Helene Fortunoff, who built a multimillion-dollar jewelry empire with outlets across the New York region and a flagship store on Fifth Avenue, died on Nov. 8 in Miami Beach. She was 88.
The cause was a respiratory illness, her daughter Esther Fortunoff-Greene said.
Mrs. Fortunoff started her career in 1953 working for her husband Alan Fortunoff’s family business, which at the time was a mom-and-pop enterprise selling housewares in Brooklyn. In 1957, she proposed adding a jewelry line and spearheaded the family’s entry into that uncharted sector.
“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.”
Fortunoff would become one of the largest retailers in the region. By 2003, it had six stores that specialized in fine jewelry, crystal and silver giftware: one on Fifth Avenue at 54th Street; one in Westbury, on Long Island; and one in White Plains, N.Y., as well as three in New Jersey, in Paramus, Wayne and Woodbridge. (Other Fortunoff stores went on to sell outdoor furniture.)
As the jewelry business grew, Mrs. Fortunoff, one of the few female executives in the industry, developed a cadre of mostly women buyers. They traveled the world to distant locales, including diamond mines in Africa, to find new products, which Fortunoff then marketed as “high-end jewelry at affordable prices.”
The company raised its profile in 1979 by signing Lauren Bacall, the sultry movie star, as its spokeswoman. In full-page newspaper ads, Ms. Bacall extolled the glories of accessorizing.
“There’s nothing like the blaze of diamonds to warm a winter’s evening,” she declared in one. And in another, “If you find me drowning in freshwater pearls, don’t rescue me.”
Mrs. Fortunoff became president of the company, formally known as Fortunoff Fine Jewelry & Silverware Inc., after her husband died in 2000.
She immersed herself in the company’s finances and visited the stores regularly. She renovated parts of the Fifth Avenue store to showcase antique and silver giftware and jewelry. She also expanded the company’s bridal and gift registry.
“Helene Fortunoff was a trailblazer,” Amanda Gizzi, spokeswoman for Jewelers of America, an industry trade group, said by email. “She was one of the women who led the charge in supporting women and helping them have a seat at the table.”
The company carried jewelry by women designers and offered split shifts and flex time to its female employees with children.
Mrs. Fortunoff retired in 2005 after the family sold its majority stake in the company to private investors.
Helene Finke was born on March 2, 1933, in Paterson, N.J., and raised in Fair Lawn. Her mother, Tillie (Kraut) Finke, was a homemaker. Her father, Samuel Finke, owned a wholesale plumbing, heating and air-conditioning business and cultivated Helene’s entrepreneurial spirit. She started working for him after school when she was 13.
She began college at Syracuse University and after two years transferred to the New York University School of Commerce, now the Stern School of Business. She graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1953.
Her classmate, Mr. Fortunoff, whom she had met in a real estate course, also graduated with a degree in business in 1953. The two married that year.
She joined him in his family’s business, which at the time was a small store under the elevated train tracks in Brooklyn. Founded by his parents, Max and Clara Fortunoff, in 1922, the store was often described as the first discount retailer in the metropolitan area.
Mrs. Fortunoff soon gave birth to her first child; she returned to the store two weeks later. Ultimately, she had six children and said that she barely allowed herself two weeks off after each birth before going back to work.
“I always wanted a family and a career, and no one ever told me I couldn’t have both,” she told The Times. Doing both was possible, she said, because she had a staff to manage her home while she worked full time at the store.
Even then, she had a strong business sense.
“I made $50 a week and paid the baby nurse $60,” she told The Times. “But I knew within a period of months I’d be making $100 a week. I tell women, if their child care isn’t adequate, they’re going to worry, and it will affect their job performance. It’s better to get the help you need and maybe come up short the first year. In the long run, you definitely come out ahead.” She said she was still able to spend quality time with her children.
She also wanted her children to learn the business, she said at a 2010 panel discussion at Hofstra University. And so she took them to work, she said, “as soon as they were able to crawl on the floor.” Eventually, five of the six would work at Fortunoff.
Mrs. Fortunoff married Robert Grossman in 2006 and moved to Miami Beach.
In addition to her husband and Ms. Fortunoff-Greene, she is survived by three other daughters, Andrea Fortunoff, Rhonda Hampton and Ruth Fortunoff-Cooper; a son, David; nine grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter. Her son Louis died in 2012.
Mrs. Fortunoff received numerous awards. She was the first recipient of the National Jeweler Award for retailing excellence. She was also the first female member of the United States Carat Club, a private group organized by De Beers.
In 2006, she received the Jewelers of America’s Gem Award for lifetime achievement. It was presented to her by Ms. Bacall.
“One of the perks of a lifetime career in entertainment is that you learn to recognize real talent when you see it,” Ms. Bacall said. And, she added, she saw it in Ms. Fortunoff, who “lifted her company from small stores in Brooklyn to the heights of retail success.”