By Michelle Graff
John Ganga, senior claims examiner at Jewelers Mutual, in the Mallers Building last year, after it was deemed safe to re-enter the structure. The Mallers Building dates from 1912 and houses the Jewelers Center on Chicago’s Jewelers Row.
In the early-morning hours of April 25, 2018, fire tore through the fourth floor of the Mallers Building in Chicago, the 107-year-old structure that houses the Jewelers Center and is the centerpiece of Jewelers Row, akin to the 580 5th Ave. building in the Diamond District here in New York.

20190425 Jewelers Row signThe Art Deco-era Mallers Building at 5 South Wabash Ave. is the marquee building on Jewelers Row, the street of jewelry-centric businesses located in downtown Chicago.And like the Diamond District or the gravely endangered Jewelers’ Row in Philadelphia, Chicago’s Jewelers Row houses a concentration of industry professionals—stone setters, casters, polishers, designers, diamond dealers, retailers, and jewelry and watch repairers.

Jewelers Mutual Director of Claims Don Elliot described the Mallers Building specifically as a “little eco-system,” as many of the pieces that enter or are created there get passed from tenant to tenant based on expertise.

This camaraderie remained after the fire, as the occupants helped each other out in the wake of the blaze that destroyed the work areas of more than 40 of the 180-plus jewelry professionals who occupy the building.

On March 6 in Chicago, as the one-year anniversary of the fire approached, a group including Jewelers Mutual executives, retailers and officials from the Chicago Fire Department gathered at the post-fire renovated building to lay out lessons learned.

Following the panel discussion, I caught up with Elliott and John Ganga, senior claims examiner, to talk about their takeaways.

Everyone Worked Together
“It’s cliché,” Ganga said, “but when the worst happens, it really does bring out the best in people. All these guys really worked together.”

The Jewelers Center occupants who did not suffer a lot of damage willingly shared their spaces with others, particularly with the tenants of the fourth floor, which Elliot described as “really devastated.”

20190425 Don ElliottJewelers Mutual Director of Claims Don ElliotWithin a month or two of the fire, most Jewelers Center occupants at least had somewhere to work thanks to both their fellow jewelers and the cooperation of the owners of the Art Deco-era building, who also helped to find everyone at least a temporary space while repairs were underway.

Though the situation in Chicago went as smoothly as possible, with both the landlord and the tenants cooperating, one takeaway from the three-alarm blaze is this: Jewelry businesses need to have an alternative site in mind should their stores or work spaces become uninhabitable for an extended period of time, Elliot said.

“Most of the time, people don’t think they’re going to have to relocate their business for weeks or months,” he said.

But it happens, whether because of a fire, natural disaster or some other unforeseen event.

Owners need to be able to answer the question: If something happens to your business, where are you going to go?

‘They Call Them Safes for a Reason’
Though early media reports indicated the cause of the fire was believed to be electrical, Ganga and Elliot said ultimately it was undetermined. (A spokesperson for the Chicago Fire Department did not return my call for comment by press time.)

20190425 rebuilding RowA look inside the Jewelers Center in Chicago’s Mallers Building as it was being repaired post-fire. The building has been 99.9 percent operational for quite some time, though it did not reopen fully until March 2019.

The damage was extensive, and anything that might have provided a clue to the fire’s cause was obliterated.

“Whatever was in [the path of the fire],” Ganga said, “literally burned to ashes.”

Or it was washed away when Chicago firefighters blasted the building with water to extinguish the blaze or rendered unusable by flames topping 1,500 degrees F.

According to “Diamonds” by Eric Burton, a book in the library of the Gemological Institute of America, diamond, the hardest substance on earth, can withstand more heat than any other gemstone, but even it begins to burn and convert to carbon monoxide and dioxide when air temperatures reach 1,290-1,650 degrees Fahrenheit.

Sterling silver (melt temperature of 1,640 degrees F) and 10-, 14-, or 18-karat gold (about 1,700 degrees F) would not have been destroyed, said United Precious Metals Refining Vice President of Sales & Marketing Dave Siminski, but “just turned … into a blob.” (Platinum and palladium, which have melt temperatures of 2,831 degrees F and higher, would have fared better.)

20190425 John GangaJewelers Mutual’s John GangaAll this is to say the losses from the fire really could have added up, but they didn’t, Ganga said, because just about everyone had all their diamonds and gold in the safe.

“They call them safes for a reason,” he said.

The sparing of merchandise in the Chicago Jewelers Row fire underscores the importance of putting everything away in your safe at night, a point Jewelers’ Security Alliance President John J. Kennedy makes regularly for security reasons.

All safes are rated differently. What Jewelers Mutual recommends are safes with an Underwriters Laboratory burglary-resistant rating of UL TRTL 15x6 and above.

That is a safe that is torch- and tool-resistant on all six sides.

Safe Space
In addition to temporary spaces, impacted jewelers also needed temporary safes.

The building’s elevators remained shut down for some time after the fire. That included the freight elevators, which meant, Ganga pointed out, that if you had a safe on the fourth floor that had survived the fire, you still had a problem.

Without an elevator, there was no way of moving the 1,500-pound-plus piece of equipment to a non-damaged part of the building.

For reasons that neither Ganga nor Elliot can fully explain, all the local safe companies were completely out of stock or, as Ganga put it, “There were no safes to be had in Chicago.”

Jewelers Mutual had to have rental safes trucked in from Las Vegas, some of which remained in Chicago, either with jewelers who bought them or the in-need-of-stock safe companies, while a few stragglers were returned to Las Vegas.

Final Tips
Officials from the Chicago Fire Department present at the Jewelers Mutual panel offered a few tips as well, most of which seem like standard, common-sense advice.

Have a functioning smoke detector in your store or work space, and have an evacuation plan detailing various escape routes and a meeting point where you can gather to make sure everyone is accounted for.

Jewelers Mutual said jewelers need to make sure they are ensured to value, which most are, Ganga said, and also need to back up records and other critical data in an off-site location. He recommended backing up data every quarter, if not every month.

Elliot said it’s also a good idea to keep a list of your contacts for companies that supply services or products unique to your business, like showcases, shatter-proof glass, alarm systems, etc., off-site too so it’s accessible in the event of an emergency.

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