ROCK HALL - The tide is low, the sun is setting, and Richard LaMotte is ready for the hunt.
He pulls his Toyota Land Cruiser up to the secluded beach, laces up his boots and takes out two large plastic bags. One is for his wife, Nancy - she will want the ruby reds, the rare cobalt blues, the extinct purples. The other is for his own collection of treasures tossed into the sea long ago.
LaMotte is a sea glass hunter - one of several hundred Maryland collectors who comb the sands for castoffs that tides and time have shaped into coveted, frosted shards. And the 44-year-old Chestertown executive says there's no better place to find these elusive jewels than on the beaches of the Chesapeake Bay.
"A lot of times, the bay ended up being the receptacle for broken glass. But the stuff didn't go out into the middle of the Atlantic," LaMotte said. "So you have this trapped treasure trove of archaeological finds."
LaMotte would know. He and his wife have collected more than 30,000 sea glass shards - much of it from upper shore beaches. Their collection is featured in LaMotte's first book, Pure Sea Glass, a coffee-table hardcover that's also packed with information.
LaMotte began his research after his wife, who had been staying home with their two young children, opened a sea-glass jewelry business. Although he and his family often hunted for glass on beach vacations, LaMotte didn't know much about the origins of the glass. When Nancy LaMotte's customers started asking questions, Richard LaMotte set out to find the answers.
"They were constantly asking, `What do you think it was?' and `How old do you think it is?'" he said. "It's a guy thing - you want to find out what the answers are."
What he found was that Baltimore had been at the epicenter of glass bottling in the early 1900s, with Maryland Glass Co. manufacturing the cobalt-blue bottles for Bromo Seltzer, Phillips Milk of Magnesia and Noxzema. He also found that any city or town with steady ship traffic in the early 1900s is ideal for glass because so much was thrown overboard - explaining the trove in once-bustling steamboat destinations such as Betterton and Tolchester.
LaMotte also learned the stories behind the colors. Hunters who find purple are most likely holding a 90-year-old shard. The color comes from oxidized manganese, which bottlers stopped using when World War I broke out and the reserves were depleted. Pink glass is most likely clear glass that baked in the sun, although it could have come from Depression-era tableware. Orange glass is the rarest of all - so rare that the LaMottes had to borrow a friend's piece so Annapolis photographer Celia Pearson could include orange in the book.
Along a fellow collector's private Rock Hall beach, LaMotte puts research to use. The interlocking letters on the back of a frosted beer bottle? The monogram stands for Anchor-Hocking; the bottle probably was discarded in the 1950s. The boxy shape on the back of another bottle? A keystone, a sign the bottle came from Pennsylvania. And the frosted aquamarine stopper? That's from an apothecary bottle, likely made in the 1800s.
As Richard LaMotte gave his history lesson, Nancy LaMotte and their 8-year-old son, Greg, looked for pieces that would work in necklaces or bracelets. "I will jump into the water and get totally wet if I see a red piece - but only for red," Nancy called out from the water's edge.
Over the years, the LaMottes have discovered rare colors and antique fruit jars. But perhaps their most significant find was that they were not alone in their passion.
After investing the financial equivalent of a small house in self-publishing Pure Sea Glass, the LaMottes hoped only that the book would break even. But in late July, when the first 10,000 copies rolled out, the first-time author found he was outselling Bill Clinton at beach bookstores.
Books and Coffee, a small shop in Dewey Beach, Del., sells two copies of the $34.95 book every day, said manager Terry Lake. She said it outsold Clinton's biography from the first day, despite a book party for My Life. Only Harry Potter has done better at her store.
Lake, a sea glass collector herself, said she understands the appeal.
"It touches upon many different things. There's a mystery of the find. And the sea glass itself is mysterious - what it was, where it came from, how long it's been lost at sea," she said. "Many a person has only imagined where it came from."
At the Harbor Bookstore in the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington state, LaMotte's book is outselling the former president's. The small shop has sold about 60 copies - many to tourists eager to learn about the best local spots to collect.
"Some people will mention secret coves that they search in," said owner Edward "Skip" Lutz. "But we try not to give away our real secret spot."