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Respected Toronto jeweller Irit Shay put family, others first

By Jenny Yuen, Toronto Sun

Irit Shay, a mother of five and grandmother of eight, died at her Yorkville home, surrounded by family, Tuesday, following a six-year battle with breast cancer. She was 66. (SUBMITTED/PHOTO)

Irit Shay, a mother of five and grandmother of eight, died at her Yorkville home, surrounded by family, Tuesday, following a six-year battle with breast cancer. She was 66. (SUBMITTED/PHOTO)

Irit Shay may have co-owned a high-end jewelry business – which is a fixture in Toronto's trendy Yorkville – but her crown jewel was her children, her daughters say.

The mother of five and grandmother of eight died at her Yorkville home, surrounded by family, at 8:18 p.m. Tuesday after a six-year battle with breast cancer. She was 66.

“She was in remission for two years and then it came back,” said Irit’s daughter Natalie, 38. “She fought it like nobody I’d ever met. Everyone told her she was going to pass and she said she wasn’t. She bought herself more time. And she lived an extra year-and-a-half because of her fight and her willpower.”

Shay came to Canada with her husband Michael from Israel and built a life from scratch here, said her eldest daughter Karin, 44. Neither spoke English, but both had a business background. They taught themselves the industry and eventually learned English through their customers when they opened the Royal De Versailles Jewellers shop on Bloor St. W., near Avenue Rd. in 1977.

“They wanted to get into the jewelry business because of the high-end luxury goods they were passionate about – diamonds and watches,” she said. “She was generous, driven and hard-working, passionate and charismatic. She related to all people.”

But Irit would always make time for her family at Sunday dinners and always advised them to look at life with the glass half-full.

“It was quality (family) time,” said Karin. “She juggled career and family and she juggled it amazingly well. She worked until almost the day she died at the jewelry store, putting on her high heel shoes and still doing good work while she underwent chemo. She’s one of the most inspiring women I would ever know.”

Irit was also renowned for her significant philanthropic contributions and donations to many charities in the arts, education fields and the broader community. She sat on the board of directors of the SickKids Foundation since 2012, but her efforts with the children’s hospital went years back.

In 2007, she organized Toronto’s Brazilian Ball and An Evening with Warren Buffett, which collectively raised over $8 million in support of Toronto General Hospital, SickKids and various international initiatives. The following year, she joined Heather Gotlieb, Suzanne Rogers and Simona Shnaider in presenting the Chanel cruise collection show with proceeds to SickKids.

And in 2010 and 2013, she chaired events that raised $3 million and $4.2-million respectively for the David Foster Foundation.

“Irit was always very generous in donating items to be used in other SickKids event auctions,” SickKids Foundation chief executive officer Ted Garrard said in a statement Wednesday. “The foundation is honoured to be part of Irit’s philanthropic endeavors and wish her family and friends our deepest condolences.”

The funeral will be held Thursday at Benjamin’s Park Memorial Chapel at 2401 Steeles Ave. W. at 1:30 p.m.

jyuen@postmedia.com