The Vendeur Profile: Guya Merkle
Image: Vieri Fine Jewellery
Guya Merkle is the headstrong creative visionary behind Berlin based fine jewellery brand Vieri. Originally founded by her Grandfather, Guya now heads the company where she continues the respectful tradition of jewellery making from a place of honesty and responsibility. We met Guya on her recent trip to London to discuss legacy and the challenges facing responsible jewellery making.
When Guya Merkel decided to take the reins of her Father’s company aged just 21, it was a decision that would change her life. Sitting in a restaurant in London’s Mayfair, she begins her story at the start of her journey, at the GIA (Gemological Institute of America) in London. ‘I came to London to do some courses with the GIA and during one of the classes they showed me a picture of a gold mine and I thought this looks awful! So I started researching, which was tough then as no one was talking about mining conditions.’ Her research took her to Peru, to see first hand the conditions of the gold mines. Meeting the workers, she discovered that they were regularly exposed to toxic materials. Horrified by the conditions, she was motivated to move Vieri onto a more sustainable path.
‘The jewellery industry is a very traditional one, and very male dominated. I was very young, I didn’t have the confidence I do now.’ she told us over a cup of chamomile tea. ‘ To change an existing traditional business to a responsible business was hard. Our production team had never heard of recycled or ethically sourced gold, so to get them on board took a long time.’ At this point, she struggled to find the quantities of fair mined gold that she needed. ‘The challenge is to transform the mining sites into ethical working ones, but the structure is very complicated and it’s tough to transform them.’ So her first collection, shown at the renowned watch and jewellery show Basel World was incomplete. ‘We didn’t have enough gold to make the chains for the pendants, so we just showed the pendants without the chains!’ It’s a situation she can laugh about now but back then, people were questioning her motives. ‘To rebuild the company in this way, I lost clients. I had to spend a lot of money investing in the changes.’
‘I think that the future is recycling. Gold is made for recycling. Nobody throws gold away.’
Guya now creates her collections using only fair mined or recycled gold, as well as ethically sourced and old stones. She explains, ‘for example, the candy collection we are working on, we are researching recycled materials and also using vintage stones, to give them a new life.’ Due to the scarcity of fairmined gold, Guya and her team have to utilise other avenues of production. ‘I think that the future is recycling. Gold is made for recycling, the characteristics of the metal is there. Nobody throws gold away. However we can’t use only recycled gold because then the miners would lose their jobs.’
Therefore her solution is two pronged; utilise as many recycled materials as possible, while improving the situation of the miners. Merely by being a jewellery company that works with gold makes it an unsustainable practice. ‘We’re talking about a finite resource. In Uganda they say that by 2038 there will be no more gold. It’s hard to say that gold is sustainable because it’s running out.’ Consequently it makes sense for her to use recycled gold, whilst providing the miners and workers with other options to earn a livelihood.
To do this she set up the Earthbeat Foundation, which sets out to diversify the sources of income for gold miners and raise awareness among customers and the jewelry industry. ‘The foundation goes into these communities to provide them with alternative business solutions and projects,’ she explains. ‘For example the honey project allows them to earn a living through honey production instead of gold mining.’ She believes it’s important to look at the situation holistically. ‘We provide them with education and training to empower the workers.’ Through this work, the foundation also helps to restore the health of the land. Gold mining decimates landscapes through deforestation, digging and production that poisons the soil. Guya explains that in order to extract the gold from the ore, it must be crushed, then mixed with mercury. The mercury is burned off
then washed with water. It’s a process that is very dangerous for the children and women who’s job is often to extract the metal. Mercury contaminated water is then thrown away, washing into rivers and into the ground.
To combat this situation, The Earthbeat Foundation is teaching the miners about permaculture. A process where the soil is analysed to determine the mercury content, specific seeds can then be planted to draw the toxins out of the soil. ‘[The miners] can then plant coffee, avocados, mangos and bananas, which support each other without human interference. They can eat the crop and sell it,’ she tells us. In this way the land can be renewed and the miners have a new, more sustainable source of income away from gold mining.
‘People ask me why I am using luxury goods to change the world but I think it’s my responsibility.’
It’s impossible not to be riveted by Guya’s knowledge of the mining and jewellery industry. She’s a big believer in longevity, her pieces are designed with this in mind. They aren’t trend led, just beautiful, empowering pieces that can be worn and passed down to future generations. She herself always wears her Father’s Rolex watch. Her own ‘Tiny Clouds’ Creole earrings make her feel powerful, she regularly wears them to business meetings. In her words, ‘we make jewellery that compliments women’s personalities, but also raises awareness.’ The capsule collection ‘Respect the Beautiful’ allows consumers to directly contribute to Vieri’s important work. 10% of sales from the pieces go directly to the Earthbeat Foundation. ‘I think it’s a new way of consuming,’ Guya says, ‘I wanted to empower my customer to make a positive change by buying something that goes directly to the foundation.’
After all these positive steps, there’s still a long way to go. The Earthbeat Foundation’s work continues in earnest in Uganda. Their Heartbeat project is teaching responsible mining practises, installing water filters and introducing safety equipment. Heartbeat Honey is also in full swing, teaching miners to keep bee’s and harvest and sell honey. Back in Berlin, Guya is busy working on her next collection and a new (top secret) project to further improve the transparency of her product. The message through all of this work is clear to Guya. ‘People ask me why I am using luxury goods to change the world but I think it’s my responsibility.’
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