By CARL E. FEATHER
Twenty years ago, give or take a couple of years, a beer drinker tossed his empties into Lake Erie near Conneaut Harbor.
A soda drinker did the same, back when pop came in returnable, aqua- and clear-glass bottles rather than plastic.
The bottles broke as they hit bottom, where, over the course of years, the sharp edges of their shards were polished smooth and their glossy patina transformed to frost by the wave action, gravel and sand. Then, like a factory spewing its finished products out the loading dock door, the lake one day regurgitated the remanufactured glass onto the beach, to be harvested by Lorie and Troy Dalrymple.
Those pieces of brown, aqua and green glass now hang on drooping necklaces in the front windows of the couple’s Park Street, Conneaut, shop, and dangle from the ear lobes and thin wrists of delicate ladies. What once was a prosaic bottle, mere litter, is now beach glass jewelry.
Lorie and Troy started selling their recycled gems at shows four years ago; they opened the store in 2006. A second retail location, at Indian Creek Resort, Geneva-on-the-Lake, opens this week. They also sell their creations at arts and crafts shows, other jewelry stores and through an Internet presence, www.beachesinc.com.
“This store is the best thing we’ve done,” says Lorie. “That’s why we are opening one in Geneva.”
Prices for the jewelry range from $8 for a simple fob to $30 to $50 for graceful bracelets. At the highest end are necklaces that feature a particularly stunning piece of glass encased in a sterling silver bevel. They sell for $80 to $100.
While that may sound like a lot of change for a few pieces of found glass strung on a strip of leather or mono-filament line, the Dalrymples say working with beach glass is not as easy as it looks. It requires special equipment and skill, not to mention patience, to drill tiny holes in small pieces of glass.
“You don’t drill through it as much as you grind through it,” says Troy.
“Patience is one of the things you need to do this,” Lorie adds.
It also takes a lot of time to sort through the thousands of pieces of glass to locate potential matches with similar color, shape, weight and thickness. By its nature, every piece of beach glass jewelry is an original.
Lorie and Troy learned the craft of silver smithing at the Columbus (Ohio) Cultural Arts Center several years ago. Their connection to beach glass goes back much further, however.
Conneaut natives, they grew up around the beach and popular pastime of collecting beach glass.
“My summers were spent right at the beach,” says Lorie, who carried her treasures home in her shoes because swimming suits don’t have pockets. “When I was old enough to go down there on my own, I was there every day.”
After she and Troy met, they lived in a series of cottages and apartments near the beach and spent leisure time searching for sparkles of glass amid the sand.
“We would go down and collect it together before we even did the jewelry,” says Lorie.
She came to realize the jewelry potential of beach glass while a massage student in Erie. A friend told her about a new business, Relish, which made jewelry from beach glass. Lorie was fascinated by the creations, and while she and Troy were living in Columbus, decided to switch careers.
“I always wanted to make jewelry, but I didn’t know what way to go,” she says. “I had such a large collection of beach glass, I said I wanted to do this.”
They started out by selling their jewelry at craft and art shows. When the business grew to a point they felt ready to open a shop, Lorie and Troy returned to Conneaut, which offered both the resources of family support and beach glass.
Lorie and Troy say Conneaut’s public beach and several private beaches to which they have access keep them supplied with glass. Competition for glass is getting keen, however. They regularly see beach glass fans from Pennsylvania harvesting glass at Conneaut.
Collecting beach glass has become so popular, and lucrative for those who sell it on eBay, some resort to mining the beach with shovels. Lorie and Troy object to that practice; they’d much rather harvest it in the tranquil hours after a storm, when the surf delivers a fresh supply to the beaches.
“To me it’s like picking up a little gem,” says Lorie.
The Dalrymples make their jewelry from Lake Erie beach glass only, although the glass can be found on virtually any beach contaminated by humanity. And while some artists use tumbled glass, Lorie and Troy insist upon using genuine, uncut “found glass.”
“People who really collect beach glass want it as raw as it can be,” Lorie says.
The process for producing found beach glass can’t be rushed or even initiated – it’s not like Lorie and Troy can dump a bunch of glass in the lake and harvest the catch few weeks later.
“It takes a minimum of 10 to 15 years to get a piece of broken glass smooth by the surf,” says Lorie.
“You are picking up old beer bottle glass that has been in the lake since the 1970s,” says Troy.
Indeed, for many beach glass lovers, part of the fascination is the history behind the glass. Orange glass is the rarest; if it’s in the lake, it is usually because a boat or lantern lens was broken. The same is true for red, although an occasional piece of decorative household glassware is found.
The most common colors are brown, green and white, but Conneaut’s beach also yields an inordinately large amount of cobalt blue. While the source of this glass has traditionally been Milk of Magnesia and similar over-the-counter medicine bottles, at Conneaut the source is believed to be industrial.
Lorie says residents have told them the prized glass came from General Electric’s Conneaut electric light bulb base plant. The glass scrap somehow made its way into the lake during the 1950s and ’60s. As for how it got there, “that’s a question for G.E.,” says Troy, who is thankful for the cache.
Farther west, metallurgical operations in Ashtabula Township produced green slag that ended up in the lake. Polished by years of rolling around in the sand and gravel, one enterprising entrepeneur attempted to market them as “Lake Erie Jade.”
Pieces of pottery and china also wash up and have been incorporated in jewelry designs made by Lorie and Troy.
Lorie says their designs tend to focus on the glass rather than the silver smithing. Their jewelry is marked by clean, elegant presentations.
“In my opinion, it’s a more contemporary style, a very restrained style,” says Lorie. “Ours is more about the glass than the things that go around it.”
As Lorie and Troy increasingly spend more time managing and expanding the business, they have fewer hours for glass hunting. The task has been taken up by her father, Harry Eaton, who has become an iconic presence on the beach. Eaton says his role in this business predates his daughter’s and son-in-law’s by decades.
“There are probably some of those beer bottles in there that I put in years ago,” he says.
Beaches is open noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Look for their new location at Indian Creek Resort, Route 531, Geneva Township.