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"Supplier to celebrities, dignitaries travels globally" World of Wood, April 2001. by Daniel Mac Alpine
Jim Lorette carries species from six continents. If there were a way to salvage the Beech and Cypress buried under two miles of ice in Antarctica, he'd have wood from seven.
Out of his four Woods of the World warehouses in Westmoreland, NH, Jim runs the woodworkers equivalent of Neiman Marcus. You name the wood, Jim either has it among the 237 species he stocks or her will get it.
Just don't ask the price. Pink Ivory? Snakewood? Amboyna Burl? Thuja Burl? $25-$100 per pound. Want a choice of seven Rosewoods? $18-$35 per board foot. Jim even had two four foot by 20-inch diameter Ebony logs he will not sell. And he has been offered just about any price. Official Ethiopian papers show the wood dates from King Solomon (c. 1000 B.C.).
"I've been offered enough so I could have retired quite easily on the proceeds," said Jim, who acknowledged offers exceeding $1 million for the logs.
Jim bought the logs from a US government official for market value. "He worked for a government agency that you never really retire from," he said. "He wanted a home for the wood."
Jim hopes to make the Ebony the centerpiece of a Wood Museum. He's working on funding for a building. The Museum will be part of a multi-pronged business and philanthropic enterprise Jim heads.
Currently, he runs his wood dealership and his three person, custom furniture and millwork shop with a list of clients that includes actors, other celebrities and royal families. Jim also runs the Wood Institute, where he conducts experimental wood identification projects.
But, it's an interest in wood that fuels his ventures. "I am not a high volume dealer," said Jim. "I serve a small, select market of woodworkers and clients looking for specialty woods for furniture and architectural millwork. The material I carry is for those looking to set themselves apart from the rest of the market."
That market spans both professional and hobbyist woodworkers, domestic and exotic woods. Jim recently filled an order for 30,000 board feet of cherry with boards to thirty inches wide. He is currently filling an order for a board six feet wide by thirty feet long that will be used for a table top in a private home. The price of the raw material alone will be higher than most furniture makers charge for their finest work.
"There are three possibilities here," Jim said. "Bubinga, Austrian Elm, or Ancient Hemlock." Jim can fill the order from existing stock, including a nine foot wide Hemlock log salvaged from the riverbed.
"He has some fine sources," said Melvin Wachowiak, Senior Furniture Conservator at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. Melvin and Jim have worked together on several millwork jobs when the Conservator needs hard to get woods. Jim also supplied Burmese Teak for a private job. "Most of the Teak now is South American," said Melvin. "But he supplies us with tremendous material."
Keeping a wide ranging stock of rare and highly figured wood keeps Jim globe trotting. He almost is on a first name basis with custom agents around the world.
As a man traveling alone to places like South America, Africa, and Southern Asia, Jim also fits the profile of a drug mule. "I've been held up more than my share of time," he admits with a smile.
But, the hassles are necessary. Jim must stay in touch with the suppliers he's cultivated during his fifteen years in business, and develop new sources. Access to many woods is severely limited and he must keep the pulse of the worldwide wood market.
"We're always thinking three to seven years head on our inventory. An Ebony tree has to be girdled for three years, to reduce the moisture content before it can be cut. Some clients want an order right away, but some things just can't be done in the timeframe they want, " he said.
Such is the case with the Conservation labs at the Boston Museum of Fine Art. "It was a particularly hard Ceylon Satinwood crotch veneer from Sri Lanka. They wanted to match. "I couldn't come up with what they wanted." But, set backs of that kind don't prevent Jim from pressing on in his search for new wood.
On a recent trip to Africa, Jim negotiated with a local tribe, the Hahassi, for Thuja Burl located in the Atlas Mountains along Algeria and Morocco. The root burls are buried and the tribal members must dig them out. The burls are what was left from when the French cut the trees 200 years ago. "They are beautiful," said Jim.
For Pink Ivory, Jim deals with the Umgolitie tribe in South Africa. The tribe sets the number of trees for cutting each year. "Typically, this is dead, standing material," said Jim. "And they only cut in a small quantity."
Such woods have become so scarce, dealers around the world are selling look-a-like woods as the real thing. This angers Jim, and it has nothing to do with the look-a-likes quality. For him it's a matter of principal; if a wood worker pays for Pink Ivory, then the wood should be Pink Ivory.
