The chief ingredient in authentic Bermuda island jewelry, sea glass is a beautiful treasure to find while beach-combing. On most beaches on-island there are small pieces of sea glass, but on certain beaches, you can’t see the sand for the glass! Sea glass and Bermuda’s signature pink sand are features of the island that jewelers don’t hesitate to capitalize on, but what’s really the reason for their appearance?
Sea glass, in reality, is man made glass swept by the sea to make it smooth and mottled. Their origins lie in glass bottles or pottery discarded as trash in to the ocean years ago, which surface after being ground by the ocean. Wave actions cause the glass to be ground by undersea rocks and sand to smooth their edges and make them suitable for collection. The result is a slightly frosted looking piece of glass which occurs in a variety of colours, listed from most to least common below (in my experience):
- Light blue
- Dark blue
There was often a competition between my brother and I to see who would find the first red piece on an outing, and after it was found, who would find the most. We discovered a “prohibited” beach which was almost entirely made of sea glass whose concentration increased the father you walked along the beach. The other popular sea glass site in Bermuda is the Alexandra Battery beach. My brother was an expert at finding red pieces and marbles, while I rushed to find the prettiest and darkest blue pieces.
There is no way of telling how old a piece of glass may be, and it’s possible that certain pieces are much more ancient than others. Generally, sea glass takes 20-30 years, but sometimes up to 50 years, to reach its characteristic weathered state. Particularly interesting is when small, intact, round pieces of glass, which appear to be marbles, are found. These rare pieces were actually used as stoppers for medicine bottles many years ago.
After beach-combing for a few years, a collection of sea glass and other interesting treasures is amassed. It is possible, then to make jewelry or other crafts out of the glass. Sea glass can be cleaned by soaking in fresh water and can be made shiny with baby oil.
Bermuda’s pink sand is another defining characteristic of our island, and one which is used in island jewelry. Tourists also enjoy bringing back sand in jars to remember the unique island. The pinkness of the sand, and the sand itself, is the work of two organisms present in Bermuda’s waters; parrotfish and foraminifera (Homotrema rubrum).
Parrotfish are reef cleaners who scape algae of off rocks as their prime diet. Aside from preventing the smothering of the reef by algae in this way, parrotfish also produce sand as a by-product of their feeding. Each time their parrot-like beak scrapes away algae, it also takes a small part of rock with it, and since parrotfish do not have stomachs, this rock is broken down and excreted immediately as sand. Larger parrotfish can produce about 840 pounds of sand per year.
This, however, is not news. Plenty of parrotfish in all parts of the world produce sand through excretion to make lovely white-sand beaches. Bermuda’s pink sand is due to red foraminifera, a form of marine plankton, which are present in our waters. Red forams are protists that average about 1mm in size. Not quite plants and not quite animals, the forams have pseudopodia, false feet, which extend from its test to form a net for catching food.
Many forams are hosts to symbiotic algae which work similarly to zooxanthellae in corals. The foram’s tests provide a place for algae to grow, and the forams benefit from feeding off of the waste produces the algae produce. Like corals, it’s this algae that give the forams their colour.
Red foraminifera grow abundantly on the underside of coral ledges, and when they die, their tests sink to the bottom and mix in with the crushed calcium-carbonate skeletons of other marine organisms. The parrotfish’s excretions and the red foram’s skeletons produce a sand which is decidedly pink, and a beautiful characteristic of island jewelry.
Below you can watch a video of a parrotfish feeding – it’s easy to hear its scraping sounds while snorkelling.