Helene Fortunoff, tycoon of the family’s namesake jewelry brand, dies at 88

Helene Fortunoff, who built a luxury retail empire that included the Hess, Fairchild and Isaacson jewelry stores, died Monday in Palm Beach, Fla. She was 88.

The cause was a mild stroke, said her daughter, Carole Fortunoff.

Helene Fortunoff, who had multiple sclerosis, had difficulty speaking and left many friends in the wake of her death unaware of her whereabouts. But she remained very much alive in the mind of her daughter, who said her mother had been “inspired” by these situations.

Helene Fortunoff was born on April 21, 1927, in Brooklyn, N.Y., the daughter of immigrant jewelers Maurice Hildebrand Fortunoff and Marjorie Schellenberg Fortunoff. As a young woman, she made a deal with her father to put her college tuition money into a university fund that was to grow tax-free.

She married Philip Fortunoff, a banker from Long Island who went on to make a fortune, in 1951, although the marriage ended in divorce in 1965. The Fortunoff fortune was built by her father, a factory manufacturer.

Helene Fortunoff, whose daughters became jewelry designers, succeeded her father in 2004 when he stepped down as chairman and chief executive of the company. Her daughter said, “The memory of her creative imagination and her dedication to customer service” made her role at the helm of her family’s business “vital.”

Helene Fortunoff was responsible for efforts to expand the brand in North America and Europe. The company moved from an office to the former Edgewater Club building on East 37th Street, near Madison Avenue, in Manhattan in 1999, and made a historic break with Tiffany & Co. for a deal to move $6.5 million worth of small objects into the 1,400-square-foot Tiffany Tea Room. The move was part of an effort to reach a younger clientele.

But a year later, the jeweler Samsonite sued the company for secretly selling many of the products, including the rainmaker, Baccarat glass and 24-karat gold, so the company could bypass Samsonite wholesale deals and continue retail distribution.

Another lawsuit, filed in a Manhattan court, claimed the business had struggled after 1995, when Helene Fortunoff had left on maternity leave and Philip Fortunoff died. The move to Florida in 2002 was a bit harder to make, for more reasons than one.

Carole Fortunoff, who became the CEO of the family business in 2009, estimated that Helene Fortunoff and her husband had invested $300 million in the family business since it opened. The Fortunoff brand has 12 U.S. stores, four in Canada and an additional 11 in Mexico. Net sales in 2016 totaled $113 million.

Helene Fortunoff never participated in the public company. Two years ago, Carole Fortunoff became CEO, but she took over much of the day-to-day running of the company with help from Helene Fortunoff’s family.

Helene Fortunoff, who is survived by her two daughters, their husbands and grandchildren, had left a will, a copy of which was given to The New York Times, detailing that she wanted her main residence to be in Palm Beach.

Her father’s house on East 78th Street, with its sweeping views of Central Park, is now owned by his family, but the family has used an expanded Fortunoff building to make it easier for visitors to know they had entered the home of Helene Fortunoff.

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