Industry / Retail

Helene Fortunoff, Legendary Industry Trailblazer, Dies


On Nov. 8, Helene Fortunoff (pictured), a groundbreaking jeweler who helped build “The Source” into an industry powerhouse, died in Miami Beach, Fla., of a non-COVID-19 respiratory illness. She was 88.

Born in 1933 to Samuel and Tillie Finke in Paterson, N.J., Helene graduated from New York University cum laude with a degree in business administration. In a real estate class at New York University, she met her first husband, Alan Fortunoff, and entered her husband’s family housewares business, which had been started in 1922 by Max and Clara Fortunoff. In 1957, she helped the company expand into jewelry, which it became widely known for.

”My husband’s interest was limited solely to silver gifts and flatware,” she told The New York Times in 2001, ”and it was becoming apparent that that wasn’t going to be an important enough business for us. We wanted to offer more luxury products with higher value.

“’I was visiting jewelry vendors around the world 38 years ago,” she added. “Not only was I one of very few retailers traveling the world, but I was probably the only woman buyer. And people were very aware of that.”

Helene’s talent for merchandising and discerning taste helped transform the company—originally a small housewares store on Livonia Avenue in Brooklyn, N.Y.—into a nationally recognized constellation of stores in the New York City area, where it became known for its slogan as “The Source,” its Fifth Avenue flagship, and for having Lauren Bacall as its spokesperson.

When Alan Fortunoff died in 2000, she took over the company. “I always wanted a family and a career,” she told the Times. “And no one ever told me I couldn’t have both.

”You can’t sit in your husband’s office 10 hours a day and not wonder, ‘What would he do?’ ” she added. “But lately I’ve been less and less able to turn that way. Times have changed. The economy has changed. And I’ve had to make some even tougher decisions than he did. But I love doing it. I wasn’t afraid when I was 13, and I’m not afraid now.”

She retired in 2005, following the sale of the company to a private equity fund. In 2009, the family reacquired its intellectual property.

In her years helming Fortunoff, Helene received numerous accolades and was an active industry presence. She served as president of the Women’s Jewelry Association from 1992 to 1995 and for 15 years, headed its fashion group. In 2006, she was named chairman of the Gemological Institute of America’s board of governors.

In June 1997, she received an honorary appointment as knight of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Italy. In 2001, she received the American Gem Society’s Triple Zero Award, and in 2006, she received Jewelers of America’s Gem Award for lifetime achievement, which was presented to her by Bacall.

Helene Fortunoff was predeceased by son Louis in 2012. She is survived by husband Robert Grossman, whom she married in 2006; five children, Esther, Andrea, Rhonda, Ruth, and David; nine grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

Donations in her memory can be made to the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University, The North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center, and The Lustgarten Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research.

Services will be held on Wednesday in Roslyn, N.Y.

(Image courtesy of the Fortunoff family)

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By: Rob Bates

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