CEO Beth Gerstein still believes in the jeweler’s omnichannel approach as its retail rollout continues.
Retailer Hall of Fame 2021: Marie Helene Reinhold
The much-loved and well-respected jeweler has an unparalleled eye for talent and the ability to see failure as an opportunity to grow.
When Marie Helene Reinhold started in the jewelry business four decades ago, she did something crazy.
She was stocking pieces by a then little-known designer named David Yurman and she asked him, do you mind if I put your name on a little card in front of your jewelry?
Branding for jewelry designers? Groundbreaking, truly.
“Marie Helene was the mother of the American designer jewelry category,” Yurman said to National Jeweler. “She was one of the first to bring that concept into the mainstream.”
Today, as president of Grupo Reinhold, the executive oversees a total of five stores, all on the island of Puerto Rico, where she has lived for nearly 60 years.
There are two Reinhold Jewelers-branded stores, a freestanding Tiffany & Co. boutique operated in partnership with the iconic jeweler, a freestanding David Yurman store run in partnership with that brand, and a men’s concept store called Kiyume.
But it didn’t start out that way.
Like many well-known retailers, Reinhold Jewelers was one store at the beginning, and its now-famous leader didn’t even work there. That is, until someone else quit without warning one Christmas Eve.
There are two common paths people seemingly follow to get into the jewelry business.
The first is the legacy route—you become a jeweler because your parents, grandparents, and possibly great-grandparents were, too.
The second is more happenstance—you find yourself in a jewelry job by chance, fall in love with the industry (who wouldn’t?), and never leave.
Marie Helene falls into the latter category.
Born in Haiti in 1941, she’s the daughter of Kurt Fisher, a Jewish man who fled his native Austria when it was taken over by Hitler and the Nazis in 1938, and a fourth-generation Haitian woman, Ghislaine Fombrun.
The retailer was raised in Haiti until she left to attend college in New York City. She ended up putting her language skills to use at the United Nations—Marie Helene is fluent in English, French, German and Spanish—before moving to Puerto Rico in the early ‘60s.
Reuniting with her family, who had left Haiti for Puerto Rico, Reinhold went to work in her father’s store, which sold antiques, island art and other collectibles.
“My mother, no matter what she was into, always had an eye for art and for design. She always liked unusual things.” — Yael Reinhold Lipnik
Eventually, she opened two stores of her own in Old San Juan, the “It Boutique” and the “Hole in the Wall.”
“My mom was very eclectic,” says Yael Reinhold Lipnik, the youngest of Marie Helene’s four daughters. “She liked to dabble in different kinds of businesses.”
One day, a woman who was dating the man who owned the jewelry store across the street, Henry Reinhold, bought some clothing at Marie Helene’s store, and told her to bill Henry.
So the retailer did; she walked across the street and handed him the bill. It marked the end of Henry’s relationship with his girlfriend and the start of a new one, with Marie Helene.
The two eventually married, and, in the early ‘70s, a staffing upheaval changed the course of Marie Helene’s career.
The manager of Reinhold Jewelers quit with no notice on Christmas Eve, and Marie Helene stepped in to help out the family business.
“[Reinhold Jewelers] was her entire vision. She got to move it the way she wanted.” — Regan Reinhold
At the time, Reinhold Jewelers carried basic jewelry—engagement rings, watches, pearl strands, bread-and-butter diamond pieces—which, to be fair, was what one would have found in almost every jewelry store in the early 1970s.
Feeling, as she put it in one interview, “suffocated by the sameness” she saw throughout the store, Marie Helene lobbied for a small showcase of her own.
She filled it with the work of artists like Jan Yager, the late Jose Hess, and David Yurman.
When she and Henry divorced in the mid-80s, Marie Helene retained the store’s name as her only asset.
She was now free to make Reinhold Jewelers into what she envisioned—a store that emphasized design and designers, and one in which the story behind every piece of jewelry was told.
“It was her entire vision,” recalls Regan Reinhold, another of Marie Helene’s daughters. “She got to move it the way she wanted.”
When Marie Helene started in the jewelry industry, the American jewelry design movement was just getting underway.
The so-called New Designer Gallery, inaugurated in 1977 at the Retail Jewelers of America show in New York (now JA New York), was a true innovation.
Instead of the usual wholesale brands that were unknown to consumers, it featured a range of young, mostly American artist/designers who each had a “story” and a distinctive look.
They marketed their jewelry like art and their brand names were meant to be carried in retail stores and sold that way.
This approach aligned with Reinhold’s vision of jewelry as art.
“My mother,” Yael says, “no matter what she was into, always had an eye for art and for design. She always liked unusual things. I think going into the jewelry world was an art world for her, too.”
Marie Helene says her love of art and beauty was something instilled in her from a young age, as was being a merchant.
Before emigrating to Haiti, her father's family ran auction house Wiener Auktionhaus J. Fischer in Vienna, which was a thriving hub for artists, musicians, and philosophers for generations.
Her father Kurt and his brother-in-law, Karl Frombrun, continued their artistic legacy in Haiti, running a small version of the auction house and, later, opening the shop in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico where Marie Helene worked.
“I truly don’t remember a moment in life where beauty and art were not celebrated fully,” she says.
Marie Helene channeled this lifelong appreciation for beautiful objects, as well as her family’s example of how to rebuild, into her jewelry business.
Left with only the name “Reinhold Jewelers” after her divorce, she started over with beaded necklaces she strung alongside her daughters.
The retailer stocked the necklaces in the store, and they sold over and over again, a turnover dream, and those sales allowed her to lay the foundation for what Reinhold Jewelers would become: a leader in nurturing talent in jewelry design.
