If you’ve ever strolled along the beaches of the Outer Banks searching for seashells, you’ve probably discovered an assortment of unique shells that have washed up onto the shoreline with the rolling waves. From scotch bonnets, scallops and sundials to periwinkles, whelks and moon snails, dozens of varieties of seashells can be found up and down the North Carolina coast. But while stunning seashells of all shapes and sizes are plentiful from Carova to Nags Head to Cape Hatteras, another one-of-a-kind find is a bit harder to come by: Outer Banks seaglass.
Also sometimes referred to as “beach glass,” seaglass is a small shard of broken glass that has been tossed and turned in the tumbling surf for such an extended period of time that its razor-sharp edges have become smooth and sleek. Ranging in size from a few millimeters wide to several inches long, “genuine” pieces of seaglass—pieces whose rough edges were smoothed by the sea and not in a manmade tumbler that speeds up the process and results in so-called “tumbled” seaglass—each have a history that dates back several decades, if not several centuries.
Outer Banks seaglass comes in an array of colors, some of which are much more commonly found than others. While hues like white, brown and green are the types beachgoers stumble upon most frequently on the barrier islands of North Carolina, seaglass found along the Outer Banks can also come in beautiful hues ranging from cobalt blue and brilliant turquoise to bright red, pale pink and light lavender. While spotting any piece of seaglass on the Outer Banks is an exciting experience for anyone searching for a unique find, the most coveted colors for collectors are usually those that feature the rarest tints: red, blue and teal.
The origins of seaglass on the Outer Banks can vary greatly, and for seaglass hunters who want to know the possible backstory behind a piece of glass they’ve discovered at the water’s edge, paying close attention to its color is the key to determining where it likely came from. In years past—before the modern-day use of plastic became so commonplace for packaging—household items such as shampoo, prescriptions, perfume, soda, beer and cleaning products often came in glass bottles or containers. In addition to commonly used household products, a variety of other sources of seaglass that washes up on beaches today include apothecary bottles, tail lights from automobiles, lanterns, traffic light lenses, insulators from power lines and even old pieces of glassware that wound up in the sea during a shipwreck.
When these items were irresponsibly discarded by their owners as litter or intentionally dumped illegally by manufacturing companies looking for a cheap method of disposal, they eventually found their way into the ocean, where they shattered into smaller pieces as they encountered other objects ranging from rocks and jetties to boats and floating debris. Over time, the pounding surf pummeled the shards of seaglass into smooth pieces with a frosted appearance, and their rough edges that were once sharp to the touch became polished and slightly rounded. The result of this sometimes centuries-long process is the creation of naturally tumbled seaglass that can be transformed into an array of meaningful keepsakes—the most common of which is genuine seaglass jewelry.
Seaglass can be found in coastal regions around the world. For years, seaglass enthusiasts have flocked to the beaches of Spain, Australia, Nova Scotia, Puerto Rico, the British Isles, Bermuda and the Bahamas—all areas that are well-known for their abundance of seaglass—in search of the perfect piece to add to their collection. But stellar seaglass finds aren’t limited to the shorelines of nations overseas.
When it comes the best beaches to find seaglass in the United States, several beaches along both the East Coast and West Coast make the list. California’s Fort Bragg Sea Glass Beach and Kauai Sea Glass Beach in Hawaii are two of the best-known beaches in the U.S. for finding seaglass; however, the Outer Banks of North Carolina—especially along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore—are also recognized by collectors as a hotbed for beautiful pieces of naturally tumbled seaglass that wind up on the sandy shoreline.
Whether you’ve come upon a commonly found color like white or brown, or you’ve unearthed a rare find that boasts unique shades such as vivid turquoise or bright red, finding seaglass on the Outer Banks is an incredible experience you’ll never forget. To increase your chances of uncovering a piece of seaglass along the shoreline or in the surf during your next Outer Banks vacation, start your search during low tide—when thousands of seashells that are typically covered during high tide are easily accessible—or comb the beach shortly after a strong storm, when large waves and rough surf stirs up the seafloor and washes an array of hidden treasures out of the depths of the ocean and onto the sand.