An Intimate Look At The Man We Knew As Fred Van Sant

by Charlie Moon

Fred Van Sant was a man of many surprises. Not only was he one of the world’s finest and most creative gem designers, he was a poet, a musician, and an original, deep thinker on many subjects especially regarding his philosophy on how man thought, and man’s purpose in the world. I once asked him how he became such a creative person and how he always believed that he could perfect and create anything he wanted to achieve. His answer was a surprise to me, revealing that he was more “self-taught” than school-taught. He later did earn a Masters degree in Industrial Psychology from University of California, Berkeley. CA.

He attributed his creative ingenuity to what happened to him as a child. His early life, with an un-supportive father, three brothers and his mother during the Depression, was most difficult. They were extremely poor; the only way they survived was to make or create most material things they needed to make their meager existence a little more comfortable. There was, most of the time, no money for food; any gadgets needed for just living were created from materials that came from what they could gather in and around their modest dwellings. Fred said that this early experience set the plan-view for his entire existence. He could do anything he wanted to do without the help of any other person as long as he could find a source of information necessary to achieve his desire or if no source was available, he would achieve it anyway.

As a result of this philosophy, he became a master mathematician. He never took an advanced class of mathematics in his life; for example, he mastered calculus from a text book, without guidance or help. He delved into advanced mathematics so deeply that he invented an approach to mathematics based on negative numbers which master mathematicians, schooled in our present positive-number approach, could not comprehend. So, with his fantastic mathematical ability, it is no surprise that he easily mastered software programming on his own and produced “MacGem,” his well known gemstone-design software created for the McIntosh Computer, and most recently a masterful gemstone-design software for the PC called “GemBuilder.” ( The “GemBuilder” software will soon be available as “freeware” from the USFG Website.) Upon examining his personal home library, I found almost every possible ‘approach’ to software programming that has been published; each ‘approach’ was obviously well worn from usage.

Fred began his college education as a music major at UC Berkeley; but soon realized that the beginning music class was not going to challenge him, so he withdrew from the class. However, he never lost his love for music. Classical music and opera, via tape and cassette, were always being played in the Van Sant Home. Fred sang opera and lieder as well, and played first violin for many years in many orchestras. Fred’s oldest Daughter, Zona started to play the violin, gave it up and decided to follow the profession of Fred’s wife, Genee who was a nurse. Karen, the younger daughter, at the age of 8 took up violin and is now a professional violinist. Fred also built two very beautiful violins and taught himself to play many of the major concerti, including Mendelssohn’s E-minor Violin Concerto. Karen reported that both of his violins responded well when played.

The first time I was in Fred’s home, I was absolutely astonished when he went over to his piano and began to play, from memory, not one, but several Chopin “Mazurkas.” I couldn’t do that, and I was, at one time, headed for becoming a concert pianist. Not one Chopin note was incorrect, the time was perfect, but everything was in slow, very slow motion. The aural experience could be compared to a professional pianist’s tempo at ten (10); Fred’s speed was more like the tempo of one (1), but absolutely PERFECT in relation to a correct performance.

It was music that Fred and I had in common – much more so than faceting; faceting was also somewhat in common, but Fred was a more advanced musician than I am as a faceter. Our frequent phone conversations consisted of my queries about faceting and Fred’s’ queries on how to practice certain piano compositions. One of my queries, which Fred turned into a published article, entitled “Sequencing,” deals with the subject on, “How does one determined, if the steps printed on a computerized design sheet are in chronological order for cutting?

One very interesting anecdote alluded to by several of Fred’s friends, tells of a World War II experience that typifies the way Fred looked at life — without doubt or hesitation he could achieve and accomplish anything he set his mind to. (This anecdote was alluded to by JerryCapps, Glenn Klein and Woody in their anecdotals down below.) Fred was a co-pilot on a B-17 during World War II. He was shot down, parachuted out of the plane and landed in a tree. He ran around the German Countryside for days avoiding capture – possibly a week and maybe even longer. His food came from German farmers, who amazingly didn’t object to Fred’s being an American Soldier and sometimes from stealing chickens from the barns in which he slept without permission. The fact that Fred could speak German and having eventually donned a German soldier’s uniform is probably how he avoided capture. Fred somehow located or accidentally came upon a German Army Air Field, immediately his intent was to steal a plane and fly it back to Britain. He didn’t hesitate for one moment, went right into their mess hall, sat down and ate with the German Officers – avoiding conversation as much as possible – and then went out and attempted to start a Messerschmitt fighter plane. Fred was captured and thrown into a Germany Prison Camp.

