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William B. Pitts

William Burton Pitts, pioneering lapidary hobbyist, was born in Thomasville, Georgia in November 1867, the son of Jane E. Braswell and David L. Pitts, a farmer and former Captain in the Confederate Army. His grandfather, Dr. Lunsford C. Pitts, had been an Army surgeon during the War of 1812, and served under Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans. From 1895 to 1905 William worked as a pharmacist's apprentice and prescription clerk at Jacobs' Pharmacy in Atlanta, then worked as nationwide sales agent for the Eisner-Mendelsohn Company in New York, selling mineral water and salts from Carlsbad Springs in Germany.

William started collecting minerals in 1906 when he purchased a bloodstone from a prospector he met in Gardner's Drug Store in San Bernardino, California. Thereafter he took time to field-collect and trade for specimens everywhere during his travels around the country, and built a network of contacts with curators, mineralogists and collectors. In 1925 he retired and moved his enormous collection of lapidary materials (over a ton) from his home in Atlanta, George to Sunnyvale, Santa Clara County, California. There he set up a lapidary shop, building most of his own cutting and polishing equipment from scratch.

In 1933 he donated his collection of thousands of polished specimens to the Golden Gate Park Museum, where it occupied one entire corridor of the North American Hall. In 1928 he donated five specimens to the Smithsonian Institution. In 1930 he donated "ten polished specimens of o÷litic jasper from California and specimen of petrified cactus from Arizona" to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. He presented "a small collection of agate and opal of more than usual merit" to the same museum in 1933. He sent specimens to other museums as well, including the Capitol Building Museum and the Art Museum in Atlanta, and the Capitol Museum in Boise, Idaho, among many others.

Pitts (known to his friends in later life as "Uncle Billy") became widely known as "the dean of lapidary," and he regularly giving talks on lapidary technique to local clubs, and bringing specimens to exhibit. The first issue of Lapidary Journal was gratefully dedicated to him by publisher Leland Quick. In 1946 he was appointed Honorary Curator of Gems and Minerals at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

Pitts never sold a single specimen in his life, preferring instead to present them as gifts; nor would he accept any payment for the work he did during World War II grinding mirrors for the Navy. He died in Fulton County, Georgia on October 28, 1959.

DAKE, H. C. (1938) The work of William Pitts. The Mineralogist, 6 (6), 14.
STAPLES, L. W., and CROCKER, R. R. (1953) It began with a bloodstone: The mineral life of William B. Pitts. Lapidary Journal, 7 (5), 410-420, 468.
Georgia Death Index.
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