Guya Merkle on the compatibility of profit, style and ethics
When she was young, Guya Merkle didn’t play with Barbies or LEGOs but with gemstones. For her, this was more normal than extraordinary since her family had been running its own jewellery business for 70 years. The company Vieri was founded by Guya's grandfather, who passed it on to her father – Eduardo Vieri Merkle. When he died nine years ago, Guya suddenly found herself at the helm. Just twenty-one years old at the time, she had other plans for her future, but she quickly figured out that true luxury goes hand-in-hand with responsibility. Ultimately, her personal realisation led to a completely new set of standards for the entire industry.
Guya is now in charge of Vieri and for four years has been using only ethically-sourced gold to produce her designs – making Vieri one of the very few jewellery companies to do so. With part of the profits from her collections, she supports gold mines in Peru. We met the CEO and jewellery designer in Berlin, her second home after Zurich, and took her for a test drive in a C-Class T-Model beginning at her office on Potsdamer Street. As Guya has told us before, the small family is thinking of buying a new, more spacious vehicle. Or as Guya herself calls it, 'a new living room'.
Guya, why do you spend so much time in your car?
For me, there is no such thing as a typical work day. Sometimes I'm at meetings with business partners, dealers and private clients; sometimes in the office with my wonderful team and sometimes working from home, so I need a car to make it all happen – and even more now with my huge belly. I have fear of flying, which means I often have to drive long distances, not only within Germany but also between Berlin and Zurich. I virtually live in my car, the trunk is always full of spare pairs of shoes, changes of clothes and piles of work documents. There'll soon be a car seat and stroller to squeeze in too.
You are currently in the process of moving to Berlin to be closer to your grandparents. How have you and Vieri been received in Berlin?
Berlin has welcomed us with open arms. In Zurich, people tend to have more fixed ideas and are reluctant to change tried and tested ways of doing things.
It seems that by and large, no one before you ever thought to question the accepted way of doing things in the jewellery industry, particularly the way that raw materials are obtained.
My theory is that lots of people were aware of the situation but no one was much inclined to do anything about it or to raise public awareness. I still find that lots of people are quite shocked when I talk to them about it. Consumers had no idea and therefore never asked questions. So as far as the industry was concerned, there was no reason to change things.
You obviously saw a reason. How did you become aware that there was a problem with gold mining?
To find out whether I wanted to run the company, and to learn more about the business generally, I studied in London at the Gemological Institute of America. I learned all about petrology and natural resources, how they were transformed into jewellery – in fact everything about the art of jewellery making. The first time I saw a gold mine was in a textbook. I saw these huge craters in the ground – and I was shocked. Then I began to do my own research, but information was hard to come by. I decided to go to Peru and see the situation for myself.
And what did you find?
It was even worse than in the pictures. I was suddenly in the middle of nowhere, 3,000 metres up in the Andes and looking at vast slums in the mountains, child labour, pregnant women working, industrial accidents and even fatalities in the gold mines. There was no water and the whole place stank of mercury. My first reaction was that I wanted to have nothing more to do with the whole business. But then I started talking to the people there, and listening to their ideas about how to improve the situation, and because it was a subject that attracted very little international attention at the time, they also asked me to tell others about it when I got home. It was clear to me that this was what I had to do.
You pay more for ethically mined gold, but you don't charge higher prices. Are sustainability and profit incompatible?
Sustainability and maximum profit, sure. But I believe that the principle of extracting maximum profit is fundamentally outdated. Of course a company has to be commercially successful in order to exist, but our world can no longer function if this comes at the cost of the environment, other people, other countries, regions and natural resources. Therefore, what we are trying to do with Vieri is to maximise impact.
Are luxury and sustainability mutually exclusive?
No, far from it. I believe that something can only be considered “luxury” if it has been made in the best possible way. That is the very definition of luxury. I have to say, though, that sustainability and style – especially in fashion – still do not fit together very comfortably. That bothers me at a personal level, because what I wear is important to me, and it is also something that I aim to change with Vieri.
First it was German and Swiss celebrities, now singer Rihanna and British actress Emma Watson are also wearing your jewellery. And Watson in particular has already received a lot of praise for her style.
Yes, Emma Watson has been a customer of ours for a while now. She leads a very conscious life and always makes sure that everything she wears or promotes comes from sustainable sources, so I was already pushing at an open door when I met with her stylist for the first time. With Rihanna it was sheer chance. I woke up one morning to the surprise news that Rihanna had worn my jewellery at the MTV Movie Awards. She combined pieces from each collection and it looked fantastic!
Your product portfolios contain limited edition collections by international artists, but you design the majority of your products yourself. What inspires you?
People and their stories. Mostly the people I meet when I'm travelling for our projects. We live very comfortable lives here in Germany and Europe. Obviously it is important to create awareness here, but elsewhere there are people who are doing amazing things with their bare hands to change the situation where it matters. In terms of my designs, what inspires me most is nature.
And your personal taste.
Yes, that too. The chain I have on, from the “Respect the Beautiful” collection, I made for myself. I love it dearly and always, always, always have it on! There are also a few rings that I’ve made for myself that I wear. But at the moment that's a bit hard with my swollen fingers.
Well, you still managed the navigation system perfectly. Did you enjoy the test drive?
Absolutely. I do love fast cars…and I think it’s great that there is an alert function that gets activated whenever there is another car in my blind spot. I will definitely go to the configurator page later and try to put together my dream car.