Often, the look-a-like woods are one half the price of the true woods for the dealer. "I would like to think this is done out of ignorance, but there definitely is a certain level of deception out there."
Jim frequently runs into look-a-likes for Pink Ivory and Ceylon Satinwood. The Pink Ivory replacement is called False Mopane, and dealers replace Ceylon Satinwood with East Indian Satinwood. "The woods look similar. It would take an experienced eye to tell them apart," he said.
As a result, Jim brings along a mini laboratory when ever he goes wood hunting. His portable lab includes a microscope, equipment to make slides for the microscope, and reference materials.
"I look at the tree and check the leaves against the reference books to make sure I'm getting what I am suppose to. I also look at the cell structure," he explained. At the Wood Institute, Jim admits using unorthodox and experimental methods to identify, date and locate the probable origin of a wood. Depending on the approach taken museum quality furniture and mill work restoration requires as close a match as possible to the original wood. Using a small sample from the original Jim prepares thin slices of wood with a microtome to go on a microscope slide. By examining the cell structure, he tries to pinpoint the species and age through the rate of cellular degradation.
Jim also does a mineral analysis of the wood. He the tries to match the mineral content to geological maps of the world. When he finds a match, Jim provides an educated guess about the woods origin.
Using this technique, Jim can tell one client that wood from an unidentified sculpture was White Pine that grew within a 100 mile radius of Danbury, CT. And was cut between 1730-1765.
Jim also uses an experimental wood identification process called gel electrophoresis. In this process, Jim separates the protein and enzymes from the wood pulp. He places the protein-enzyme solution in a gel that conducts a mild electrical charge.
The charge polarizes or separates the enzymes and proteins, the theory being each species will have it's own enzyme protein signature. No all wood experts agree with Jim's approach.
"These methods might work, but they aren't reliable" said Harry Alden, Microscopist at the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education in Washington, DC. Alden said only a few species can be identified at the cellular level.
"At the cellular level 99% of woods can't be identified. There are 120 species of birch and they all look the same under a microscope," he explained.
As for dating wood or locating it's origin, Alden said that there is no way to ell through microfibers. "The only way is through dendrochronology (counting tree rings)," he said. Voicing similar skepticism about Jim's mineral analyses.
Jim freely acknowledges that he uses unorthodox methods. "I am not giving absolute answers. I never say that. I am just giving - and I hate to use this word - an educated guess."
"There is no question that we are out there, at the edge," said Jim. "But, if we keep working at this, perhaps other experts will look at this and see if we have something here." One thing that can't be disputed is Jim's tenacity, his attention to detail or the scope of his wood sources.
The 1980's recession left Jim with a broken business partnership and $500,000 in debt. From the ashes of that economic and emotional disaster, Jim built his business around one concept; obtaining the finest wood possible for every project.
"There are many fine craftspeople out there. I figured that I needed something to separate me in the market. I thought I would start with the raw materials. Wood workers are like gourmet chefs. I great chef can't make a great meal unless they begin with the best ingredients."
Jim's dedication to materials eventually lead him to develop sources from around the world. Other woodworkers started asking him for wood and his dealership grew his knowledge of and access to rare woods also opened doors to exclusive, expensive markets for his millwork and furniture.
Clients have included Madonna, Richard Gere, the Late Princess Diana, Jacquline Kennedy Onasis, and royal families in the middle east.
Jim's collection of precious stones which he uses as inlays for his work, attests to the quality of his connections ad his clients. Prices for his custom work can exceed 100,000 for one piece of furniture.
Despite Jim's celebrity clients and diamond - inlaid pieces he credits the humble Windsor chair for saving his business.
He studied the Windsor chair for two years before making one. He looked at everything from how the wood cracks at the cellular level, to the milk paint and the chairs history selecting styles most sot by collectors. Eventually, he developed a 97 point checklist around which he constructed his chairs.
A chair coming out of his shop looks and sounds as if it had 100 years of use. The worn patches on the arms and seat, the carved cracks - which look very real - and the resin induced creak as one sits or stands, fool the senses into believing the chair is old and worn.
The chairs sell for $1,800-$5,000 and Harrison Ford was the first name client to buy them. After the actor bought 63 of the chairs as gifts and for his four homes, that connection led to other celebrity buyers and Jim's business took off.