Mort Abelson, 87, Changed Industry Merchandising Paradigm
Fairfield, NJ—Mort S. Abelson, former director of the JA International Jewelry Shows, died March 28. Though Abelson had a long and varied professional career in the jewelry industry, his most enduring legacy is the role he played in launching designer jewelry as a major product category. That vision ultimately spawned the movement toward branded jewelry, in essence almost singlehandedly changing the merchandising strategy of luxury and prestige jewelers in the United States.
In the late 1970s, Abelson, pictured here, began traveling to upscale craft shows, such as the American Crafts Council shows, which at the time were tent affairs held in Rhinebeck, NY, and Baltimore, MD. Abelson, having grown tired of what he perceived as too much sameness among jewelry manufacturers at the JA Show, sought out emerging jewelry designers and unique new looks that he could introduce to the mainstream jewelry industry. Both the jewelry itself and the concept of marketing jewelry under a designer or brand name other than the retailer’s own were radically new, but eventually took root. Jewelers seeking to offer differentiated product were drawn to the designer category, and while it would be another decade and more before branded jewelry became de rigueur among upscale jewelers, the die was cast.
Abelson was born in 1923 into a jewelry family. He served in World War II, seeing action during the Battle of the Bulge. After returning from his tour of duty, he served on the board and as president of Retail Jewelers of America (now Jewelers of America). His family’s business, Abelson’s, meanwhile, had grown to a chain of nine freestanding locations and 23 leased departments in seven states. It was sold to Zale Corp. by 1970; Abelson went with it.
In 1973, he was approached to work as trade show director of the JA International Jewelry Shows. In 1977, he began to explore the designer and craft jewelry worlds, launching the first New Designer Gallery. From that cramped section at the back of the New York Sheraton Hotel grew some of today’s well-known jewelry brands such as David Yurman, Lagos, Charles Krypell, and Penny Preville, to name just a few. As the years progressed, many more Abelson alumni—like Alex Sepkus, Mark Schneider, Eddie Sakamoto, and the late Steven Kretchmer, all of whom were New Designer of the Year Award winners—also achieved success.
In a special 2007 supplement to National Jeweler magazine celebrating the 30th anniversary of the launch of the Design Center, Penny Preville was quoted with Jay Siskin, “Our careers, as well as many other fellow designers’ careers would not have occurred had it not been for the insights of this very special man. It led to the evolution of the modern day successful collaboration between designer and retailer to bring the best to their customers.”
Abelson himself, however, always remained modest about his role in driving what ultimately became a paradigm shift in the high end of the industry. One ofhis greatest professional delights was receiving the first Benne Award from the American Jewelry Design Council (AJDC), an organization that came to be as a result of his own vision. In 2006, JA’s New Designer of the Year Award was renamed the Mort Abelson New Designer of the Year Award in his honor.
In 1999, he was featured in an article in JCK magazine about the most influential people to shape the 20th century American jewelry industry. He was very surprised to be counted among such game-changers as Marcel Tolkowsky and Robert Shipley, but apart from the great jewelry houses such as Bvlgari, Cartier, Tiffany et al, it was Abelson’s vision that ultimately gave rise to the luxury designer and branded jewelry market in the United States.
Abelson is survived by his wife of 65 years, Dorothy, one daughter, Nancy, and son-in-law Stephen. He was predeceased by his son Michael.
An online tribute and guest book can be viewed and signed here.
Freddy Hager, Deputy Treasurer General of WFDB
"Freddy was the very epitome of a gentleman, and I considered him one of my closest friends, both personally and in the WFDB as well," said Moshe Mosbacher, president of the Diamond Dealers Club in New York. "He was a role model to all of us who were fortunate enough to know him. He was leader of men and a devoted public servant, who never looked for nor expected to receive public glory. He was extremely eloquent and also soft-spoken. But he was ready to take a strong stand when he felt it was necessary, but was never disrespectful.
“On behalf of the DDC and its members, I would like to express our condolences and sympathy to Freddy's wife, Louise, his children and grandchildren, family and friends, and to the members of the London Diamond Bourse."