Let’s Chat with Esther Fortunoff-greene, President & Owner of fortunoff fine jewelry


The Grassi Women’s Council is excited to share the next interview in our “Let’s Chat” women in business series. HR Team Member and GWC Lead Arianna Savoca sat down with Esther Fortunoff to talk about her career, challenges, and insights into women’s advancement and achievement.

How did you develop and foster your passion for a career in jewelry buying?

I started my career when I was eight years old! I was working in our family business, which at that point was in Brooklyn. My grandparents and parents were working hard to build the business, so we kids went to the store and worked with them to spend time together. I started by helping at the cash register, wrapping purchases for customers, and helping sort flatware in the stockroom. At some point I began selling clocks, and then eventually I graduated to selling jewelry.

The first deep dive that I took into jewelry buying was the diamond business, and I traveled to India, Israel, and Antwerp, and was one of very few retailers in those diamond bourses. We went to “the source” – that was our concept, which was a registered trademark. We sourced rubies, sapphires, emeralds, pearls, and created the jewelry, sometimes overseas and sometimes in New York, with the stones that we brought back. We focused on customer service, ethics, and ethical behavior. I continued in jewelry buying for 20 years and finally ended up running the team of about ten jewelry buyers.

Anyone who visits Fortunoff’s Instagram page or makes a purchase on your site knows your authentic foundation, and what you and your family-grown business are all about. How do you define “authentic leadership” and how does one become an authentic leader?

I think authenticity is defined as being yourself. On the other hand, being a leader requires you not to just be about yourself, but to be about your team and to acknowledge that you got to where you are on the shoulders of the giants who came before you. You didn’t invent yourself as you are. You got there by learning from others.

I believe an authentic leader is someone who can take stock of their team and assess everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, and then try to build around that. Whether you are in a retail environment or an office environment, a good leader will take account of those traits and learn how to utilize their team members’ strengths. You have to be able to admit your mistakes and acknowledge when things are difficult. There’s no job or task within my business that I’ve asked anyone to do that I have not done myself.

Running a successful business includes building the right team to drive the goals of the organization forward. How have you gone about selecting the right team members to join Fortunoff Fine Jewelry?

The Fortunoff jewelry business, required many, many employees. We believed in having a lot of staff so that customers didn’t have to wait long. Certain employees asked for more responsibility and were interested in learning new things, so we had to be aware that employees might start in one area of the business but end up in a different area. Being able to recognize talent and look for people who care and were genuine was always more important to me than whether or not they had jewelry knowledge. We always looked for people who were willing to be a part of the team and grow into their roles.

Have you had mentors throughout your career? Have you mentored others? If so, please share why having the right mentor is so important for career and professional growth.

Both my mother and father were mentors to me throughout my career. Also, there was a store manager in the housewares department who started working with us when she was 22, and stayed with us for more than 40 years, eventually becoming the manager of the Westbury store. My father pointed out that this manager was acknowledging everyone and talking to everyone and giving them recognition for their achievements. She taught me the importance of giving credit to other people and making them feel appreciated and recognized for their hard work.

I believe everyone could use a different mentor at different stages in their career, as they continue to grow and develop through various roles.

At any point in your career did you feel you were struggling to find balance between work and personal life, and what adjustments did you make to improve?

I love working and I have always worked long hours, and constantly took on more responsibilities. Trying to achieve a perfect integration of the different areas of my life was challenging. Once I got married and had a child, we had to figure out what would work best for all of us so that we could maintain our careers and spend time together. I lived near the school my daughter attended, so I could get out for an hour and participate in parents’ activities. I also took work home with me. I would review paperwork while sitting with my daughter as she watched television.

Over the years, it has also become more important to set boundaries for myself and my workdays. When I am not working, I try to remain present in whatever it is I am doing that day. It seems like post COVID everyone wants to reconnect and have networking constantly. I maintain a balance of reconnecting with people and finding time to break away and spend time with my husband. I find that doing yoga, even just an hour a week where you breathe and center yourself, is very important.

What are some of your personal experiences (or reasons) that motivated you to think and care about women’s empowerment and advancement?

Women have always been a critical part of the workforce and should have roles in decision making in every organization. That was proven to me by watching my grandmother, mother, and aunt who always worked and had leadership roles and responsibilities within our business. For a long time, I was in a part of the industry where there were very few women, dealing with diamonds and gemstones. I recall not being acknowledged the same way men were when I was sourcing products all over the world.

I always tried to encourage other businesses to promote or sponsor females. Certain cultures, have many more women involved in industry. For example, in Thailand, there were many women in the gemstone business. But there’s no question that many women were afraid to speak up. Today, we have so many mentoring and teaching organizations, like the Moxxie Mentoring Foundation, and others that support financial planning and women’s networking. It is important to support women’s advancement and give them the tools they need to succeed.

How have you utilized your experience and platform to share your talents and benefit organizations outside of Fortunoff?

In my family, it was important to work hard, and it was strongly encouraged that you join civic organizations and work in them from very early on. I became involved in the Nassau County Coalition against Domestic Violence, which later merged with the Coalition against Child Abuse, which now is called The Safe Center. It was so intense hearing the stories of women who had been in abusive relationships, that it really inspired me to do whatever I could to help. Serving on the board, speaking out and having name recognition helped draw positive attention and support to this cause.

Another experience I had was being on the board of an avant-garde theater company in Manhattan named Mabou Mines. In this company, decision making is done by consensus, so there was no single leader, and you had to have 100% agreement to get something accomplished. Here I am, coming out of a corporate mindset, which functions very differently. There’s a hierarchy and structure. It was a very interesting experience to be involved in strategizing for this organization.

I was on the board of the Nature Conservancy of Long Island, and I really wanted to learn about their work in a hands-on way. We were trying to get invasive species of plants out of some lakes and bodies of water on Long Island. So, I went out in a canoe, and I was helping pull out these plants that were choking the water. It was great to be a part of making the island a safer and cleaner place.

About Esther Fortunoff-Greene

Esther Fortunoff-Greene is the CEO of Fortunoff Fine Jewelry. Her 30-year career began in her family’s chain of stores in the New York Tristate area where she was part of the third generation. She was instrumental in transforming Fortunoff into a go-to store for millions of discerning shoppers. Fortunoff, “The Source,” was one of America’s most successful privately held family department stores, founded a century ago in Brooklyn by Esther’s grandparents, Max and Clara.

Esther worked in various capacities alongside her parents, overseeing the jewelry business. As chief jewelry merchant she made numerous trips to the diamond cutting centers of Bombay, Tel Aviv and Antwerp as well as Italy, Thailand and Hong Kong. After the sale of the business in 2005 and subsequent exit of the brick and mortar business in 2009, she relaunched the Fortunoffjewelry.com in 2010 with a seasoned staff to help with online purchases and special requests.

Esther continues to source precious gemstones, diamonds and pearls, and designs and manufactures proprietary jewelry collections. She also works with clients to create custom items or re-style older pieces. Esther is passionate about working with women designers and professionals as much as possible. A graduate of Colorado College, (BA-History), she resides in Nassau County with her husband Joshua.

Previously in the Let’s Talk Interview Series: Adriana Carrig, Founder & CEO of Little Words Project