Sea glass is disappearing and will soon be rarer than the most precious stones.

But the best of these elusive gems can still be found on North-East beaches.

Ruth Campbell talks to one talented jewellery designer who finds her inspiration on our coastline.

JEWELLERY designer Gina Cowen likens herself to an ostrich, head down staring at the sand as she scours the beach for hidden gems.

Oblivious to everything else around her, she is searching for sea glass, colourful treasure from the deep created when discarded glass is shaped and worn by the surge and ebb of the tides into smooth, jewel-like pebbles.

Just as the power of the sea magically transforms this particular debris into translucent pebbles that glisten in the sand, so Gina turns them into exquisite pieces of jewellery, necklaces, bracelets, anklets and rings, like little droplets of solid, sunlit water worn against the skin.

Most of her sea glass – also known as mermaid’s tears, sea sapphires and marine gems – comes from North- East beaches which, she says, are the best in the country and among the very best in the world for such finds, which are fast becoming rarer than diamonds.

Our large stretches of rocky coastline and pebble beaches provide ideal conditions for the creation of the pebbles, smoothed to perfection as the glass ends up thrown against abrasive shingle. The fact that many of our beaches, empty of tourist hordes, retain much of their natural beauty helps.

“The best beaches are not tourist resorts where you get people lining the beach. They are rough, they have got natural things on them rather than fag ends and ice cream cones, which is lovely. Rough weather helps,” says Gina.

Her favourite spots are along the coal mining coast around Seaham, Ryhope and Easington in County Durham, close to the glassmaking city of Sunderland.

Tonnes of glass ended up in the sea along Seaham Beach after the Candlish Glass bottleworks factory there closed in 1921. At its peak Candlish, which opened in 1850, produced 20 million bottles a year as well as decorative glass in many colours.

Since then, generations of local children and collectors have been picking up the luminous, glowing pebbles that have been tumbled, bashed, shaped and polished by the sea. But, as we recycle more and throw less glass into the sea, these gems are becoming increasingly hard to find. Indeed, one day soon the supply may run out.

“All those years, when the coast was blackened by coal and industrial waste, there was a hidden yet constant process of transformation taking place, a secret gem factory run by a superhuman force: nature,” says Gina, 50, who lives in Oxford and is originally from South Africa.

“What I love is the story behind every piece of sea glass, which has been tumbled around in the sea for decades and is so full of history. You imagine what it might have been, and who may have made it, where it travelled, how old it is. Everyone sees different things.”

She will never forget discovering her first pieces of sea glass, about 15 years ago, on Danger Beach, near Cape Town. “I just went down to smell the salt and get my feet wet in the sea. I saw these sunlit jewels, I remember picking them up and holding them in my hand and thinking wouldn’t this be beautiful round the neck, next to the skin, like solid, frosted water,” she says.

Having studied jewellery making at London’s Guildhall University she researched how to drill the glass back in the UK. “I wanted to make something for myself, up until then I had always been working for other people,”

says Gina who had a career in music management and journalism.

“I want to keep that feeling of excitement when you pick up what appears as a droplet of emerald, sapphire, amber or frosted crystal glowing in the shingle or left shining on sand smoothed by a receding wave – these jewels should retain a feel of captured light and wanderlust when worn,” she says.

It is time-consuming work. The glass is drilled by hand using diamond tipped drills, an exacting process which ensures these creations cannot be mass produced. Gina polishes her stones in a rock tumbler with grit, which enhances the colour and smoothes down the sugary surface caused by the chemical action of sea water on glass.

The stones she has collected in the North-East have a particular inner luminosity.

Her favourite, and rarest, gems were found on Seaham Beach. They are an unusual soft, pale green aqua colour, with a golden brown pattern which almost looks like plant life in the water. “It’s as if you are looking at weeds, moving gently in the water, and you might see a fish swimming by,” she says.

She was first encouraged to come to the region by a farmer’s wife who had collected glass on the beach here for years and had seen some of Gina’s jewellery at Liberty’s in London. “I wouldn’t have known there was such lovely glass in the North-East had I not been introduced by her.”

After that, she put advert in a local paper appealing to people who may have had old tins or jars of glass sitting at home. “The advert got a fantastic response. I was given glass or bought or swapped it,” says Gina, whose jewellery is sold in prestigious galleries all over the country.

Due to its growing rarity, sea glass collections are now being sold on eBay for increasingly large sums.

“But how do you put a value on it?”

says Gina.

More than the monetary value, Gina treasures the whole recycling process. “I like the fact that an act of innocent negligence has been turned into something of beauty.” And, it is worth pointing out, discarded glass will eventually be worn down by the sea into sand.

Gina comes to the North-East about twice a year to add to her collection.

“I have had wonderful walks on the beaches and met some lovely people, there is such unusual warmth. I have made lots of good friends in the region,” she says.

She recalls one walk, clambering down cliffs to Blast Beach, below Seaham, where she discovered unusual large green-blue lumps of glass. On another occasion, a retired miner introduced her to the beach at Easington Colliery. “I have enjoyed fantastic walks there. It is very beautiful and not many people go down there.”

Some of the pieces Gina has found date back to the 17th Century, originally bottles from ships wrecked off the coast. “Some of the glass is very old and some of the colours are extremely rare,” says Gina.

Gina plans to exhibit some of her finds in Sunderland, when she will invite the public to imagine the story behind each stone. She hopes others will share the sense of childish delight she experiences when she discovers such treasures.

While sea glass may be slowly vanishing, Gina’s search for this elusive treasure goes on. “You can be on the beach for hours, head down, looking,”

says Gina. “You always think going to find that perfect piece, it becomes almost hypnotic. I haven’t lost that sense of excitement, it is a proper love.”

■ See Gina’s work on, she can be contacted on Her jewellery is available from Godfrey & Watt, Westminster Arcade, Parliament Street, Harrogate HG1 2RN. Tel: 01423-525300.