The store’s earliest roster of designers included not only Yager, Hess and Yurman, but also the innovative platinum designer Michael Bondanza, and John Hardy, a then little-known Canadian artist who was making jewelry with a Balinese bent.
Eventually, her designer showcases included more and more distinguished artists such as Robert Lee Morris, Penny Preville, Alex Sepkus, Monica Rich Kosann, and Stephen Webster.
The full roster of designers carried by Reinhold Jewelers over the years is vast; many found their footing in the fine jewelry world thanks to Reinhold and other retailers who shared her vision.
Yurman recalls how Reinhold was one of his first retail accounts. The store began carrying his jewelry in the late ‘70s when his company was exhibiting at the RJA show under the name Putnam Art Works.
He says she “transformed” Reinhold Jewelers.
“It was no longer just about dealing with diamonds, but about bringing in a sense of personal expression, and introducing their clients to jewelry designers.”
In the 1990s, Reinhold Jewelers was also an early advocate of Monica Rich Kosann.
Kosann, who runs her eponymous company alongside husband Rod Kosann, says she met Marie Helene in a small ballroom at the Couture show, then dedicated to companies selling giftware like hers. (Kosann, who’s also a photographer, started in the industry by selling sterling silver picture cases.)
It wasn’t jewelry, but Reinhold invested anyway, spending a few thousand dollars to start carrying Monica Rich Kosann picture cases because she liked the story.
“She just loved the whole story-telling part of my brand,” says Kosann.
“If you’re a new jewelry designer, I would imagine [Marie Helene] would be on your wish list to come into your booth to look at your jewelry. She’s a legend.” — Monica Rich Kosann
Reinhold became a mentor to both Monica and Rod, giving them advice as they expanded. Today, they consider her family.
Monica jokes that Marie Helene and Rod, who spend hours talking on the phone, are “besties.”
The retailer is also their first appointment at Couture every year—9 a.m. on opening day, like clockwork. The couple thinks of this annual visit as an amulet of sorts, giving them good luck and setting positive intentions for the tiring days ahead.
“You can see everyone respects her, everyone adores her,” Monica says. “If you’re a new jewelry designer, I would imagine she would be on your wish list to come into your booth to look at your jewelry.
“She’s a legend.”
The annual appointment is the kickoff to some of Marie Helene’s favorite days on the calendar.
Anyone who knows the retailer knows she loves the Couture show, and it loves her back. Her many industry accolades include receiving the inaugural Couture Human Spirit Award in 2010 for her “exceptional generosity of mind and spirit.”
She will not, however, play favorites with her Couture memories.
“My favorite Couture memory will be made at the show this August,” Marie Helene declares. “I say this tongue-in-cheek, but also with complete sincerity. While there are so many wonderful memories, I find myself constantly looking forward, not back.”
Among those many wonderful memories was the time she “accidentally” went clubbing with Stephen Webster and Christina Aguilera, though the retailer offers no further details on that night.
“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” she says.
When asked to describe their mother, the adjectives come easily to daughters Regan and Yael, who mentions this one—resilient. She knows failure, but she also understands what it is to pick yourself up and keep going.
“Failure is just an option to learn and grow for her,” Yael says. “It’s not a stopping point.”
It’s a trait great leaders possess, and one that’s practically a prerequisite if you’re going to run a small business.
“[Marie Helene]’s a good boss, but she’s also very tough. She likes everything to be perfect.” — Mildred Marcano, Reinhold Jewelers
At different points in her life, Marie Helene has witnessed her fortunes ebb and flow, both personally and professionally.
There was, of course, having to rebuild the business from scratch following her divorce from Henry Reinhold.
In the early ‘90s, Marie Helene opened Daughters Fine Jewelers, a chain of stores that sold less expensive product, but, ultimately, the chain didn’t make it.
Reinhold Jewelers’ stores also weathered the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and Hurricane Maria in 2017, the deadly Category 5 storm that leveled Puerto Rico.
Mildred Marcano, the director of Reinhold Jewelers who oversees marketing and buying for all stores, said Marie Helene continued to pay her employees in the weeks following Maria when everything was shut down.
In 2019, Marie Helene lost her beloved husband, David Morrow, to cancer.
Over their three decades together, Morrow helped her grow the business and became a fixture at jewelry trade shows alongside his wife. In an email to National Jeweler at the time of his death, Marie Helene described Morrow as “the king of our hearts.”
Then came 2020. Everything in Puerto Rico shut down, and Reinhold Jewelers, again, paid its staff even though its stores were closed.
It was a hard year for everyone but Marie Helene kept going, with determination.
Marcano describes Marie Helene as the kind of boss who comes into work every day and contributes just as much as her employees do.
The director, who will soon be celebrating her 16th anniversary with Reinhold Jewelers, is one of quite a few Grupo Reinhold employees who’ve been with the company a decade or more, another testament to Marie Helene’s leadership skills.
“She’s a good boss,” Marcano says. “But she’s also very tough. She likes everything to be perfect. You have to take on the jewelry, the designer, the showcases, the pieces.
“You have to love what you do because in retail, you never stop.”
In January, Marie Helene celebrated her 80th birthday. This milestone, coupled with the pandemic, have the longtime jeweler in a reflective mood.
When asked for her thoughts on being inducted into the National Jeweler Retailer Hall of Fame, she says: “I have had the privilege to wake up every morning, pursuing my passion, feeling connected to others who dream like I do, and giving back to my community in small and large ways. Each of those fills me with pride in its own right.
“Receiving an award like the Retailer Hall of Fame is an affirmation that others recognize and share my vision, that what I have created is meaningful to others, and that it will live long beyond me.”
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