The primary food for the prisoners was potatoes. The potato peels were always thrown away by the prisoners – but not by Fred – he saved them, baked them and invented potato-peeling chips. At first, Fred’s fellow prisoners thought he was nuts, until they ate some of them; after that, potato-peel chips were a cherished part of their meal Another noteworthy happening, while imprisoned, was the small orchestra that Fred participated in. { I wouldn’t be surprised, if it were not Fred who instituted the small orchestra. } It’s fortunate that Fred got caught trying to steal that Messerschmitt, for if he has been successful, in all probability he would have been shot down and killed by the British.) Fred was liberated by American Soldiers. (Please note: The above particulars regarding Fred’s life was edited by Karen Van Sant.)

The following messages are from friends of Fred, who express their loss, their admiration and respect for Fred:

From: “Woody,” Concord, CA
“We were very saddened at hearing of Fred’s passing. The whole faceting community will miss him. Four years ago I emailed him and asked if he would come to Faceters Fair of Northern California Faceters Guild. He said, it had been a few years since he had attended and agreed to meet us there. My friend Neil, my wife Geni and I, met him there and spent the day with him. He talked freely about his experience in Germany and probably talked about an hour on the subject. Fascinating. Someone should have recorded the whole thing. He also talked about his training himself on Calculus and his developing his faceting design program. A great man has passed. We will miss him.”

From: Glenn Klein, Lake Forest, CA

” My day is now ruined. I am very sad to hear that we have lost Fred Van Sant. Fred was a true Giant in our area of hobby choice. He was always a great help in pushing some of us early competition faceters into being better faceters. His many facet designs will always be of value in the future. He was in that early group who made the United States Faceters Guild become a thing of reality. He was the first President of the USFG (then known as “USA Competition Faceters”).

I have had the pleasure of knowing Fred from the early days of the Faceters Fairs held in San Jose each January, back in the 1970’s. Upon meeting him then, I immediately knew that here was a man to really look up to and admire. He had that air about him that made you take notice.
Although Fred did and I still do on occasion pilot an airplane, that was one area that Fred did not like to get into discussions about with me. Fred was a B-17 pilot in WW II and had enough bad experiences during that time that he put it all behind him. What I do remember learning way back when was that Fred was eventually shot down and spent time in the German prison camps. I guess it is no wonder that he did not want to reflect back on those unpleasant times.

Fred remains as a HERO to me. He will live with me as long as I will remember.

I am so glad that I was able to get him to come to the Faceters Symposium 2003 in Ventura last June. He was our Guest Of Honor there, and I was happy as everyone stood with me to give Fred a good round of applause. I am sure he appreciated the applause. I am happy that we showed him our appreciation while he was still alive. But now, good-bye Fred. I am proud to have known you!”

From: Dan Clayton, Payallup, WA

Thank You Fred! I have exchanged emails and phone calls with Fred and must say he was always helpful and polite. In addition, his great skills in designing and optics are well deserved and legendary. He did develop his own system of Mathematics that Charlie has mentioned. He explained it to me for almost an hour one day, but I don’t feel qualified to judge whether it is valid or not. He was not afraid to live outside the norm. I thank Glenn so much for inviting him to be Guest of Honor at the Ventura Faceters Symposium. Fred’s health was not the best, but he distributed a beta version of his design software at Ventura with a few designs he had created with his new ‘GemBuilder.’ I am proud that I got a chance to meet him in person.

I hope you all cut one of his designs soon to remember a great faceter, designer and person. I hope someone has an idea for a competition or something faceting related to honor this great man.”

From: “morceleb”, Steve, San Diego

At Ventura I approached him and told him about a freeform stone I cut based on his article in the September 1981 issue of Jewelry Making Gems and Minerals – “Improvised Faceting – How to Design a Cut.”

I found that issue by accident at a club show and the article is fantastic in that it not only shows you how to cut a freeform from scratch but explains how the basic components/patterns – Steps, Bars, Staggered, and Angled (scissors), and Fans – are created and work together. I’m glad I got the opportunity to meet and thank him.

This morning I roughed in the crown on his “Martins Diamonds 1.3” that was handed out at the symposium in a 17 x 14 mm synthetic Spinel. Looks like it will finish nicely (though I’ve got some cheating to do to get the diamonds to meet right). This one is for Fred. I wonder if one of the current lapidary magazines could reprint some of his old articles (or maybe someone could post them on the web with the proper authorization)? I think that would be a great tribute

From: Robert Long, Mercer Island, WA

My most recent communication with Fred concerned a recently published design which is absolutely ‘uncuttable’ from the given instructions. I commented that life was too short to struggle with that kind of design. He agreed. I had no idea how close to reality my comment was, although he obviously was not in the best of health at Ventura.

