Why you should care

Because crows and Gollum aren’t the only creatures that thrill for pretty baubles.

Winter is glassing season. At high tide in Davenport, California, seething walls of white water churn up the pebbled shore, each wave unearthing a fresh slate of sea glass. Hawkeyed glass hunters brace in the impact zone, and as the stew of seawater retreats, they snatch at any glint of color. Sea glass can sell from $5 to $100 a stone, and this El Niño–stirred glassing season, which many glassers are calling the best ever, has brought in a deluge of new prospectors.

Clad in black neoprene wet suits, glassers wield shovels, garden rakes and jury-rigged strainers. They come as prospectors, hobbyists or addicts. Mary Ann Carbone, a passionate, puckered woman of 61, the vice mayor of nearby Sand City and the self-styled “Sea Glass Queen,” is among the addicts. She glasses with a metal basket extracted from the deep fryer at her husband’s beach café and welded to the end of a red pole. Carbone removes a dark stone splashed with purple from the fryer basket, raises it to the sun and squints. “There is light shining through,” she says. “It’s glass all right.” When she returns home, she’ll add the piece to a glass collection so large that it’s spilled out of her house and into the garden.

So far he’s only swallowed one small stone: “I’m not sure if it’s still there, inside me.”

The first rule of glassing, says Carbone: “Always keep an eye on the ocean.” The second: “No piece of glass is worth your life.” Indeed, glassing at Davenport can be perilous. Skin lacerations are routine, and broken limbs not uncommon. In February, Peter Koci, a middle-aged glasser from Truckee, California, washed out to sea. It took more than a week for his body to float ashore, six miles to the south.

Beaches around the world have sea glass, ordinarily the result of broken bottles being tumbled along the ocean floor, losing their sharp edges and developing a frosted look. In Davenport, though, perfect stones of carmine and deep blue come ashore, some with intricate color patterns etched by the town’s former glassblower. Local legend holds that a flood wiped out the glassblowing studio and carried all the artisan glass down the creek some 40 years ago. Dumping has, perhaps, supplemented the supply since then. Nevertheless, the resource is dwindling, driving up the prices paid by coastal jewelers. (Some angst-driven glassers have taken to seeding the ocean with marbles.)

Carbone leaves the danger zone — the rock shelf buttressing the beach where the largest glass stones land — to professional glassers like 29-year-old Daniel Cruz. As Cruz scrambles from the massive waves, he plops sea glass stones straight into his mouth like peppermints. “It’s faster this way,” he says. “When I get my mouth full, I spit them in my bag.” So far he’s only swallowed one small stone: “I’m not sure if it’s still there, inside me.” With a portion of this season’s earnings, Cruz bought his girlfriend a car.

After five hours of glassing, a sun-worn Carbone zips up her bag of small multicolored stones and shuffles up the trail to the car park. Midway, she crosses paths with another glasser, who has his haul out on display and for sale. Though Carbone tries to avert her eyes, she ends up kneeling and fingering the large pieces, one the size of a small fist. Eventually, she selects one, a translucent seafoam-green piece, to purchase, then three more — a total of $100 dollars’ worth. “I don’t know why I need more,” she says with a smile. “I have no idea. I’ve got a lot. When I found one of the prettiest pieces ever the other day, I gave it away.”

Carbone’s friend and fellow glasser Merilee Desin interrupts to deliver her opinion: “She’s an addict!”

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