Sea glass are pieces of naturally-weathered frosted glass that dot beaches and shores all over the world.
Highly collectible, these “mermaid tears” are created by time and salt water working in tandem to upcycle discarded bottles into translucent pocket-sized pebbles perfect for souvenirs and keepsakes.
But I haven’t always been a fan.
I first came across sea glass when I visited Fiji. Whilst wandering on a beach on a tiny island, a travelling companion started picking up what I thought was rubbish from the sand. After a few minutes, he proudly held out a palm full of what looked like half-sucked hard candies.
“It’s sea glass,” he explained, “I collect a piece from every place I go.”
“As a souvenir.”
“Could you not just…buy a t-shirt?”
“Well, yeah, but t-shirts are mass produced. A piece of sea glass is totally unique. No two pieces look the same.”
I was about to argue that you could say the same about pizza, but instead I nodded and let him return to his beachcombing. As he did, I couldn’t help think that what he was combing through was nothing but junk, an infuriating bi-product of humanity’s indifference to nature.
At that time, the idea of taking home shards of weathered glass as a memento of my travels was about as appealing as picking up one of the plastic toothbrushes swept on shore by the tide.
It wasn’t my fault. I’d been spoiled. I grew up on Australian beaches that were, for the most part, free of trash. Scattered instead with shells, rocks and stranded jellyfish. Sea glass just wasn’t something I was familiar with, so I saw no value in it and no reason to pick it up except to throw it away.
Still, as I continued to travel and encountered more of it, I started to develop an appreciation for the frosted “gemstones”. In fact, I have recently discovered, thanks to the internet and too much time on my hands, that there’s an entire beach in California named after and covered with the stuff.
And since my trip to Fiji a decade ago I have revised my stance on “the Jolly Ranchers of the Sea”.
While I would prefer the ocean not be filled with garbage (a controversial stance I know), sea glass does have value. More ethical and ecologically sound than collecting shells, it is in many ways the antithesis of the traditional travel trinket. Free, light, easy to slip into a suitcase or backpack and, unlike a miniature Eiffel Tower or novelty t-shirt, sea glass began as trash and became a souvenir – rather than the other way around.
Or maybe I’m reading too much into it.