In Memoriam: Ira Jacobson, 1927-2021

Although my other profiles in this Archive focus only on people who worked at or for Cybis, I must now, with great sadness, recognize the passing of someone who was instrumental in forging that studio’s success: Ira Jacobson, owner of Brielle Galleries. In many ways, he was an important driving force that helped Cybis to become one of the two most respected American art porcelain studios.

Born on April 23, 1927 in Long Branch, New Jersey, Ira grew up in the Lakewood area. His parents were immigrants from Lithuania and Russia; his mother passed away while he was still very young. The values, work ethic, and creativity of his father Morris and stepmother Tillie profoundly influenced his youth. At the age of 17, Ira joined the Navy and served for two years before becoming a student at the University of Michigan with the intention of going on to law school. After graduation, however, he had second thoughts and decided to return home for a while to re-think his future path.

It so happened that, in the interim, his parents had acquired a small piece of property in the nearby town of Brielle, as part of a partnership liquidation. On the lot was a small (1800 sf) antique shop that had not been a success because of its awkward location; the tenant had had enough, and was more than happy to leave the building for the new owners to deal with. Tillie Jacobson decided to transform it into a gift shop, and Ira – freshly returned from college – was asked to give her a hand with the cleaning-and-fixing-up phase. After that was completed, he accompanied Tillie on her first buying trip to the china and giftware market in New York City. Ira was amazed and delighted at what he saw there, and immediately caught Tillie’s enthusiasm for creating a ‘jewel box’ of a store filled with beautiful tabletop items. By the time that Brielle China and Glass opened its doors in December 1950, Ira knew that retail was his true calling.

The story of the first decade of Brielle China is told in fascinating detail in Ira’s 2008 autobiography A Quest for Excellence: The Incredible Story of the Most Beautiful Store in the World. The shop’s initial success warranted the first of two physical expansions in 1951. In 1956, Ira married Helene Motiuk who quickly became another invaluable part of the shop’s operation.

By 1964, that little former antique shop boasted 8200 square feet on the main retail floor alone and was carrying major brands such as Lenox, Waterford, and limited-edition art by Edna Hibel.

Ira, Brielle, and Cybis

There is some evidence that Brielle began carrying some Cybis items during the 1950s, although at the time the shop’s focus was primarily tableware. A circa-1950s holy water font was recently found still bearing a Brielle China gummed price sticker, as well as a 1950s-level price point written on it. But it wasn’t until the early 1960s – after Marylin Chorlton took over the Cybis studio – that art porcelain became a major element at Brielle.

In one of her rare marketing missteps, Helen Boehm turned down Ira’s initial offer to be a retailer of Boehm porcelain, thus leaving the field wide open for Cybis to quickly become the art porcelain ‘star’ at Brielle. By the early 1970s, Cybis sales there were so strong that an entire gallery – in the most prime location which was directly in front of the parking-lot entrance door, by which 99% of customers entered – was created exclusively for their displays. This was the very first dedicated ‘gallery display space’ for Cybis created by a retailer.

This photo was taken during the early 1970s; it’s a shame that it doesn’t show the entire area and isn’t in color. In addition to the four cabinets visible here, there was at least one other off to the left in a short hallway; I remember examining the special event piece Pandora in Blue which was on display in that side cabinet.

Ah, the events! Those were nothing short of amazing, and there were two (Spring and Fall) for Cybis every year starting in the 1970s; the first one coincided with the creation of the Cybis Gallery. A more elaborate show/event took place a few months later and had a large enough guest list to warrant the erection of a tent in the parking lot to provide locations for food, drink, and special attractions. I am not certain, but it is very likely that the tradition of the studio creating an annual retailer event piece (REP) began at that second Brielle Galleries event.

As the scope of the events grew, the tents would house special displays (as in the top photo, with Cybis art director George Ivers painting a Persephone) and even stages for special performances or guests such as Tony Randall (lower photo.) To showcase the Cybis Chess Set event in Ira’s 1979 show, a Grand Master played 20 simultaneous games within a tent; later, costumed madrigal singers and jongleurs entertained the guests. Cybis collectors awaited their invitations to the Brielle shows with great anticipation, and it wasn’t unusual to be chatting there with people who had flown in from all parts of the country as well as Canada and Europe.

Ira Jacobson may well be credited with the original idea of having short films about Cybis. Sadly, I did not have a chance to ask him about this, but a tantalizing clue appears on page 36 of his book, after he describes the daily afternoon tours of the gallery that he would conduct for customers. After a few months, he realized that “People needed to see the processes that created these works of art.” So, he transformed a section of the galleries into a viewing room, with a projector and retractable screen; after the tours were done, he

…showed two 17-minute professionally produced films about how the Cybis and Boehm sculptures were made. There was no audio, so I narrated it, explaining the techniques used for making porcelain.

The context of the book’s narrative suggests that this took place in the late 1960s or the start of the 1970s. What’s interesting is that although there were three short films produced by/for the Cybis studio itself, none of the lengths match Ira’s and those all had audio! The earliest of the three Cybis films was created in 1972 and focuses only on the Chess Set. It sounds to me as if Ira’s two ‘production process’ films were commissioned and created a year or two before that. Given the close relationship he had with the owners of Cybis, it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether the studio’s idea of commissioning a short film as an advertising vehicle was a result of Ira’s gallery brainchild.

