The Ever-Elusive Red Sea Glass
By Richard LaMotte
Moments after a lecture near Providence, Rhode Island, in 2007, a young couple was in line with their son who wanted me to identify and date his samples of sea glass. Behind them were at least 10 veteran collectors ranging in ages of about 40 to 70 years. As the young boy approached, the proud parents encouraged him to place his shards up on the table. With methodical precision, he placed them on the white tablecloth. There were several greens, whites, blues, and then a flawless piece of red sea glass.
Extremely impressed, I told him it takes some collectors an entire lifetime to find such a rare piece of red sea glass. As his parents beamed with pride, I asked the obvious question, “How many years have you been collecting?” While I expected to hear maybe a year or two, his reply shocked me.
“I just started today!” A loud, collective groan from the grizzled collectors behind him at first frightened the boy. His parents, meanwhile, laughed and just patted him on the shoulder. One never knows when their first piece of red sea glass may be found-but it is always a memorable occasion.
Many collectors have admitted to making unbridled yelps or screams when they found their first piece of red. One also shared she had just returned from the emotional funeral of her brother, went out to the beach swearing to find her best piece of sea glass ever, and returned home just minutes later with her first piece of red glass. This was after spending decades in search of this rare color. Another couple went to the beach for the first time after their son had died from a heart defect, and they found a gift in the form of a heart-shaped piece of red sea glass. For those of us who collect, there are a few pieces of sea glass we never want to part with; in many cases those include one red shard.
So why is red so rare? What does it come from and is any other color as rare?
The last question is the simplest-orange is the rarest sea glass color since so few glassware items were created in orange. There were no bottles mass-produced in true orange, nor tableware patterns made beyond Amberina, which transitions from amber through orange to red. Occasional art-glass pieces such as vases and unique Art Deco items came in orange. Most orange glass shards found with distinct triangular or tooth-like patterns are from vintage auto, turn-signal lights and “clearance lights” mounted on trucks. The latter items were made in vibrant orange and would illuminate to a bright yellow when backlit. Orange was a hard color to manufacture and simply had very low demand.
Alternatively, red glass was in high demand for many years in America dating back to Colonial times, when glassmakers would add an expensive gold oxide powder to produce red. Thus, it was produced in rather limited supplies-the glass of royalty was not for every day common folks to use, much less discard. By the late 1800s, “Gold Ruby,” also known as Cranberry Glass, gained popularity as ornamental tableware and light fixtures. Red glass items were a bit less popular around the home in the early 1900s. However, red had become a common color for glass warning lights used in the transportation industries for railroads, boats, and, eventually, for trucks and autos. Later, red marble-like pieces were inserted into stop signs and turn arrow signs as nighttime reflectors to help drivers avoid hazards.
Red glass finally started a comeback around the home in the late 1930s, as American glassmakers learned that copper could be used in place of gold oxide to produce a deep red hue when reheated above 1,000 degrees. The Anchor Cap and Closure Corporation merged with the Hocking Glass Company and soon became leaders with their “Royal Ruby” red glass. They produced tableware in many patterns and then ultimately some large runs of Schlitz beer bottles in the 1950s. They even did a few Royal Ruby bottles for Coors, but the vast majorities were for Schlitz.
So warning lights, tableware, and a few Royal Ruby bottles make up the vast majority of what sea glass collectors find as red glass along the shore-but there can always be an exception.
On a beautiful day in late September this year, I participated in an impromptu sea glass-identification session at Crystal Cove State Park, near Newport Beach, California. A couple just exited the beach with a 16-ounce cup, nearly filled with sea glass found that day. They mentioned searching the beach for nearly four hours following the advice of a local collector, Rick Bouffard. As the talented sea glass jeweler and park volunteer Lori Lambert looked over my shoulder, we were amazed at what this couple had found on their first day of collecting. It was a variety of well-worn shards in an array of colors, and they were thrilled to know the history and background of their finds. So excited about their success, they went back out and, within a half-hour, returned with a stunning red marble. The gentleman, smiling at his wife, said, “What a great way to spend my birthday!” On his first day of hunting-a red marble!
The beach often provides us with an abundance of memory-makers. It’s why we return to the shore with anticipation each time.