Fred and I also go back to the “good old days” at the Faceters Fairs in San Jose in the 70’s. Through the years we shared software code, design concepts, and a great friendship. I’ll miss him.

From: Douglas Turet, Massachusetts

Our dear friend, Fred! This morning, I’d just reading my emails again and was saddened and disheartened to learn of Fred Van Sant’s passing. Although he and I never actually had the chance to meet face to face, we’d corresponded and spoke many times on the phone over the last five or six years and had even planned to meet, last month, while my wife and I were en route home from our honeymoon in Trinidad, CA. Alas, our travel plans changed, so now I’ll (hopefully) have to wait awhile before meeting up with him.

Like Dan and Charlie, I remember Fred’s excitement level when discussing his inverse mathematics with me. During one call, three or four years back, he’d gone on and on about his theories and, because he was such a decent guy, and so obviously impassioned with his subject, I’d let him go on for quite awhile before gently informing him that I have a learning disability in mathematics and honestly couldn’t fathom a word of what he’d been talking about! When I did, he thought for a second, and then concluded, “Well, maybe it’s just that your brain’s been working on a different KIND of mathematics program than the one, others take for granted! You know, a lot of folks, who think they’re really good at the stuff, tend to question that assumption after they’ve spoken with me for awhile!”

Another time, when he’d mentioned that he was fast approaching his ninth decade, I had stuffed a present of a five-carat colorless Grossular Garnet rough I’d picked up, along the way, into the birthday card I’d sent to him. A week later, a large box arrived with copies of his ‘MacGem’ software, two floppy disks filled with updates, a multi-page printout of tutorials and icon definitions, and printed copies of his Star Gems, Volumes 4, 5 and 6. All the way at the bottom of the box was a note: “You didn’t need to do that. But I’m sure glad you did.” God bless you, old friend; you were an original {:o). All my best!

From: Grover Sparkman, Portland, OR.

Fred was one of my favorite people. We had our ups and downs, but I enjoyed his off the wall dry-humor and his deep thinking.

From: Teresa Masters, California

There is a great shot of Fred Van Sant taken at Ventura. I mourn his loss, and I am most thankful, that in the last few months I have spent time with Fred, Ed Soukup and in a few days with Glen Vargas. No one can ever get in the way of my memories. Luminaries each and every one of them, the Faceting World is what it is today because of these three men, and Bob Long too.

Dan Clayton was interested in coming down to my area in advance of the Ventura Symposium, to do some local digging at the Himalaya Mine. We had been e-mailing back and forth about Ventura and lodgings. Dan let me know that Fred was interested in sharing a room. I suggested we go for a suite and split it three ways.

We had decided to wait a bit and try for a lower rate via one of the Internet bidding sites. Fred knew what we were up to, but became a bit antsy and decided to get a room on his own. He said something about not liking to share a bathroom.

It came to pass that we were right around the corner from where Fred was staying. Quite a few faceters were at our hotel. This hotel served a full breakfast free for their guests. We went down to breakfast, and who was there eating, but Fred. I had decided to tease him about not sharing our room. I greeted him with saying “So you didn’t want to sleep with me!” He gave a long startled look, and we immediately became fast friends.

This was a four day event, and every morning there was Fred enjoying breakfast and taking a yogurt and banana for lunch. He told me, “I am cheap, and the price is right here.” That of course with a big grin and a twinkle in his eye. He was enjoying himself immensely. He was among peers and punted along with the best of them. It was all very wonderful.

At the symposium he sat next to me, and we chatted. In between speakers, he was center of attention with everyone wanting to spend a bit of time with this great master. He glowed in all this adulation. This glowing came through a very gray pallor. It was apparent to many, he was not a well man. He had driven alone all the way to Ventura, quite a long drive.

We continued to tease and laugh. He knew I used a Mac and gifted me with things useful to me. He deeply lamented the cut off from the public of his DataVue. That was not how he meant it to be. There are several with the program and his blessing to share it. Just ask and ye shall receive. This is Fred’s bequest to the Faceting Community.

After a break one day, he sat with me and was sipping a bottled water. He asked, if I would like one, and thinking he had another, I said, “Yes please.” He got right up, went to the back and bought me a water. This from a gent who prided himself on hanging on to his pennies.

