Helene Fortunoff, Jewish businesswoman and jewelry leader, dies at 88

Helene Fortunoff, who helped turn her husband’s family homeware business into a major jewelry company, died on November 8 at age 88 in Miami Beach, Florida.

Fortunoff became a powerful player in the jewelry industry long before many women entered the workplace.
Talking to The New York Times In 2001, a year after her husband’s death and his promotion to the position of President of the Fortunoff Company, she spoke about her approach to balancing work and family.

“I always wanted a family and a career, and no one told me I couldn’t have both,” he said. “Generally, I allowed myself 11 days off for the birth of my children. He had staff to manage things at home while I worked full time at the store. “

Fortunoff was born Helene Finke in 1933. Growing up in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, she began working for her father’s heating and air conditioning business at age 13, according to The New York Times. Fortunoff began her undergraduate studies at Syracuse University, but transferred to New York University Business School, where she met her husband, Alan Fortunoff, on a real estate course.

The couple married after graduating in 1953, and Helene went to work in the household goods business of her husband’s family of the same name, then based in East New York, Brooklyn. In 1957, Helene launched the first Fortunoff jewelry line, which would later grow into a multi-million dollar business. In 1979, the company hired actress Lauren Bacall as a spokesperson for the jewelry line.

A MAN plays with a soccer ball on a field in Central Park on the spring equinox in the Manhattan borough of New York City last week. (credit: CAITLIN OCHS / REUTERS)

In the following decades, Fortunoff became one of the largest retailers in the New York City area: By 2003, according to the New York Times, the company had six retail stores specializing in high-end gift items, including its flagship location on Fifth Avenue at 54th Street and a popular branch in Westbury, Long Island. After a series of industry setbacks, bankruptcies and sales of the original business, the chain was liquidated in 2009 and Fortunoff Fine Jewelry exists only online, with the name again under family control.

The Fortunoffs were frequent donors to Jewish causes. In 1987, Alan Fortunoff created a donation to the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University, adding Fortunoff’s name to the archive in memory of his parents, Max and Clara Fortunoff. Helene Fortunoff continued to support the archive after her husband’s death. Throughout her life, Fortunoff was honored by various Jewish organizations, including the UJA-NY Federation and the ORT, an organization that historically provided job training to Russian Jewish immigrants.

Fortunoff is survived by Robert Grossman, whom she married in 2006, and five of her six children. Her son, Louis, died in 2012 of pancreatic cancer at age 47.

In an obituary for Louis, David Fortunoff, another son, told The Centurion, an industry newspaper, that the family’s work ethic meant never stopping, even on vacation. “The only holiday we could celebrate [before the business was sold] it was Christmas, even though we were Jews, ”Fortunoff told the newspaper. The family would spend that day, their only day off during the busy Christmas season, watching movies together.

Most of Fortunoff’s children followed their parents into the jewelry business, with their daughter Esther Fortunoff-Greene serving as president of the company.
“She taught us how to balance motherhood and work so that we could raise our own children like she raised us. His guidance and example have been instrumental in our lives, ”Fortunoff-Greene wrote in a blog post about her mother for Women’s History Month in 2018.


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