SEBASTIAN — Searching around undersea boulders, shipwreck salvager Eric Schmitt spotted a glint of gold beneath a heap of shells, sand and stones on the ocean floor.
Then Schmitt started hollering expletives of surprise and joy — underwater.
With his right thumb and pointer finger, the scuba diver gently pulled out the back half of a gold filigree pendant. The high-karat religious artifact was lost when a doomed Spanish treasure ship sank in a fierce hurricane in 1715 off the coast of modern-day Fort Pierce.
This gold insert is the missing portion of an elaborate rectangular pyx – a decorative vessel used to hold a Catholic communion wafer – that was handcrafted in the late 1600s to early 1700s. Treasure hunters had discovered the pyx’s hinged front half a quarter century ago, in 1989.
“After 300 years of being on the bottom apart from each other, more than 300 feet away – roughly, if the numbers are right – they finally came back together this year. Right before the 300th anniversary of the shipwrecks,” Schmitt said Wednesday during a press conference at Capt. Hiram’s Resort in Sebastian.
In July 1715, a fleet of cargo-laden Spanish vessels set sail from Havana, Cuba, northward along the Gulf Stream on the way back to Spain. But a hurricane struck, sinking 11 ships off Florida’s East Coast.
The first generation of treasure hunters found gold, silver, jewelry, cannons, anchors and other items during the 1950s and ’60s, and the stretch of shoreline from Sebastian to Palm Beach County was nicknamed Florida’s Treasure Coast.
Schmitt discovered the ornate pyx May 25 at the “Douglas Beach wreck” in roughly 15 feet of water about 1,000 feet offshore from Fort Pierce. The 27-year-old is captain of the Aarrr Booty, a 44-foot twin-engine trawler used by family members to search for treasure. Their company name: Booty Salvage.
The front half of the pyx discovered in 1989 was appraised at $600,000 last month, said Bonnie Schubert, a Fort Pierce treasure hunter who has rights to its sale. Officials have not yet determined the possible value of Schmitt’s back half, nor of both halves if combined into a complete pyx.
“I’m not one of those ‘Pawn Stars’ guys. I can’t really throw a number out there,” Schmitt said.
Brent Brisben said researchers initially believed the exquisite pyx was a picture frame. He said the artifact likely belonged to a high-ranking church official, and it could have been worn on a gold chain to serve last rites.
Brisben is co-founder of 1715 Fleet-Queens Jewels, LLC. The Sebastian company is the U.S. District Court-appointed custodian of shipwrecks along Florida’s East Coast, with exclusive rights to salvage underwater items. The Florida Division of Historical Resources can take up to 20 percent of these recovered artifacts.
Booty Salvage is a 1715 Fleet-Queens Jewels subcontractor, and both entities will split proceeds 50-50 from the back half of the pyx, if it is sold.
Last September, the Schmitts made headlines around the world by finding coins and 50 feet of gold chains valued at $500,000. They live in Sanford, own a condominium in Fort Pierce and dock Aarrr Booty there.
However, family members said treasure hunting is grueling, expensive work that often proves fruitless.
“After you find your 99th beer can, you’re thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, what am I doing down here? This is crazy,’” said Lisa Schmitt, Eric’s mother. “‘I’ve got my nose 6 inches from the bottom of the ocean, and I’m digging through and finding beer cans.’”
Television crews from as far as Tokyo attended Wednesday’s press conference.
Contact Neale at 321-242-3638, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @RickNeale1.