicine and poison bottles. Carol says collectors fantasize about the origins. Could they be from a pirate’s boat, a whaler’s cottage, a cruise liner, a battle ship? Was the origin Asia, Europe, Africa, old Cape May?
Most ocean-created mermaid tears are just common bottles for beer, milk, Noxema, Vicks, Coca Cola, 7-Up. You name it. Add to that centuries-old art glass, tableware, pottery. Glass is substantially sand to begin with, so over the years, the salt water, the tides, washing over rocks and sand, the pounding forces of the ocean have broken and worn down the shards to unique, one-of-a-kind shapes and sizes.
“The tears are perfect for jewelry,” says Betty Hamilton, who travels from North Jersey to Cape May to search for sea jewels. Her Mermaids’ Tears jewelry business has become so successful, “even in the recession,” she has given up her retail job to design full time. She wraps her selected tears in sterling for her line of earrings, necklaces, bracelets and wine glass markers. When searching for sea gems, she carries with her a large piece of driftwood and “rakes” the sand to find the choice pieces and stashes them by category in zip lock bags.
Ever since she was a little girl, Adrienne Scharnikow has been beachcombing for treasures. “I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning and find what the ocean left overnight,” she says. Now a pharmaceutical company researcher, she has a growing jewelry business called simply Sea. Her three young sons join her at Sunset Beach looking for colorful shards with a well-frosted patina. It can take 50 to 100 years to weather the glass, round the edges and tumble pieces that are jewelry worthy. Adrienne draws designs for each beach jewel and employs silversmiths who hand-shape sterling to create her casual-chic look. Each is as unique as the person who wears it, she says. Her pieces are sold at The Whale’s Tale on the Washington Street Mall.
For photographer Anita Roth, focusing on sea glass was a happy accident. “I have four children, ages eight to 14, and we spend a lot of time together on the beach collecting shells, rocks and then – sea glass. We always compare our finds at the end of our walks and see who has the find of the day. We became enchanted with sea glass and began searching for it specifically, learning which colors were common or rare.”
Sea glass, addictive as it seems to be, became a favorite focus for Anita as she continued studying and experimenting with photography. First she shot close-ups of flowers, then sea shells, but now she is hooked on sea glass treasures. She shoots their brilliance on the beach rocks and sand, in cocktail glasses, loosely arranged, and in tight arty compositions.
The sea glass photographs have become Anita’s art form. She offers framed photographs for sale at the West End Garage local Artists’ Cooperative Gallery on West Perry Street in West Cape May.
Also showing her sea glass art at the West End Garage is jewelry designer Jenny Cupp.
She sets sea glass jewels in layered necklaces and wire-wrapped earrings and bracelets. A specialty are her small boxes with mosaics of sea glass and shells. She calls her art Seawings, named for her fascination with the water, the treasures it leaves and the birds that maneuver the shoreline. Jenny always has been a Cape May girl of summer, except for a brief California experience. “I couldn’t stay away from Cape May,” she says. “The sea said come home.”
Shopkeepers will tell you that every season, the popularity of sea glass art and jewelry is a rising tide. “Perhaps it’s because there’s not as much of it as there used to be,” says Pure Sea Glass author Richard LaMotte who searches across the bay, in Lewes, Delaware. “Now we are strict about recycling glass and so many of our containers and household wares are made of plastic. We are searching for a diminishing part of our past.”
Fellow writer C.S. Lambert describes the kaleidoscope of sea glass “whispers from the past. “And what of these broken relics we treasure?” he asks. “These salt-bleached artifacts pass by the world’s coastlines like nomads on a voyage. Caught in a perpetual cycle, jitterbugging with the tide, heaved ashore only to creep back ocean-ward, sea glass promises a historical odyssey to those who choose to listen.”
I don’t know about you, but I am ready to “listen” and search for sea glass treasures right now as I pull on my boots and head out the door with a bucket and driftwood rake for a secluded beach on the bay.