Photography and text by Sara Caruso
Everyone remembers sitting in chemistry class and studying the periodic table of elements. Atoms and molecules would flood our minds and notebooks as we waited for the class bell to ring. Today, most of us don’t remember those lessons, nor can we name all the elements. Sea glass hunters, on the other hand, tend to know more about the elements than the average person. It is almost a requirement for a sea glass lover to know how each color is created and the chemical processes that heating glass can create. A few hours of research can bear much fruit on the subject, like how copper goes into creating teal glass and gold into red. Even more rare than those colors is neodymium sea glass. Few glass items are made using the element, so it’s less likely to be rolling around the sea floor.
Discovered in 1885 by German chemist Carl F. Auer von Welsbach, neodymium is used in a variety of everyday items. If you have a pair of headphones on your head while reading this, there are neodymium magnets inside. Microphones, speakers and even nuclear reactors also rely on this element to function. Magnets made from neodymium are strong enough to withstand the vibrations sound equipment would have to endure over a lifetime. Neodymium “doped” glass is used in powerful lasers for fusion found in nuclear reactors, which in turn create electricity for our cities. It’s used as a calibrator for spectrometers, welder’s masks, glass-blowers goggles, colored enamels, incandescent light bulbs, and the rear-view mirrors of cars. Neodymium is even present on the hard drive that this article was saved to and that you are using to read this right now. It’s even under our feet.
Though considered a “rare earth” element, neodymium is everywhere and is fairly common in earth’s soil. Most of the world’s neodymium supply is mined out of China. Perhaps what makes the glass so popular is not rarity but its most infamous trait. The word neodymium comes from the Greek words neos and didymos, which translate to new twin. Indeed this is fitting because the certain forms of neodymium glass can change color depending on the light it’s under. Neodymium glass can be a fuchsia pink under sunlight, violet under indoor light, and a dull aqua blue under fluorescent and CFL light. Some pieces will glow a luminous turquoise under a black light. Most often the purple glass is used in decorative pieces, which turns into a dull blue under fluorescent light. Pink turns gray and green can turn amber. It’s fun to hold a piece in your hand as you walk through the sunlit living room in your house and then as you turn a corner into the kitchen watch it change color under the artificial light. One beach in Russia gaining popularity among sea glass fans is Glass Bay in Vladivostok which boasts large chunks of sea glass as far as the eye can see. This beach is the epicenter of many neodymium finds left as scrap glass and slag from making items containing the glass.
Neodymium is highly sought after as art glass and usually fetches a high price for even a simple cat statue. Finding a piece of sea glass in this form is even more unlikely since the few items it was used in are unlikely to end up in the ocean. If found as sea glass, it will likely look like a pale violet color similar to manganese tinted (sun-colored or irradiated) glass, but has even shown up in dark teal and blues. The big clue is if it changes colors when held in different light sources. It’s just another reason to keep looking down when you go to the beach.