As the story goes, the moment Abraham Livingston “A.L.” Gump—then owner of Gump’s and son of the iconic store’s founder, Solomon Gump—set his eyes on the white jade vases brought back from Japan by one of his buyers, he fell in love with the rock medium.
Jade’s unique properties have made it highly coveted the world over. “Jade has a special texture,” explains Darren Falls of Gump’s. “It’s stone, but when it’s carved it can have the appearance of flowing silk and has an incredible luminosity. It also comes in a wide array of colors; most people are familiar with green jade, but it also comes in white, yellow, black and lavender.”
A.L. went on to amass what was, at the time, the finest jade collection in the U.S. —as well as fine Asian antiques—which he featured and sold through the Jade Room, an exclusive section of Gump’s that was open only by appointment to serious collectors or those of a particular status. Opened in 1914, it became a destination, attracting celebrities, dignitaries, museum scholars, and other notables from around the world. Guests marked their appearances by signing into brocade-covered guest books, which became prized possessions of A.L.
Among those who penned their signatures, and sometimes a small note, were Kathryn Hepburn, President Herbert Hoover, Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joan Crawford.
When Gump’s changed location in 1995, it was decided that there would be no Jade Room in the new building, in part because jade artworks were becoming increasingly difficult to come by. (Most of the best jade is found in Burma, and with the trade embargo, keeping stock was an almost impossible task.)
Fast-forward almost a decade and a half later to the present; Gump’s staff will tell you that just about every day customers still ask about or make reference to the Jade Room. And the store maintains a stellar selection of Asian antiquities. So, as part creative savvy retailing, part enhancing stellar viewing and collecting opportunity, and part honoring a beloved and historic attraction, the decision was made to revive the Jade Room concept.
Just last month, Gump’s opened the modern version of the Jade Room on the second floor in what used to be the Baccarat room. In addition to a fine selection of recently acquired jade pieces, including a gorgeous sculpture of Quan Yen from the Ching Dynasty, c. 1859 ($99,500), the room features antique Asian ceramics, wood carvings, furniture, and other objects, all of which are of outstanding quality and provenance.
“We are not looking to recreate the original Jade Room,” confirms Gene Ogden, Gump’s director of retail marketing. “It’s an opportunity to highlight some of the store’s finest offerings.” Giving some context to just how fine the Gump’s Asian antiquities collection is, Ogden notes that several works on display at the city’s Asian Art Museum are on loan from the store.
In addition to featuring items other than jade, Ogden points out that another way the new space will differ includes making it more of an educational experience; for instance there will be wall signage featuring a historic timeline of Asian culture.
“We are giving it a modern spin,” notes Falls, who is organizing the Jade Room project. “The old Jade Room was dark and mysterious; we’re creating a fresh interpretation.”
Exhibitions in the room will change regularly; the space will act as not only a retail venue, but also an ever-evolving art exhibition. Additionally, there are nods to the past: on display are several of the historic guest books, and some of the antiques featured in the original Jade Room are on display, including a grand rosewood table.
At the entrance of today’s Jade Room is featured a 1943 portrait of A.L. Gump by Alfred Jonniaux. In it, he holds and admires a ceramic sculpture; a jade sculpture sits on a table in front of him. The feeling is one of timeless reverence and intense, joyful passion, one that continues to this day, reestablished for all to embrace and enjoy.