Gems of the Great Lakes Erie Festival to Illuminate the Wonders of Beach Glass

By Hayes, John | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), April 23, 2016 | Go to article overview

Gems of the Great Lakes Erie Festival to Illuminate the Wonders of Beach Glass


Hayes, John, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


ERIE, Pa.

Jennifer Reed was a traditional jeweler by trade and a stay-at-home mom when her 6-year-old son found a colorful piece of well-worn glass on the beach.

"Mom," he asked, "will you make me a ring?"

"That's how it started in 1996," said Ms. Reed. "I loved the marriage of the sterling silver with the found glass and started making necklaces and things, and people started hearing about it. Two years later I said to my sister Terri, 'Give me a year of your life. I think I'm onto something.' "

This year, the Reed sisters celebrate a 20-year "love affair" with beach glass. Their Relish boutique is one of the few anywhere that deals exclusively in items handcrafted from naturally tumbled bits of found glass. As public interest in beach glass continues to grow, the third annual Great Lakes Beach Glass and Coastal Arts Festival will be held in Erie next week. Ms. Reed said the 2015 event attracted more than 3,500 people.

Beach glass, often called sea glass near the ocean, is pretty much what it sounds like, but Ms. Reed says it's far more interesting.

"It's what's left of a manmade glass product that found its way into a waterway and gets tumbled and transformed for 50, 60, 100 years or more," said Ms. Reed. "At first people said, 'Oh, that's just garbage you found on the beach,' and we'd say, 'No, it's much more than that.'"

The process has as much to do with the chemistry of glass as it does the physics of waves. Traditionally, glass was made from melted silica, or quartz. Soda lime was added to lower the melting temperature, making the glass cheaper to produce, and additional additives provided colors.

"What people don't know about the beach glass we find here is ... the pH level of the Great Lakes is similar to that of the oceans," said Ms. Reed. "The bedrock limestone creates a somewhat acidic environment that reacts with the soda and lime, leaving a crystalline effect. The combination of that and erosion is what creates beach glass."

Collecting it involves elements of human history, natural forces, artistic appreciation, outdoor recreation and water - lots of it. Pennsylvania has 76.6 miles of shoreline on the world's largest freshwater system, the Great Lakes. Ms. Reed said the legacy of Lake Erie as a pathway of exploration and commerce, and its reputation as a shallow, stormy and dangerous waterway, makes its beaches a fine place to find beach glass.

"There's a mystery to each piece," she said. "Where did it come from? European explorers? …

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