June 19, 2014 / 1:53 PM / 5 years ago

Florida craftsman's diving helmets are jewels of the sea

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.

Lerios is credited with developing improvements to traditional helmets that included adjusting the angles of the portholes so divers could see both the sea floor below and the diving boat above them.

He also moved the exhaust valve forward inside the helmet to make it easier for divers to release air when they tapped it with their heads, and tapered the breastplate for easier movement.

“He came up with simple solutions to complex problems,” Toth said.

Toth grew up at the side of his Papou – the Greek word for grandfather – in the machine shop, heading straight over there every day after Greek school.

As Toth grew older, his grandfather allowed him to work the lathe, guiding him by putting his own hands over the boy’s.

After graduating from the University of Florida with a degree in political science, Toth came back to work full time as his grandfather’s apprentice.

He mastered his grandfather’s techniques – sheering an oval shape from a sheet of copper, pounding it with a wooden mallet and pegging into a cast-iron mandrel to make the breast plate, then soldering the studs into place.

Toth still uses a pattern designed by his grandfather to spin the helmet on a lathe. Toth cuts four openings for portholes. Each is set with glass and fitted, along with the neck ring, and leather seals that keep it water-tight.

His grandfather continued coming to the shop until age 98. When Lerios died in 1992, at the age of 100, Toth could not bring himself to make another diving helmet for four years.

Today, Toth is likely one of the only craftsmen of his kind.

“He really is the last helmet maker,” said his sister Kally Mingledorff.

Editing by Letitia Stein and Gunna Dickson

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