The New York Times

November 29, 2007

Critical Shopper

Between the Rocks and a Hard Sell

PERCEPTION really is reality.

The department store windows on Fifth Avenue have burst out in all their glitz-spangled glory, all twinkling luxuria and artsy surprises. A vintage telescope! A large resin snail!

It takes truckloads of top-dollar creative input to impress a New Yorker enough to stop walking in cold weather, but the annual window displays always manage to slam home the emotional impact of the winter holidays.

Dear God, you think, infused with dread. I have to buy a million things.

Max and Clara Fortunoff opened their first department store in Brooklyn in 1922. There are now several on the East Coast, all operating for the last 25 years under the iconic slogan, “The Source.” The new store on 57th Street is the first Fortunoff to open since investment groups gained ownership in 2005. Fortunoff family members have retained hands-on roles in managing the business, but you get the impression they are losing grip on their name as it mutates into a corporate logo. After the holidays, the old store on Fifth Avenue will close.

I have seen a lot of heavy shopping bags from their Fifth Avenue store hanging over a number of minky elbows over the years, so I presumed Fortunoff to be fancy, in that old New Yawk way.

The doorman’s red Beefeater uniform is of a primary-colored, fuzzy felt usually seen on giant animals outside F. A. O. Schwarz. Inside, the store has a spare, masculine late-1960s look, as if Steve McQueen might walk in, hit the dark wood paneling with his fist and reveal a chrome wet bar.

When archaeologists are digging New York out of permafrost a century from now, they may determine that in late 2007, diamond cuff bracelets enslaved womankind. Fortunoff’s window displays will support this.

There is a saleswoman approximately every five feet. Some are young, with pencil eyebrows and hoop earrings; others have accents and lipstick on their teeth. You quickly learn that giving them eye contact is like waving an eight-foot croissant in front of beach-town gulls: they’re so attentive, you might lose an arm.

“No thank you, just browsing at the moment, thank you,” I chanted steadily enough to become more deeply Buddhist.

If you reject their initial blasts of attention, they lean back into groups and resume full-voiced conversations, even if you stand in their section, suddenly pointing, clearing your throat and waving your arms around.

I got one to come back.

“Could you tell me who designed this piece?”

I didn’t know how to think about this bracelet — there were so many diamonds all over it.

She began blinking at me, utterly mystified.

“Hmmm, I don’t know,” she said.

She flagged another saleswoman. She, too, stared as blankly as if I had asked her to hold my cormorant.

I resumed browsing, trying to look involved with my phone as a means of avoiding further service.

There was a blizzard of gems, nothing catching my eye, until Wham! There it was: the most tawdry, enormous Chiclet-size aquamarine-and-brown-diamond-encrusted cross since the reign of Pope Liberace I. I was informed that this $14,995 rascal had been purchased “by someone in the rock ’n’ roll business.” Perhaps ... as a weapon.

A small case in back was, for me, the heart of the store: a selection of vintage estate pieces bought by Ruth Fortunoff, who clearly has an eye for them. I loved a thick 18-karat rope fastened by two rams’ heads and glittering knobs of ruby and sandstone. It was very Fall of Rome. Tragically, it was $6,500.

Upstairs, there are silver-dipped baby things, cuff links reminiscent of Thibault petits fours, and an exhaustively ecumenical array of bracelet charms. Every dog breed, religion, sport and snack is represented. Hands of Fatima. Ankhs. Gumball machines ($175). Evil eye charms. Horns o’ plenty. Everything but virgins for volcanoes.

The bridal registry offers designs by Villeroy & Boch, Haviland, Wedgwood, et al. The china was underwhelming, but I was wild about a ruthlessly decadent set of gold-plate and silver flatware, perfect for Idi Amin.  I begged a representative to tell me about it.

She stared ruefully at a blank spot where a label was apparently supposed to be. Tsss. I have to tell the girl. She did not put the thing.” The side of the knife, once I pried off the Velcro, said it was Wallace sterling. No price was available.

Lurking downstairs are the biggest diamonds of all: the engagement sets. The space was once a bank; there is a stunning walk-in vault that looks like a 1920s ship engine, which I was not allowed to photograph. The knowledgeable head jeweler indulged me gracefully as I ogled Girl’s Best Friend in cocktail colors.

“Where did this come from?” I asked another gentleman on the sales floor, about the most monstrous ring I could find: 3.25 carats ($58,000).

“I’m not sure, but there’s no blood diamonds,” he said.

That’s when I saw it: a bigger cross. Enough brown diamonds for a terrazzo casino floor. I didn’t want to know this cross. I’m sorry I met it. I never want to see it again ($55,000).

The largely untrained staff undermines what the new Fortunoff could be — i.e., more like Tiffany, less like Macy’s — in the mind of someone new to it.

Some brides must have emotional connections to Fortunoff. It was a place they went with their grandmothers, maybe, or where their first pearls were bought. Maybe, for them, the name alone is enough to inspire the perception of continuity; of an unbroken chain of family tradition, as opposed to just a chain.

May “The Source” be with them.

Fortunoff   3 West 57th Street (near Fifth Avenue); (212) 292-8800.

Text Box: BLING! As Shirley Bassey once said, diamonds never lie and “won’t leave in the night.” The bangles here probably won’t leave in the day, either, unless you’re playing nude shuffleboard in Brunei.
BADDA-BING The clientele: XXL men with XXL; pinkie rings and black leather blazers at the white gold and titanium counter; older guys in royal blue chalk-stripe suits with orange hair on the other side, in pink stones and pearls. In between: attractive, significantly younger ladies with quilted Chanel handbags and hair in far more natural numbers of blond. The tension is thick; the wallets, thicker. 
KA-CHINGLE, ALL THE WAY Fortunoff is an unparalleled place to buy trinkets for all the princess brides, Gotti boys, Southern televangelists, African warlords and Wayne Newtons on your shopping list.