DALLAS, JAN. 1 -- Zale Corp., the nation's largest jewelry retailer, was forced by several of its bondholders into involuntary bankruptcy today.

An old threat was carried out early in the new year to provide a forum to resolve Zale's financial and operational problems, said David Glatstein, president of Barre & Co., a Dallas investment company and one of the petitioners in the Chapter 11 filing. Creditors can file to force debtors into bankruptcy, where reorganization can be structured by the court.

"We had warned everybody, if the company didn't make its payments, that we were going to do this," Glatstein said.

On Monday, Irving, Tex.-based Zale made a survival appeal, announcing an operational restructuring that included the freezing of all debt payments and the closure of 400 of its 2,000 jewelry stores nationwide. Among the retailer's debts is a $52 million interest payment owed to bondholders since Dec. 2.

In enumerating the steps to the company's reorganization this week, Zale Chairman Irving R. Gerstein expressed confidence that the retailer would complete its restructuring on a "cooperative basis" with its creditors.

That hope was reiterated late today by Gerstein, who said Zale's management has been working since Monday to set up meetings with bondholders.

"We have not seen anything yet {about the bankruptcy}. We are hearing about this from the press," Gerstein said. "The company obviously cannot respond substantively until it first confirms that the petition has been filed. If true, this action is unfortunate because it is in the best interest of all parties to work cooperatively together to reach an agreement."

Gerstein said an out-of-court agreement is in "everyone's best interest because it maximizes the value of the franchise and produces the speediest and most cost-effective results."

Glatstein disagreed.

"What the company is doing, it seems to us, can be more simply done under the auspices of the bankruptcy laws," he said. "From our perspective, we might as well move forward."

Glatstein said that such transactions as lease renegotiations will be more expeditious under the bankruptcy court's purview. He said Zale has too many bondholders for the company to deal with out of court.

"Everybody's on the same playing field" in bankruptcy court, he said.

Glatstein acknowledged that the New Year's Day action very likely will prompt some controversy.

He said the Barre-led group represents bond holdings with several million dollars' face value. Although that is a small percentage of the $900 million in bonds outstanding, he said, Barre is confident that other bondholders will follow its lead.

Glatstein said the bankruptcy filing is not "adversarial in nature."

The bondholder group hopes the action will allow "any other interested parties to move forward quickly with any alternate plan or to join management in formulating a plan," he said. "An efficient resolution in this case could set a pattern for future bankruptcy reorganizations."