Helene Fortunoff, who helped turn her husband’s mom-and-pop housewares business into a major jewelry company, died Nov. 8 at age 88 in Miami Beach, Florida.
Fortunoff became a powerful player in the jewelry industry long before many women had entered the workplace.
Speaking to The New York Times in 2001, a year after the death of her husband and her promotion to the role of president of the Fortunoff company, she discussed her approach to balancing work and family.
”I always wanted a family and a career, and no one ever told me I couldn’t have both,” she said. ”I generally allowed myself 11 days off for the birth of my children. I had a 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 started working for her father’s heating and cooling business at age 13, according to The New York Times. Fortunoff began her undergraduate studies at Syracuse University but transferred partway through to New York University’s business school, where she met her husband, Alan Fortunoff, in a real estate course.
The couple married after graduating in 1953 and Helene went to work at her husband’s eponymous family housewares business, then based in East New York, Brooklyn. In 1957, Helene launched Fortunoff’s first jewelry line, which would later become a multi-million dollar business. In 1979, the company brought on the actress Lauren Bacall as a spokeswoman for the jewelry line.
In the ensuing decades, Fortunoff became one of the biggest 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 giftware, 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 back under family control.
The Fortunoffs were frequent donors to Jewish causes. In 1987, Alan Fortunoff created an endowment for the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University, adding the Fortunoff 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 a number of Jewish organizations including UJA Federation-NY 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 by 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 paper, that the family’s work ethic meant never stopping, even for holidays. “The only holiday that we got to celebrate [before the business was sold] was Christmas, even though we were Jewish,” Fortunoff told the paper. The family would spend that day, their only day off during the busy holiday season, watching movies together.
Most of the Fortunoff children followed their parents into the jewelry business, with 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 as she raised us. Her guidance and example have been central to our lives,” Fortunoff-Greene wrote in a blog post about her mother for Women’s History Month in 2018.