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The jewelry-making Fortunatos: Juggling baubles, babies and Biden

Both pregnant, the twins came home for a weekend visit, ending up staying for months, watched their orders be decimated by COVID-19, and THEN got a surprise invitation.
Fortunato sisters
Kathryn Fortunato, left, with baby Johnny, and Lizzie Fortunato with baby Ruby.

Twin sisters Lizzie and Kathryn Fortunato had a plan. 

The Delaware natives at the helm of Lizzie Fortunato Jewels have moved elegantly and successfully through their 20s and early 30s. 

Their coveted jewels have gotten their close ups in Vogue, Women’s Wear Daily and Elle; the twins get their close up with haute couture on their regular visits to Paris Fashion Week.

As cramped city apartments gave way to wondrous, sun-dappled space in Brooklyn for Kathryn and a bucolic seaside refurb in Bellport for Lizzie, the next evolution in the lives of the Fortunato sisters began to bloom as delicately as … well, baby’s breath, as it happens.

“We’ve spent so much of our lives the past few years discussing when we would each give birth, making sure its six months apart so we could each run our company while the other one was taking leave,” Kathryn says. “We had a plan.”

Lizzie, the creative, designs the jewels; while Kathryn’s Wall Street chops helps move them. Even though they’re each siloed in their unique part of the business, it takes two to make this thing go right. 

“What actually happened was really lethal for our business,” Lizzie says, laughing.

In November 2019, the plan was out the window. Lizzie told Kathryn she was pregnant. A week later, a nervous Kathryn showed up to echo the same. Lizzie had Ruby July 15; Kathryn had Johnny July 22.

“Even though we are a multimillion-dollar business, and even though we’re 12 years old, we still have less than 15 employees,” Kathryn says. “It’s not a huge enterprise.”

Fortunato Jewels was dreamed up in a Duke University dorm room in 2008 and funded with a few grand from each twin. The company has bootstrapped it ever since—lean and nimble, with no injection of investor capital. Small enough to struggle with its two CEOS out; small enough to roll like a runaway pearl toward the brink of disaster come COVID. 

“Our doctors were at Mt. Sinai West, and in the early days of the pandemic, that was the epicenter,” Lizzie says. “And she said, ‘If you have anywhere else to go, go there immediately.’”

So the twins each packed for a weekend and hightailed it to their father’s Chadds Ford home. Except they ended up sheltering in place for months. 

Well-meaning friends kept telling the sisters to just relax.

“The world is falling apart, I’m seven months pregnant, I have one pair of jeans and no apartment, we’re clinging to our livelihood—I am extraordinarily stressed in this moment,” Lizzie says. 

With 70 percent of Fortunato Jewels being wholesale to boutiques and department stores, when one of their major clients, Nieman Marcus, declared bankruptcy in April, it rocked the business, particularly because Neiman had open receivables. 

“That was a huge financial hit for a business as small as ours,” Kathryn says. “And even for the stores that weren’t closing, they were looking at their receivables and saying, ‘We have X dollars on order for September delivery, and we don’t even know if people will be shopping in September, so we need to cancel that order.’

“As owners, we’re like, ‘Yeah, but those orders are already in production; we’ve already paid everyone to make that order.’ The awful irony here is that the small businesses are shouldering the financial burden as the large ones are saying, ‘Well, sorry. We can lawyer up if you want to.’” 

The Fortunato sisters have taken over their father's living room to continue their jewelry business.
The Fortunato sisters have taken over their father’s living room to continue their jewelry business.

With several hundred thousand dollars off the books, the duo had to rely on their direct e-commerce channel. Both seven months pregnant, they worked deep into the nights in their father’s living room, bent over boxes laden with materials, covering every table surface in twinkling jewels and getting orders out, each with a handwritten note from Lizzie offering her deep thanks.

“It was insane,” says Kathryn. “I’ve discovered as a new mom that you kind of black out when it comes to the bad stuff, and that was a challenge like nothing we’d ever faced before, but luckily, I don’t remember all that much of it.”

If there was any silver lining to 2020, the twins say both being pregnant at the same time actually worked out.

“It’s not like we were going to break any sales records this year anyway,” Lizzie says. “So being out at the same time, doing this together, having someone through a really scary time—personally and professionally—ended up working out in the exact opposite way I thought it would.”

Right after Neiman Marcus canceled their large order, Kathryn mused, “Is this it? Is this the day where we just throw in the towel?” 

“it was our lowest low,” Kathryn says. “But it’s been my experience as a small business owner that the highs usually come next.”

And in their line of work, it doesn’t come much higher—an email from Her Royal Majesty Anna Wintour, inviting the Fortunato sisters to take part in a fundraising effort to benefit the Biden campaign. The other designers included Vera Wang and Proenza Schouler and Tori Burch, among others. 

“We’re sitting on this Zoom call with Anna Wintour, these designers, Dr. Jill Biden … it was pretty dang exciting,” says Lizzie, who designed a pendant necklace for the president-elect.

“This year was a year of really big challenges but some really amazing wins—the babies, the Bidens,” Kathryn says. “That really gave us some energy when we felt like we were losing everything.”

So what’s next?

Fortunto fans will have observed a gradual glow up—the place in life in which the twins find themselves organically influences the next evolution of Fortunato Jewels.

For example, in their early 30s, after being invited to “about nine million weddings,” the twins discovered they didn’t have bags to go with their wedding looks, so evening bags were a product add. Now Lizzie is designing a cross-body bag (“The Ruby,” naturally) because she noticed a funny thing happens when you push a stroller—you need both hands.

“When we started this, we never had an intention to just put more stuff out into the world,” Lizzie says. “It was never like, ‘Find a factory. Submit a purchase order. Box up a ton of stuffs, get it on shelves, and then have it end up in a landfill. I wanted to create intentional, thoughtful things, with a story.”

Expect the next chapter to be chockablock with home goods—found and, if Lizzie’s dreams come to pass—designed. She’s been working on a hand-loomed rug she designed, now that she’s got actual space for it. 

The story part is important to them, too. The duo wants to focus on representation, on the true pleasure of being a working mom without the guilt, on supporting and advocating for other creative women. 

“We know there are some people who come to the site and just want to look at and buy pretty jewelry,” Lizzie says. “They don’t want to come here for our political views, or our thoughts on empowerment. But we have a platform. And to not use it would be a failure. So our thoughts are, OK, well, perhaps you buy your jewelry somewhere else. We can live with that.”

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