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Fortunoff Family Trying to Rebuild Iconic New York Brand

By Amy Zimmer | May 9, 2012 7:40am
The Fortunoff family started the company in Brooklyn in 1922 and opened its Fifth Avenue flagship in 1979.
The Fortunoff family started the company in Brooklyn in 1922 and opened its Fifth Avenue flagship in 1979.
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David Fortunoff

MANHATTAN — Many New Yorkers remember the 1980s advertisements with husky-voiced actress Lauren Bacall talking about shopping at "Fortunoff — the Source."  

The iconic Northeast chain became a go-to place for jewelry, crystal, fine china and outdoor furniture after Max and Clara Fortunoff built it up from an East New York neighborhood houseware shop in 1922. 

But in 2009, four years after the family sold its interest in the company, Fortunoff filed for bankruptcy.

Now, the founders' descendants, who banded together to buy back the company's brand and other intellectual property, are rebuilding Fortunoff from the ground up.

"We didn't want the legacy of our name to end the way it did," said David Fortunoff, who, with his sister Esther Fortunoff, has spent the past 18 months re-booting Fortunoff's jewelry business online.

In the next 12 months they expect to open a new store for jewelry somewhere in Long Island, near the famed Westbury store their grandparents had opened in 1964 when they followed many of their Brooklyn customers out to the suburbs, David Fortunoff said.

"It's not easy," David Fortunoff said. "We're trying to work on re-establishing our reputation with the vendors. It's tough going from the 800-pound gorilla to a very small player."  

Their cousins have launched 13 outdoor furniture stores in the metropolitan region since 2010. 

After opening a Fortunoff's jewelry store on Long Island, the siblings — who both began working in the family's Westbury shop at the age of 8 — hope to open more suburban stores. They don't plan to return to Manhattan until they've proven the model works again, David Fortunoff said.

Esther Fortunoff remembers when her family opened up its Fifth Avenue flagship, at 54th Street. It was 1979, and she returned from finishing up grad school to help her family open the store as a buyer in the jewelry department.

That was when the company began its relationship with Bacall, said Esther Fortunoff, recalling how she hung out with the legendary actress in her dressing room during takes of the advertisements.

"We were a team of buyers, almost all women, starting with my mother, who trained me and my sister," she recalled.

"Women have a slightly different take on jewelry because in most cases, we are wearing it, so we understand what might be comfortable rather than just an interesting design."

At that time, it was rare to have female diamond experts casing the markets in Tel Aviv and Bombay, Esther Fortunoff recalled.

These days, she has been scouring Brooklyn for the latest jewelry designers, some using precious metals, some using recycled materials found in New York. She has also been working with Masai jewelry makers on a special beaded collection.

"We're trying to have a balance between cutting edge looks and classic," Esther Fortunoff said.

Her brother has been instrumental in organizing their company's e-tail operations.

Even when Fortunoff's was bought out by an investment group, many relatives remained working there, including David Fortunoff, who focused on e-commerce, the bridal registry and customer loyalty programs until 2008.

But kickstarting the business online has proved challenging, Esther Fortunoff noted.

"Sometimes feeling something in your hand makes you more able to make a quick decision," she said. "With the Internet, people want to order two of something to compare them."

Overall, though, she added, "It feels pretty great to be rebuilding."

"We've primarily been going after former customers," David Fortunoff said.

"They're delighted again to give a gift in the Fortunoff box. People told us they stopped buying jewelry when we closed. …We were so trusted. People knew they were getting the right value."