I smile, thinking of the four days we shared. It was special, we joked and laughed, got serious on life and its strange paths. I kept teasing him, and he loved it. He did a bit of his own. He let me know, he too enjoyed our time together. I know I am richer for having met him, and am thankful he allowed me into a bit of his life.

I know Fred will be talking to Einstein, they will truly understand one another. Good bye Fred, I am truly sorry you did not share our bathroom, but so happy you were there for breakfast. Terrie

The following is a wonderful and revealing synopsis of Fred’s life — as he saw it. The article was written by Fred for his good friend, person unknown; probably Martin Beauford, who was Fred’s right hand man during the creation and upgrades of “GemBuilder.” The letter was sent to Faceter David Beaty, CEO of one of the largest electronic companies in the world, Telonics of Mesa, AZ. Dave has given permission for Fred’s article to appear in this paper.

“Dave, the inner post of my mast ( Fred has a faceting machine — built for him according to his specification that is beyond description – a stainless steel wonder. ) is only 1 7/8″ in diameter.The outer steel tube has an OD of 2 7/16”. I recently exchanged bios with a guy almost 60, with whom I’m working on a project that will take some time. Here’s what I wrote him.

When I was your age I still didn’t have a career. I have been a ditch digger, fruit picker, warehouse foreman, assistant plant superintendent for a steel fabricating company, field engineer in soils and ran a field crew for soil jobs, inspector of large building construction in the SF-Oakland Bay Area, and lastly I worked for myself buying and selling land in Northern Calif. and Oregon — which is where I made the money to retire on.

I’ve built two violins, six telescopes, and the house I live in. ( The house is built into the side of a hill.) I’ve played first violin in several orchestras, and am teaching myself to play piano. In WWII, I was a radio operator and then, a B17 Pilot. I flew missions over Germany, was shot down, and spent 9 months in prison camps. I once spoke French, Spanish, Italian, German, and a smattering of Russian. I got started in rockhounding by cutting opals. I’ve rockhounded all over CA, OR, WA, NV and AZ. For hobbies I’ve played chess, Skied all over CA and Utah, Swam the pacific and icy moutain lakes, Hiked, Ice skated the dances from Bronze to Gold, Square Danced, Sung Opera — Carmen, Faust, Cavelleria, etc. (bass)

My main interest throughout life has been psychology, in which I have a masters degree, but my specialty is how we think symbolically. My reading has taken me far off the beaten paths, into religion, mysticism, oriental philosophy, sciences, fringe phenomena, you name it. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been born in the USA, but especially in Calif., and still more especially in the San Francisco Bay area, where there is more freedom of expression than anywhere else. My 3 years an UC Berkeley were full of changes; I researched and pushed for student rating of professors, and founded and ran a study group in General Semantics. My wife was a nurse, both surgical and psychiatric who was a loving companion, but died in 1965 from breast cancer. I have two wonderful daughters, ( Zona and Karen ), one also a nurse and the other a professional violinist and violist. I’m 6′ 2″ and weigh 165. I’ve been extremely healthy all my life until the last couple of years, when my immune system began to weaken (I think) and this leukemia occurred. Didn’t know I had it for about a year, because I don’t think much of doctors, and stay away from them as much as possible. But it doesn’t affect my life very much. I mostly ignore it. I’ve had a wonderful life, with lady luck sitting on my shoulders. I think the key to being happy is to stay busy, help others, be stoical, don’t take yourself seriously, and stick to reality.

Dave, a lot of the trouble in this world comes from people like college professors and religious fanatics. who live too much in a fantasy world that is not rooted in the everyday world of work or close contact with nature.”

– Fred W. Van Sant, Colfax, CA

Thus ends just a wee bit of information that just barely reflects the kind of man that Fred Van Sant was. As I was writing and compiling the information for this article, many wonderful and funny anecdotes re Fred pass in front of me — far too many to include in this article. As recipient of the entire faceting estate of Fred — excluding his extensive gemstone collection and his cabbing collection, which he cut — I would give anything if, in the USA, there were a collection point – a faceting library, per se — that could house the unbelievable collection of Fred’s work and the work of many of our outstanding faceters, who have contributed so much important and valuable information to the faceting world, e.g., Norm Steele and others, who are still alive, Bob Long, Carl Unruh, Ed Soukup, Glenn Vargas – to mention only a few of our outstanding contributors — and for those faceters of the future whose contributions will be worthy of such a library. Let this be a challenge for someone to conceive of a plan in which such a collection point – faceting library, per se. might be birthed.


Charlie Moon, Arcata, CA.

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