As students at Duke University, twin sisters Kathryn and Lizzie Fortunato made jewelry for fun from materials they found at a nearby bead shop. “Soon enough, our college girlfriends and acquaintances caught on. We had a captive audience with nowhere to shop at the time in Durham, North Carolina, so they’d stop by our dorm room and ask to borrow a necklace or earrings for their formal or party that night,” Kathryn recalls. “That’s when I decided we should start hosting on-campus trunk shows.”
English/art history major Lizzie and economics student Kathryn sold out in 30 minutes. “We also booked enough orders to necessitate me going to Lizzie’s required biology and Spanish classes for her for the rest of sophomore year!” Despite their success with jewelry—“semiannual trunk shows subsidized spring breaks in Paris,” Kathryn adds—the Wilmington natives (both graduated in 2002 from Tower Hill) found “real” jobs after college: Lizzie pursued fashion PR, while Kathryn began a career on Wall Street.
However, many Duke friends who also relocated to New York were still lusting for more accessories, and a year later, Lizzie—with a generous $10,000 bonus check from her sister—took a risk and launched Lizzie Fortunato Jewels from her Lower East Side apartment. Kathryn later joined the brand, which has since grown to include leather accessories and home décor. It’s now supported by a team of 14 employees and more than 70 wholesale accounts worldwide.
Here, we step into the studio with the designer duo.
I’m largely self-taught. I started making pieces in high school, which Peter Kate would let me sell on consignment. In college is when I really honed my skills.
Our pieces are worn by women in their 20s through their 70s. She’s a trailblazer, an adventurer, a collector, an artist, an innovator—someone who makes our pieces her own and who dresses to tell a story.
Deep down, I think I knew I’d join her. I loved my job on Wall Street, but also felt the grueling hours and travel weren’t sustainable. I also wanted LFJ to grow and to help it get there. I left my job when I’d saved enough money to help float us for a few months. We really bootstrapped in those early days—every single sale counted. One of the reasons we work so well together is that Lizzie never wants to touch QuickBooks and I can’t imagine designing a necklace! We stay in our own lane and trust the other’s abilities.
Each piece tells a story and transports the wearer. Travel has been a huge source of inspiration—India, Cambodia, Italy, Japan and Mexico [and beyond] have inspired our collections. We strive to champion the artisanal crafts, artworks and architecture of the places we visit, and we love sourcing materials from faraway places. For example, lately we’ve used incredible recycled glass beads imported from Africa to create our “Laguna” necklaces.
Kathryn: We are identical twins with a pretty similar sense of style that’s clean and classic—though neither can resist a good print. We opt for well-tailored pieces and let our jewelry do the talking.
Lizzie: My maternal grandmother. She didn’t have a closet full of designer labels, but she knew how to invest in sophisticated pieces and embellishments—big cuffs, chunky rings, her hair in a chignon and a peach lip—that elevated her look. She gave me an evening jacket that she’d made in her 30s or 40s—a simple, mauve-brown fabric with beautiful, beaded cuffs. She’d told me how she saved up to buy the trim for that jacket, and how women stopped her to ask which designer made it.
These incorporate prints, colors, techniques and materials we were already using in our jewelry. Our Fortune Finds home décor pieces are sourced from our travels and other artists. We love bringing back rugs from Morocco or ceramics from Japan or wooden masks from Mexico for our customers to experience and enjoy.
I’ve recently designed some gorgeous hand-dyed wool rugs in India for Kathryn’s and my homes and have received tons of compliments.
Lizzie: My turquoise single-strand necklace—I layer it with everything.
Kathryn: I always have one of our crossbody bags. We’re constantly schlepping, and with a business and a baby, I need my hands free!
Lizzie: Don’t overthink it. The best style should feel effortless. And dressing should be fun, not fussy.
Kathryn: Lizzie and I are petite, so we hem all of our jeans. A flat [shoe] with a jean just above the ankle is very flattering.