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"The Wizard of Wood" The Boston Globe Wednesday, February 19, 1997. by Mark Dagostino
Westmoreland, NH welcome to Jim Lorette's amazing world of wood. Lorette is the woodworker to the stars. From a converted horse barn up the road in this tiny town not far from Keene, Lorette and a couple of employees produce furniture and entire interiors for a client list that includes Madonna, Richard Gere, Harrison Ford, Prince Charles and Princess Diana, the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, even King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. Lorette also owns and operates Woods of the World, a shop that houses one of the largest collections of rare woods in North America, woods sought by millionaires, eccentrics, and craftsmen.
And he is the founder of the Wood Institute, a nonprofit organization that researches and identifies wood for everyone from back yard archeologists to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
At age 38 Lorette has accomplished more than many craftsmen, businessmen, or scientists could in a lifetime. Maybe that is because he sleeps only about two hours a day, a gift he says he was born with. Or because he never had a television as a child. At age twelve he built his first set of chairs which are still in use at his parents home nearby.
Or maybe it's because his parents told him he could accomplish anything he set his mind to, and he, unlike most people, truly believed it.
Lorette grew up in the small town of Surry, just north of Keene. His father worked in the maintenance department at Keene State College, and his mother was a cook at an elementary school. So there was no woodworking in his blood, and no old family money or connections to lean on at the outset.
After Lorette started his woodworking company in the early 1980s, he ended up $500,000 in debt. His business partner left him, he had only $9.87 in his checking account. And on the way home from a meeting with the bank he blew out the engine in his car at the top of a hill on route 9. "I got out of the car and stood on the double yellow line in the pouring rain and cried," Lorette says. "If a car came flying up over that hill and didn't see me, I thought, good. It's an easy way out."
But no car came along. In the next three years, Lorette turned his life around. He repaid the bank, began to make a profit, and solidified his philosophy on life; "There is no luck, it's all hard work."
The key to Lorette's emergence from such overwhelming debt was one product; a hand made Windsor chair. Unlike other Windsor chairs, Lorette's look and feel and smell and sound as if they were found in the back of some barn. The paint is chipped. The seats are cracked. They even squeak when you sit in them.
Selling price; $2,000-$5,000 each. Lorette's Windsors are as sturdy as a rock and more comfortable than a hard wood chair should be. They're the perfect product for a rich, eccentric market-chairs with an antique look and feel of such quality and craftsmanship that they'll last for years, even increase in value. These chairs are so detailed that up close you can smell the old milk paint; Lorette mixes it himself. The squeak when you sit is caused by violin rosin in the joints. And the cracks: well designed carvings that fool the eye.
When Harrison Ford bought sixty-three Windsor chairs for gifts and for use at his four homes, other celebrities and Fortune 500 types followed. All of Lorette's business is word of mouth, he says, and the secret to his success is that nobody else he knows would be willing to put in the time it takes to develop a product to his standards.
Lorette spent two and a half years researching Windsors before he started to build one. He studied the best chairs he could get his hands on, right down to the wood's cell structure.
"If you miss this," he says pointing to an X-ray of a piece of wood tacked above a high powered microscope in the workshop, "you don't get the end result: it all boils down to one statement, and that is that everything matters. It's a hard concept for people to grasp, but it seems to me the ones who do grasp it are the ones who are doing work at this level."
When you study wood under a microscope, you learn how it grows, how it cracks, how it moved under stress, Lorette says. "It's an understanding of your medium, and you need to understand it completely and thoroughly. If you don't, you're sort of transposing your ideas onto it instead instead of working with it."
Chairs aren't the only items that Lorette makes. Many of his tables, head boards, and cabinets incorporate antique, hand-hammered gold leaf from Russia. Some include gemstones or rare minerals. They look like artifacts from ancient kingdoms or pieces from a museum.
It should be noted that Lorette cuts his own gemstones, too. And he is self taught. He dropped out of an electrical engineering program at Keene State College in his second semester. "It just wasn't my calling," he says. This was. He hands a visitor a raw diamond as big as the top half of a man's thumb. It will soon become the talons of a carved figure-half man, half eagle-on a headboard he's creating for a wealthy client in Egypt. He pulls out a picture of his recently completed headboard for King Fahd. The head board, which wouldn't fit through most doors, incorporates tiles and woven papyrus.
"What ever you can dream up, after 15 years in business, we have the resources to make it," Lorette says.
Which leads back to the Woods of the World. Lorette has four warehouses chock-full of lumber the likes of which many people have never seen-such a pink ivory. It comes one of the rarest non-extinct trees (Rhamnus Zeyher), which grows on Umgoloti tribal land in east Africa. Only one dead but still standing tree is cut each year. And the wood cells $100 a pound.
That wouldn't be bad if it were light. But a one foot length, two inches wide, weighs close to three pounds. So who's buying? Before the divorce, Prince Charles and Princes Di bought a heap of this soft, milky-pink wood from Lorette to be made into building blocks for one of their children.
Other treasures in Lorettes stockpile; Mahogany from Belize and Africa; Thuja burl, which grows underground in Morocco; Snakewood another of the rarest woods, with a snake-skin-like surface; and sinker Cypress, cut from 300 year old logs that Lorette's divers bring up from river bottoms.
Whenever he can, Lorette tries to get his wood with as little environmental impact as possible, he says. He uses portable mills and halls with oxen rather than tractors.
At the Wood Institute, Lorette and two co-workers use state-of-the-art techniques to date and identify wood by looking at the cellular structures and trace minerals. The Smithsonian Institution recently sent in a bit of wood from an unidentified sculpture. The Wood Institute determined that is came from a tree that grew on the northern side of a hill within a one hundred mile radius of Danbury, Conn., and was cut between 1730-1765.
Lorette hopes to spread his enthusiasm for wood by opening a wood museum, and the Institute's six person board is currently looking at buildings, he said. According to the Smithsonian, it would be the worlds first such museum. And Lorette has museum quality examples for preview at his route 12 shop. Besides giant logs of old NH pine and American Walnut, there are two Royal Ebony logs, which, according to a dossier from the Ethiopian government, date back to King Solomon's treasury.
"I paid the market price at the time for Ebony and didn't realize that it was a unique Ebony until after the fact," Lorette says. Market price was in he thousands. Since then, two clients have offered to purchase those logs for millions. But Lorette won't sell; "This wood is too precious. These trees have been extinct for 2500 years," he says.
If anyone knows when a hunk of wood is a museum piece, as apposed to a potential chair, it's Lorette. As he put it; "some people might think it's boring at first, but once you start seeing all of these things, you realize wood is amazing."