Arcata, CaliforniaOn a drizzly December morning, Damien and Michaela Beauchemin trudge along a redwood trail with their Portuguese water dog, Maui, scanning the duff and listening intently for the sound of a creek. Maui whines and tries to run ahead of Michaela, but Michaela stops him. They might miss something if they hurry too fast.
The Beauchemins look at clues that they have saved to their phones: a riddle about luck, a warning regarding heights, and a photo of ferns. Another saved photo shows the prized prize: an orange-and-white large marble, nestled among pebbles in water.
The ornate, sparkling sphere is a prize in marble hunting. The Beauchemins, who hunt for these treasures almost every weekend, would love to have it added to their collection. The relatively new pastime has attracted tens of thousands of people around the world who have been engaging with other participants mostly on social media due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Marble hunting is a bit like geocaching, another hobby that sends participants on wild treasure hunts guided by GPS or mobile devices. Marble hunting does not rely on GPS and the loot must be made by glass artists. These artists then sell the marbles to others who hide them in public places and take photos to post as clues to Facebook groups. Marble hunters set out to search for the treasure, often facing great obstacles and fierce competition once the posts are up.
It has become a way to live for the Beauchemins, and other northern Californians. Since 2006, they have been hiding out and hunting marbles. Now, with the pandemic, they are obsessed. Both are involved in vulnerable populations. Damien is a clinical psychologist, and Michaela as a supported-living assistant. Marble hunting is a fun and safe way to get out of the house in their spare time.
But it comes with risks. Michaela contracted poison oak while on her quest. She required steroids. Damien fell off a cliff once. The couple found a box that contained a piece of marble at the top of an extinct volcano. It contained ashes, probably from human remains.
Michaela keeps journals with drawings of the marbles they find–320 round pieces of glass art so far.
History of marble hunting
Humans have been playing games with small, spherical objects for centuries, according to Topher Reynolds, a wizard-bearded artist who manages the Glass Garage, a cooperative art studio in Eureka. He says that marbles have existed since the beginning of solid materials.
Unlike ancient wooden, stone, and clay marbles, or mass-produced glass marbles from the early 1900s, the ones used in marble hunting are one of a kind.
Some look like eyeballs of dragons. Some have tiny opals or gold fumes inside, and appear to contain galaxies. Some contain air traps, which are tiny bubbles that can be used to trap small particles called air. Certain marbles will glow neon if you shine a UV light.
“With glass, failure is always an option,” Reynolds says as he rotates a lump of molten glass on a rod over a 3,000-degree torch, which allows him to design a complex interior before finishing the marble in a kiln. “I can work for two days and then throw it away…. If you feel you are important as an artist, the glasses will argue that point. And glass is always the arbiter.”
Collectors usually pay between $20 and $1,000 for a marble, but a highly desirable one can fetch upwards of $5,000. However, many are given away.
The closest thing marble hunting has to a father is Josh Simpson, 72, a renowned glass artist who creates miniature planets. About 50 years ago, he started hiding them around the world for strangers to stumble on.
” I love the idea that you can give a gift to someone, but don’t know who or what they will do with it.” he said.
In the 1990s Simpson built The Infinity Project website, inviting anyone to message him with ideas for hiding spots. He sends two marble planets each month to someone: one to hide and one to keep. Images show Simpson’s planets “lost” around the globe. They were found at Everest Base Camp in a Panama Canal lock and under Antarctic ice. He even managed to get a few into NASA’s International Space Station because his wife Cady Coleman is a retired NASA astronaut.
“Glass is, after all, just silica,” he says. “It’s melted sand. It will last for thousands if not hundreds of thousands of years, but it doesn’t pollute anyth