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Helene Fortunoff, Founder of Fortunoff Fine Jewelry, Passes Away

The jewelry retail pioneer who blazed a trail for women in the industry was 88.

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The GIA Board of Governors in 2006 with Chair Helene Fortunoff (bottom row, center). Top row, standing: William Cottingham, Ralph Destino, Glenn Nord, Nancy Brewer, Roland Naftule. Second row seated: George Rossman, Matt Stuller, Richard T. Liddicoat. Third row seated: Susan Jacques, Anna Martin, Michael Kazanjian. Front row, seated: Sheldon Kwiat, Eli Haas, Helene Fortunoff, William Boyajian and Lee Berg.
The GIA Board of Governors in an undated photo with Chair Helene Fortunoff (bottom row, center). Top row, standing: William Cottingham, Ralph Destino, Glenn Nord, Nancy Brewer, Roland Naftule. Second row seated: George Rossman, Matt Stuller, Richard T. Liddicoat. Third row seated: Susan Jacques, Anna Martin, Michael Kazanjian. Front row, seated: Sheldon Kwiat, Eli Haas, Helene Fortunoff, William Boyajian and Lee Berg.

CARLSBAD, CA — Helene Fortunoff was a trailblazing jewelry merchant who took a few showcases in Brooklyn, NY, and grew them into a multimillion-dollar jewelry business with its crown jewel on 5th Avenue in New York City.

She was born in 1933 to Samuel and Tillie Finke in Paterson New Jersey. After a childhood where she enjoyed singing and excelled as a student, she 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, with whom she had six children. Her jewelry career began when she entered Alan’s family housewares business, started in 1922 by Max and Clara Fortunoff. Alan, also considered a visionary retailing pioneer, passed away in 2000.

After being introduced by a mutual friend in 2001, she married Robert Grossman in 2006. In addition to Robert, she is survived by five children, Esther, Andrea, Rhonda, Ruth, and David. Her son Louis passed away in 2012. She is also survived by nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Her brother Leon Finke pre-deceased her.

Helene Fortunoff is past president of Fortunoff Fine Jewelry and Silverware, Inc., the legendary fine jewelry and housewares retail chain that had stores in Westbury and White Plains, New York, Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, Paramus, Wayne and Woodbridge, New Jersey. She retired in 2005 after the sale of the company.

Long respected as a leader in the merchandising and design of fine jewelry, she established the fine jewelry division of Fortunoff in 1957. As Fortunoff grew from a small housewares store on Livonia Avenue in Brooklyn to its constellation of New York metro stores, including the company’s jewelry flagship, on 5th Avenue and 54th Street, Helene developed a homegrown team of jewelry merchants who travelled the world together to “the source” to find new and unique products that delighted generations of customers. Her taste and talent for merchandising enabled the company to become a nationally recognized leader well beyond its geographic footprint. The company was recognized by National Jeweler in 2003 as the 24th largest jewelry retailer in the United States with just five jewelry departments.

Mrs. Fortunoff’s successful career shattered the traditional dominance of men in the jewelry industry, winning several prestigious accolades and awards along the way. The first recipient of the National Jewelers Award for retailing excellence, she also received the same honor from the Women’s Jewelry Association (WJA) Hall of Fame in 1993 and was elected President of the association. She was an active member and then chair of the WJA and the Fashion Group for more than 15 years. Mrs. Fortunoff was also a recipient of the American Gem Society’s 2001 Triple Zero Award.

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The United States Carat Club, a private and prestigious De Beers group, invited Mrs. Fortunoff to be the first woman member. In 1996, she visited South Africa as a guest of De Beers, visiting gold and diamond mines. In recognition of her long association with Italian jewelry manufacturers, Mrs. Fortunoff received the honorary appointment as Knight of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Italy in June of 1997. Mrs. Fortunoff’s interest in gem and industry standards lead to her election to Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Gemological Institute of America. In January 2006, she received a Gem Award for lifetime achievement from the Jewelry Information Center, presented by Lauren Bacall, a longtime spokesperson for the brand.

“I was fortunate to serve with Helene on the GIA Board of Governors during her time as Chair of the Board,” said Dione Kenyon, Chair of the GIA Board of Governors. “Her experience, wisdom and deep devotion to our industry were crucial to guiding GIA at that time, and she made an invaluable contribution to advancing GIA’s consumer protection mission.”

GIA President and CEO Susan Jacques added, “Helene’s legacy will live on, embodied in the memories of many throughout the global gem and jewelry industry who knew and admired her visionary leadership. Helene’s business acumen, taste and talent made her a nationally recognized leader in the industry, well beyond the geographic footprint of the Fortunoff retail stores in and around New York City. Those same qualities and her pioneering spirit opened opportunities for generations of women, including me, to bring their diverse voices, talents, passion and leadership to the global gem and jewelry industry.”

Mrs. Fortunoff always reserved time for community and religious organizations. A past trustee of the North Shore Family and Child Guidance Association, she was honored as their 1996 Woman of Achievement. Mrs. Fortunoff is a past Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Hofstra University. She was honored by the UJA Federation of New York, Diamond and Jewelry Division, as well as this same division by ORT. She was a charter member of the UJA Women of Distinction and a Lion of Judah of that organization. In addition, Mrs. Fortunoff served as an advisory board member of the Women President Organization.

She most recently supported The Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University, which records, preserves, and provides access to testimonies of survivors, witnesses, bystanders and liberators of the Holocaust, The Lustgarten Foundation, and Mount Sinai Medical Center Foundation.

After retiring, she and Robert Grossman moved to Florida and assembled a world class collection of 19th century British ceramics, making sizable donations currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Chicago Arts Institute, Yale University, and The Wolfsonian–Florida International University. She also enjoyed playing cards with a large circle of friends.

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Services for Mrs. Fortunoff will be held in Long Island this Wednesday. 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 or The Lustgarten Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research.

Over the years, INSTORE has won 80 international journalism awards for its publication and website. Contact INSTORE's editors at [email protected].

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