Helene Fortunoff, who built a jewelry empire from the cinder block home she purchased as a single mom from the owner of a store in Times Square as a 15-year-old, died Tuesday. She was 88.
“What she touched in her lifetime was millions,” her son Marc Fortunoff said. “It really started with a real simple business and it became an incredible legacy that was made possible with the generosity of Helene’s family and the gift of those loyal customers.”
Helene Fortunoff was born in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, but was sent to boarding school at age 14 and began working as a clerk in a store operated by brothers Bernard and Harry Seide. She moved to the Bronx and learned how to sew. After falling in love with partner Ernest Elbaz, she left to be with him.
She brought to their marriage much of the taste she’d been exposed to in Europe while she was in school. She started shopping for rings and wedding bands at Sinatra Plaza, which included Harry’s M.C. Records. In 1955, at 21, she bought the building, which was then a parking lot, on Sixth Avenue and West 43rd Street that would be her main business through most of the 1970s.
“The fountains in front of my store were kind of a critical part of my success,” she told the New York Post in 2002.
As a young woman, Helene hired Charles James, whose fashions were fashionable back then. James advised her to mix not only old and new pieces, but then go upmarket to make “products worth wearing,” she told the Daily News. By 1968, Harry’s M.C. Records was sold and she opened a building on 53rd Street for retail. Around that time, she acquired Alice and Beatrice, another old music store, from prominent community leader and diamond merchant Gilday Foster.
In the 1970s, her stores began introducing new necklaces and watches from designers such as Rolleiflex, Pascale Coppola, James Rumsey and Elsa Peretti, in addition to Hermes, Cartier and Tiffany & Co.
Helene Fortunoff remained adamant about pursuing her dreams and encouraged her employees to have the same passion, Marc Fortunoff said. “That’s what she encouraged my parents and myself to do: start our own businesses,” he said. “Success wasn’t something that should be obtained quickly, but rather something that could be cultivated and built.”
Helene Fortunoff was diagnosed with cancer in 2015. She is survived by four sons: Marc, Robert A., Israel F. and Samuel F., and two daughters: Lynne Fortunoff and B.J.C. Fortunoff, according to her obituary in The New York Times.
Ruth Johnson contributed to this report.