As spectacular as Ira’s Cybis events were, another Cybis/Brielle arrangement had even more of an impact on the studio’s success in their second decade. As always, Ira had focused on reaching a wider audience than only New Jersey or the Northeastern states, or even the Eastern seaboard. As he relates on page 84 of his book,

In the mid-1970s, Frank Redden, a director of Cybis [….] approached me about launching a national advertising campaign in Connoisseur magazine, an upscale lifestyle publication: [Ira] would pay for the advertisement, featuring their product along with Brielle Galleries. [Cybis] would give Brielle enough porcelain figurines to offset the cost of the ad. To sweeten the deal, they would give [Brielle] an additional quantity of limited-edition porcelain to sell, adding value beyond the cost of the advertisement.

Most retailers would balk, or at least hesitate, at an arrangement which would involve the retailer paying up front for full-color, full-page ads, but to be reimbursed only in product rather than dollars and cents. But Ira knew that this would actually solve two problems at one stroke: Getting Brielle Galleries’ name out on the national retail stage, and having a larger pipeline of goods (sculptures) coming in at a time when the store was having trouble meeting the burgeoning customer demand. A deal that other retailers would typically walk away from was something that Ira was savvy enough to snap up in a New York (or rather, New Jersey!) minute.

Ira did not limit his Cybis advertisements to only Connoisseur, however; they also appeared in Architectural Digest, Town and Country and The New Yorker, all of which catered to the same well-heeled clientele.
At the same time, ads for Cybis were placed in the newly-launched Acquire magazine which was aimed at collectors in all income demographics. This black-and-white scan of a 1975 color ad is a good example. When Acquire morphed into Collector Editions at the end of that decade, Brielle Galleries continued to place ads there as well.

The late 1970s was also when Ira decided to transform his black-and-white Brielle Porcelain Report newsletter into a full-color catalog titled A Quest for Excellence.

The first issues were produced in 1979; the Spring 1980 edition (Vol. 2, No. 2) was a showcase for Cybis. The cover, showing The Bride which was an edition of 100 selling for $6500, is followed by seven full-color pages of Cybis porcelains. The subscriber base for Quest would eventually grow to more than half a million and would be regarded as one of the best retailer catalogs in the overall marketplace, with a typical average page count of between 35 and 50, in which Cybis was always well represented throughout the 1980s.

By the end of that decade, Ira Jacobson’s Brielle Galleries was #1 among the ‘big three’ Cybis retailers nationwide – the other two being Reese Palley in Atlantic City and Armstrong’s Gallery in California, both of which came later to Cybis than Brielle did. During the 1970s, which was when the biggest expansion of the Cybis presence took place, it was Ira’s store that brought the studio to the forefront of the national retail market. But it was more than beautiful ads and amazing events that kept people coming back as Cybis collectors for years that stretched into decades.

The Man Behind the Store

Ira Jacobson was one of the few retail entrepreneurs who merged inspired business savvy with a deep-rooted sense of honesty, integrity, and true passion. Many businesses claim to ‘put the customer first’, but words are easy; putting it into practice on a permanent basis can be quite a different matter. Ira never took any customer for granted, no matter how much or how little that person might spend in his store. It was truly a pleasure to go there, and not only because everything was beautiful. When was the last time you were in a store, talking to an employee or the owner, and got a powerful sense that they truly knew about and enthusiastically loved what they were selling, and were happy that you were interested in it too? That they cared about the object for itself, and about you as a person, and not just because they might make a sale at the end of the conversation? It’s been a while, I’d guess! But that was what it was like to visit Brielle.

Family was another rock upon which Ira’s life was built. His wife Helene, daughter Lisa, and son Dan were as much a part of Brielle Galleries’ heart and soul as the steel and glass from which the store was built. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of speaking by phone with Ira in connection with my Remembering Brielle Galleries post on my personal blog site. In late October 2021 Lisa reached out to me again to let me know that Ira had suffered a stroke and was currently in hospice, but would like to connect with me again. We planned to set up a Zoom call before Thanksgiving but at the last minute I had to postpone it; then some health issues on my part intervened. I was extremely sad to learn that Ira died on December 13th; he was 94 years old. Because of the COVID pandemic, normal funeral arrangements had to be limited to close family only, as they had been in 2020, when his beloved wife Helene passed away. In order to fulfill Ira’s wishes about his funeral, a Zoom memorial call was set up for the evening of January 5th, 2022, which would also have been Helene’s birthday. I was honored and deeply touched to be invited to attend, and it was one of the most moving events I’ve ever been part of. Although I knew Ira from the store, and from reading his book, his personal backstory, his triumphs over adversity, and the profound ways in which he enriched so many people’s lives were brought to life for me in a way that the printed or electronic page simply cannot do. The phrase “a life well lived” has been used so often and in so many ways that it seems everyone has their own definition of it; but there is one that particularly speaks to me:

A life well lived is an exquisite work of art.

Something tells me that Ira would like that one, and I think anyone who knew him would also agree.

 

Suggested further reading about Ira Jacobson and Brielle Galleries:
Ira Jacobson obituary in the Asbury Park Press
Remembering Brielle Galleries post on my Chatsworth Lady blog
A Quest for Excellence, various sources via Amazon portal
(also available via search on bookseller sites such as Abebooks and Alibris)

Name Index of Cybis Sculptures
Visual Index (for human figures/busts only)

About the Cybis Reference Archive
What is Cybis?

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