Retail Giant Rebounds

Esther Fortunoff

Esther Fortunoff discusses her family’s business from the past to the present

In 1922, Max and Clara Fortunoff founded a store that would become synonymous with housing everything under one roof: gourmet appliances, housewares, indoor and outdoor furniture and more. What started as a general store pushcart in Brooklyn quickly began to grow into brick and mortar shops. And according to Max and Clara’s granddaughter Esther Fortunoff, as the family expanded, so did the business.

“Each of my grandparents’ three children came into the business and when they married, so did their spouses. They all pursued a different product line and type of product offering,” said Fortunoff of her family’s business, which at one point comprised 11 stores in a three-block radius in the Brooklyn borough. “It was an unusual mix of things with products sourced all over the world, but at great prices.”

As Brooklyn changed over time, the Fortunoffs made the decision to put everything under one roof, settling in Westbury in 1964. It was a very successful move that happened very quickly, becoming popular with suburban families on Long Island and in Queens.

“Once the move happened, the store was extremely busy so my family quickly opened just a jewelry, silver and watch store in Manhattan and another one of the same in Paramus Park, NJ. Both of those went so well that they decided to open a flagship store in 1979 on Fifth Avenue,” said Fortunoff of the store that was housed in an historic building also from 1922 from the firm of McKim, Mead & White. “In 1979, I came into the business. All of us third generation kids had been working in the business in some capacity—I was back from college after a stint as an archaeologist in the Sinai desert—and came back to help train the staff for the Fifth Avenue location.”

At the time, Fortunoff was tasked with spending time with actress Lauren Bacall, who was the company’s spokesperson. In the 1980s, more department stores opened in New Jersey until 1990, when Fortunoff joined forces with Simon Malls, becoming the Source Mall
in Westbury.

“My family made the decision to sell the business in 2005, but the new owners didn’t get the DNA of what Fortunoff really was. And the growth of the Internet and online shopping gave people a different way to shop,” said Fortunoff, noting that was launched in 2010 and was met with success. “We had a lot of customers and sales, but we found that people wanted a store again so I made the decision to open a brick and mortar boutique-sized store in 2014 back at the Source Mall.”

Fortunoff has been operating that store ever since. While she still prefers print media and advertising in magazines and newspapers, she also understands the power of social media and has utilized Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest as well as face-to-face marketing at events. In terms of the store’s inventory, Fortunoff says it’s a combination of old and new styles.

“I’m seeing a return to color with more gemstone jewelry, which I love. It’s interesting to learn about the different countries that they come from and there are different combinations of stones as well,” she said. “There is also a return to yellow gold as opposed to white. In jewelry, trends change more slowly than in clothing. People still like stacking rings, others are into unisex jewelry that is more plain and we also have estate jewelry.”
Fortunoff makes an effort to carry jewelry from women designers whenever she can and notes that the company does a lot of custom designing for people as well. She also invests her time working with several nonprofit charities and organizations on Long Island and has created special pieces of jewelry for those groups to retail and raise money from. So what’s next?

“I’m currently exploring a pop-up type situation in the city and am in the process of changing my website to a new platform with enhanced photography, making it easier to navigate and see our collections as things evolve,” said Fortunoff. “People are downsizing and looking to sell their jewelry. I’m an expert at that.”

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