Key West – The nine-carat emerald gold ring in the showcase outside treasure-hunter Sean Fisher's office hints at centuries of history and lore.
Hurricanes. Shipwrecks. Garish 17th century fortunes resting at the bottom of the sea for nearly 300 years. Did the ring slip off the finger of a wealthy tycoon or bishop as its owner struggled to cling to a sinking ship?
"There's a satisfaction you get when you find something that's been gone for hundreds of years," Fisher said. "It makes you tingle from the tip of your toes to the top of your head."
Fisher is the vice president of Mel Fisher Treasures, the Key West treasure-hunting outfit that has spent the past 40-plus years at sea diving for gold. In June 2011, Fisher's divers found a $1 million emerald ring, one of the most valuable relics ever discovered from the shipwrecked Nuestra Señora de Atocha. At 2.5 by 2.3 centimeters, it fits comfortably on Fisher's pinky.
The ring was found in the sand beside two silver spoons, in waters about 35 miles from Key West. It's too valuable to even sell. So like many of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha's finds, the ring is on display at Mel Fisher's Treasures in Key West, another superb artifact of Key West's storied history of piracy and treasure-hunting. From the Treasure Coast to the Keys, Florida is rich in legends of sunken ships and the people who risk their lives to salvage them. Many of their finds are available in stores and museums throughout the state.
"It's exquisite and it's valuable and it's beautiful, and it can't be rivaled with anything else," said maritime archaeologist R. Duncan Mathewson III, who works for the Fisher family. "This goes beyond its intrinsic value. It has historic value. People can come to Key West and see precious items of antiquity, which you can't see in leading museums around the world."
The ring is the latest in a string of underwater discoveries now on display in Key West. Another emerald ring was found in late 2010. In early 2011, divers found a gold rosary. And in 2007, 16,000 natural pearls were discovered in a lead box near eight gold chains – two of which were four-feet-long. A year later, divers found a chalice made of at least a pound of pure gold.
"A ring like that was not cargo," Mathewson said. "You wouldn't be having an emerald like that unless you were very important and very wealthy. That was a personal jewelry item. There's a lot of information coming from this ring."
Its story dates to the 1600s, when Spaniards looted South American mines for gold and treasures and loaded their booty aboard vessels.
The Tierra Firme fleet of 28 ships left Havana for Spain on Sept. 4, 1622.
They carried silver from Peru, pearls from Venezuela and gold and emeralds from Colombia. The fleet was at sea for a single day before it hit a hurricane in the Florida Straits. Eight of the vessels sank, with their priceless loot scattered along the ocean floor from the Marquesas Keys to the Dry Tortugas.
The Nuestra Señora de Atocha was the rear guard, protecting the fleet from behind. Built for the crown in Havana just two years earlier, this was only her second voyage to Spain. Only five people survived.
Among her registered cargo were 24 tons of silver, 125 gold bars and discs, 350 chests of indigo, 525 bales of tobacco, 20 bronze cannons and 1,200 pounds of silverware.
Never mind the personal jewelry like the emerald ring engraved with its bearer's name: ARCOS.
In 1969, Fisher's grandfather, Mel Fisher, decided to go looking for it.
"He would always say, ‘Tomorrow's the day we're going to find the wreck,'" Sean Fisher recalled. "He said that every day, and he meant it. He had a way of convincing people."
Eventually, the elder Fisher was right. In 1980, he found a bulk of the treasure from the fleet's Santa Margarita, and in July 1985, Fisher found the $450 million mother lode – a bulk of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha spoils. He spent another decade in court winning the rights to it, and had already lost a son to the search.
Mel Fisher died in 1998.
"You have to believe," Sean Fisher said. "If you don't believe the next hole you dig is going to be it, then you have no business on the ocean as a treasure hunter."
His crew goes out daily with two 90-foot salvage vessels, giant vacuums, airlifts and a magnetometer. They are still looking for the Atocha's stern castle, where they believe there's another 350 silver bars and 130,000 silver coins.
Discoveries get divvied up among the investors. The more valuable pieces wind up in the museum, and some are on sale at the museum store and a few other Key West locations.
For just $370,000, you can have your own Atocha emerald stone.
If You Go
Mel Fisher Maritime Museum
200 Greene Street, Key West
Store Hours: Daily, 9:30 a.m - 5 p.m.
Mel Fisher Treasure Museum
1322 U.S. Highway One, Sebastian
613½ Duval St.
Key West Shipwreck Museum
1 Whitehead Street - Key West, Florida 33040
McLarty Treasure Museum
Sebastian Inlet State Park
atocha1622.com/mclarty.htm or floridastateparks.org
Frances Robles is a South Florida journalist who has written about Miami and Latin America since 1993. She lives in Coral Gables.