Florida craftsman's diving helmets are jewels of the sea

Thu Jun 19, 2014 9:49am EDT
 
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By Saundra Amrhein

TARPON SPRINGS Fla. (Reuters) - In a wood-frame building at the waterside, near a touristy strip of Greek restaurants selling baklava, the craftsman carries on a family tradition as he pounds away at copper sheeting, hand crafting helmets for sponge divers.

Artisan Nicholas Toth is among the last to carry on the century-old family skill. He uses only his hands, cast-iron mandrels, wood patterns, lathes and other machinery inherited from his grandfather.

Though rarely worn nowadays, Toth's helmets sell for more than $20,000. With divers preferring modern, lightweight equipment, they are bought mostly by collectors as works of art that can also be used as diving gear.

“Basically, I try to make a 40-pound piece of jewelry,” said Toth, 59, who works out of the shop opened by his grandfather.

In three decades of making helmets, Toth has received more than a half dozen national awards and honors, including a heritage fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

One of his helmets from the 1980s – the first he made on his own, with his grandfather watching – is on display as part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee.

Toth's grandfather, Anthony Lerios, came to this town on the Gulf of Mexico, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) northwest of Tampa, in a wave of Greek immigrants in the early 1900s. They were drawn by the booming business in which divers descend to the sea floor to find the best sponges.

Born on the Greek island of Kalymnos, famous for sponge diving, Lerios was raised in Turkey and trained as an engineer before coming to the United States.   Continued...