When he still sold medical supplies, Margate, N.J., native Barry Gross kept up two adventurous hobbies: diving for sea treasure and pen-making.
Now retired, Gross has merged those two hobbies into a second career, as founder of BG Artforms in Bensalem, a high-end maker of pens fashioned from coins recovered from shipwrecks, archaeological souvenirs, even animal bones.
Gross, 65, is an expert woodworker who has published books, including the Pen Turner's Workbook and Learn to Turn: A Beginner's Guide to Woodturning (the third edition is underway). He has made pens with exotic wood, beetle wings, snakeskin, cigar leaves, watch parts, seahorses, surgical knives, beer caps, or scrapbook photos. His pens fetch from $125 to $1,000 apiece and have been snapped up by such luminaries as filmmaker Steven Spielberg, golfer Greg Norman, and former Vice President Dick Cheney.
"Spielberg bought a Civil War pen for his writers for his movie Lincoln," he said.
From 1979 to 2012, Gross sold medical devices such as defibrillators for such companies as Teleflex Medical in Wayne. After retiring in 2012, he had time to devote to his hobbies. His first love was diving, which he trained for after graduating in 1973 from Trenton State University. He earned his stripes as a scuba instructor and then graduated to diving to explore underwater wrecks.
"Diving and hunting for treasure is the kind of thing most people only dream about doing," he said, "and here I was actually doing it. I feel very lucky."
Gross and his buddies began by diving off the Jersey Shore and other Atlantic beaches.
"We would find wrecks off the coast – there are more wrecks off of New Jersey, Massachusetts, Delaware, Maryland, and North Carolina than anywhere else," he said. Many times, they would refer to the book Graveyard of the Atlantic to research shipwrecks off the Outer Banks of North Carolina while diving to look for historical wrecks.
"We even found a sunken German U-85 submarine and crawled inside," he said. "There were still live torpedoes on it. The U.S. Navy had to demolish it."
In 1980, he and friends visited an ancient wreck of the HMS Feversham, a British pay ship bound for Quebec from New York that smashed in 1711 on the rocks off Nova Scotia.
"We started digging in the sand and rocks, and — boing — all of a sudden, coins start floating up. That was the start of it."
Gross was hooked on treasure hunting. He dove down to other wrecks off the shores of Nova Scotia's Cape Breton, including a French ship called Le Chameau bound for Quebec that went down in 1725. All aboard perished, and debris from the wreck was scattered over miles of beach.
"We were diving in cold water in dry suits. It's not pleasant. The wrecks are there for a reason. They don't sink in calm water."
In 1999, Gross and his wife, Lenora, were at a picnic when another guest noticed some pens he'd made. The guest became his first customer, at $35. That started a side business out of his hobby. He wrote articles for magazines about buying parts for pen-making. "It snowballed," he said.
In 2012, Gross bought Arizona Silhouette, a small penmaking supply business that sells pen kits and supplies for the pen-turner, wood-turner, and woodworker, both professional and hobbyist. That includes pen kits; high-end pen kits; pen blanks; exotic wood pen blanks; pen-turning supplies; wood-turning tools including mini lathes; lathe accessories; wood-turning tools like chisels, gouges, and skews; and finishing supplies. "We pride ourselves," he said, "in offering top-notch customer service and pen-turning education."
Gross' main love is converting his treasure – such as colonial-era coins called "pine tree shillings" and other silver and gold coins recovered from shipwrecks – into art.
"Now, I'm making pens out of the coins I found, or I melt down others and have molds made of them, then I make those into pens," he said. . "The coins all come from the Chameau and the Feversham."
This fall and winter, Gross plans to exhibit at New York City's Grand Central holiday market show, from Nov. 13 to Dec. 24 in Vanderbilt Hall.
"Only 40 vendors were selected from the entire country," he said.
Gross hopes to grow his businesses and pass them on to his son, Michael, and grandson, Colton.