Some colors are more prized than others. Orange — which was almost never used in bottle glass — is the rarest find. LaMotte estimates that only 1 in 10,000 pieces collected will be orange.

Beachcombing with LaMotte I found my own necklace of color. Nestled against shards of ice, sea glass sparkled in pastel blue and lavender, lime green, midnight blue and cognac brown. There was no orange, but I was delighted with my beautiful colors.

Art of sea glass

It wasn't hard to imagine the pieces as jewelry, and sea glass is an inspiration for some local artists, including LaMotte's wife, Nancy. Another is Ellie Mercier of Frederick, who has been beachcombing all her life.

"I found my first piece of beach glass when I was about 3 or 4 years old," said Mercier. "It was an amber, heart-shaped shard that resembled the color of honey when held up to the sun."

Over the years, Mercier filled jars and jars of sea glass, until one day she had an inspiration to make it into art.

"A few years ago, my husband and I were exploring a seaside town in California when I saw a sea-glass bracelet in the window of a shop and was breathless. All I could think about the rest of the trip was creating my own jewelry out of sea glass when I got back home," said Mercier, who now owns a sea-glass art shop in Annapolis.

Some collectors do see art on the sand, but for some of us, just spending time on an uncrowded beach, looking for sea glass as the wind tosses our stress to the waves, is a serene pleasure in itself.

Dora Sullivan, the mayor of Cape Charles, Va., and an avid sea-glass collector, sees it that way, too. "I would rather take my boots and a bag and go for a walk than do anything else," she said. "I call it free therapy."

That's a good attitude to have because LaMotte said sea glass is becoming increasingly harder to find. He calls it a "vanishing resource," explaining that since the 1960s, metal and plastic have overtaken glass as containers. And the recent emphasis on recycling has meant less glass is tossed into the sea. Finally, beach erosion and rising water levels eliminate or narrow collecting sites, he said.

LaMotte, who has a busy day job at his family's water-testing company, said he never expected sea-glass collecting to become such a big part of his life. He got so interested in the history of the shards that he studied glass science so he could date pieces.

"The mystery is all in where it came from," Sullivan agreed. "To be able to find a bottle stopper that isn't broken and to know that someone used it 100 years ago — I find it just amazing."

But more surprising than any rare shard of glass or piece of pottery, LaMotte said, are the personal stories that beachcombers share with him that convey a deeper meaning to what they find.

One of his favorites came from a woman he met several years ago.

"She had been through tough financial times and had to sell all of her possessions except for her house and garden, which she loved the most," LaMotte said. "Finally, though, she had to sell her property as well.

"A good friend who had a house by the beach persuaded her to visit and leave her troubles behind for a bit. On her first day there, the woman wandered down to the beach. It was perfectly clear — no stones, no shells — and suddenly a piece of pottery washed up on a wave and landed right on her feet. And on it was a picture of a house and a garden."

Tears of the Mermaids indeed.