As I think back over my decades of experience in our family business, there is a lot to smile about. Sorting through tons of old photos, newspaper articles and advertisements, I fondly recall many rewarding experiences.
Because a centenary is such an incredible milestone, my family and I have searched out (and found) images that many in the third generation had never seen.
It all began in 1922 in Brooklyn, when my grandparents, Max and Clara Fortunoff, launched their business in the roaring twenties, a time of progress, industrialization and optimism.
Back then, Fortunoff was nothing more than a pushcart laden with pots and pans. The business expanded into a general store, specializing in kitchenware. Both family and business grew through the 1920s, 30s and 40s, surviving first the Depression, then World War II. The store carried items that every home needed, and built a reputation for good quality and value pricing.
When World War II ended and the soldiers came home, more members of the Fortunoff family joined to meet the needs of a rapidly growing customer base. The second generation, Marjorie, Lester and Alan, joined an experienced home-grown team that expanded the company’s one store in the East New York section of Brooklyn into a sprawling complex with eight stores in a two-block radius.
The stores stayed open late and catered to appreciative crowds of shoppers. The stores expanded their offerings to include kitchenware, towels, linens, curtains and curtain rods, lamps, furniture, silverware and china. Each additional product category demanded ever-increasing numbers of service personnel. Max and Clara, along with their diverse staff, welcomed the second generation and their spouses into the growing enterprise, and kept adding new products. My mother, Helene, with her husband, Alan, decided to try fine jewelry, and it became a legendary department.
The Fortunoff family also felt it important to give back to the community, offering jobs for high schoolers from the neighborhood, some of whom ended up staying with the company for more than 50 years!
The full history of the Brooklyn stores has been told before, but here are a couple of my favorite photos, showing my mother Helene’s first jewelry counter and my father Alan at the cash register in 1957.
In the 1960s, the family chose to follow many of our customers to the suburbs of Long Island, New Jersey, and Westchester. Over the next 50 years, Fortunoff opened a half-dozen new stores in the tri-state area.
We found a great location for a department store in Westbury, adjacent to Roosevelt Raceway. This was the realization of a dream to put the various Brooklyn shops under one roof. The Westbury store opening was a high watermark for the family as well as our tens of thousands of customers.
They built a 150,000-square-foot superstore across the parking lot from Ohrbach’s, one of the country’s most popular department stores at the time. Many of our employees from Brooklyn followed the business to Long Island. Fortunoff became a true American success story, fully stocked with china, crystal, pots and pans, silverware, gifts, lamps, jewelry, unique items from all over the world – and even gourmet foods. In addition to quality products and great values, the Westbury store featured a well-trained staff of primarily women to help with merchandise choices and gift wrapping. As news of the store grew, the turnout was amazing. Customers jammed the aisles, sometimes three deep, with shoppers marveling at the many showcases full of new and exciting selections.
My mother and her team created a gigantic jewelry department set up quite differently from other jewelry stores at that time. To be as close as possible to her customers, my mother had her office right off the sales floor with a staff of women she personally trained.
Alan and Helene traveled the world to source unusual designs from undiscovered designers, an unusual thing for a woman to do back then. To support the overwhelming success of the Westbury location on Long Island, the jewelry and silver businesses created a strong executive team behind the scenes as well as at the counter and on the sales floor.
My parents had always dreamed of a more cosmopolitan upscale location and, in 1969, they opened a boutique on 57th Street, between Park Avenue and Lexington Avenue. The move to Manhattan made the Fortunoff hallmark combination of best products at everyday low prices available to city dwellers, businesspeople, tourists and visitors from around the country and the world.
The store on 57th Street was a typical city structure – very narrow, with several floors of merchandise. Jewelry was on the ground level and watches and flatware were above. My mom and dad added antique jewelry and antique silver, which they sourced from England. I worked as a teenager on weekends and the city life was certainly exciting. We were across the street from the imposing and impressive structure, “The First Women’s Bank.” Here is a full-page advertisement that announced the arrival of Fortunoff to 57th Street.
I went off to college out west, while our growing family was enjoying the success that came with hard work and the “right stuff.” Since my mother was from New Jersey and knew the area, and since many of the old Brooklyn customers had moved there, my parents began the process of looking for a location and found a brand new mall being built, which was opened on 1974, called Paramus Park, in Bergen County.
Fortunoff was the “third anchor” in the new center which included A&S and JC Penny. Our store was a fabulous, modern, spacious 15,000 square-feet with showcase after showcase of fine jewelry, fashion jewelry, costume jewelry, watches, flatware (the largest selection in the U.S.), silver tea services, and picture frames. An innovative feature was our watchmakers and jewelers, positioned behind a large glass partition and visible to our customers while they worked. The watch and jewelry service center in Paramus was bustling and the place where I later learned so much about the jewelry business. We had a sit-down diamond area and a large selection of jewelry and watches at every price point.
I flew in from college for the Paramus Park opening. It was very exciting! In fact, each store opening was like an extended family reunion, with Fortunoff family members from the first and second generations (my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles), and as many of the cousins as were old enough to attend and help cut the ribbon. We always invited employees from all the areas of the company, along with friends and suppliers, to join us for these special events, too.
The key staffers hired in Paramus became the backbone of subsequent New Jersey store locations, including Wayne and Woodbridge. Fortunoff became an iconic business unlike any other in the country, mentioned on popular TV shows, featured in newspapers and magazines, and studied in business schools. A true American success story.