Why “Impact” is the new luxury term: Interview with Vieri boss Guya Merkle on the golden future of the jewelry industry
[In Kooperation mit Vieri Fine Jewellery]
One of my long-term resolutions for 2021 was to stop buying costume jewelry. I was inspired by Guya Merkle from von Vieri Fine Jewelery. I never thought about the materials from which my jewelry was made. I just bought a bag of jewelry from the big fashion chains because I liked the rattle. In retrospect, I was annoyed because my skin couldn’t stand the accessories or the material was tarnished in a short time.
At Christmas it fell like a scale from my eyes: why do I only take off my good jewelry on holidays? I should wear it every day! As a helix piercing fan I mainly wear earrings. I have rediscovered zoom call chains. I don’t just work with my jewelry, I also play sports and sleep with it. That means: my requirements in terms of sustainability and appearance are high. Instead, I take care of my real jewelry and wear fake gold.
Guya Merkle impresses me because as a jewelry entrepreneur she combines the durability and quality of her designs with sustainable practices. And holistic. That means their company Vieri Fine JeweleryVieri Fine Jewelery Not only did they use recycled gold and gemstones in their designs, but they also invested in projects that create sustainable sources of income for the workers in the gold mining regions of Peru or Uganda. She is convinced that companies can change a lot with such impact projects. She tells more about this in our extensive interview!
Dear Guya, durability and luxury used to be a contradiction in terms, just think of the extraction of fur, caviar or, last but not least, your subject from gold. Is there a new definition of what luxury is now? What factors do you think contribute to this?
Oh yes, I definitely think the term ‘luxury’ needs some new branding. The question I asked myself was: Can you really describe something as a luxury when not everyone or everything in the value chain gets the best of it? And unfortunately this has rarely been the case until now. That’s why I think that’s exactly what luxury has to do: create the best for everyone involved, including the environment.
For me it’s about rethinking. You can see that around us: we are absolutely willing to invest more money if we know it will not harm anyone or that it is even better for us. This is, of course, a bit different in the consumer goods sector. We are not directly affected by it because at first glance it has no direct effect on us – unlike food or cosmetics.
“But that’s exactly where the luxury should be, that we not only ensure that the ingredients or resources are good through the production and consumption of products, but also that more is created. So an effect arises where it must be most urgent. For me, “impact” is the real luxury term. “
You have inherited your family’s more than 70-year-old jewelry empire and dared to relaunch as a sustainable designer label. But you could have sat in the nest you made and went in the traditional direction. Why was it crucial for you as an entrepreneur to take a new path?
There were two reasons for this, one reason only became clear to me later. I was 21 years old when I was suddenly confronted with running my father’s business. Until then I had never been involved in entrepreneurship and jewelery. Even though I grew up with it, I just didn’t care. All of this has led to me really being knocked against the wall with the company. And then came the emotional dilemma, the bad conscience, the blame. So I deliberately addressed the topic of jewelry. And that’s how I became aware of the not so dazzling pages. I couldn’t let go of the topic, then I went to Peru and Uganda and watched gold mines.
“I was so heartbroken about what I experienced there. I didn’t want to accept that such a shiny and luxurious company can cause so much damage and slap! the idea was born to create a label, which simply makes it different. “
It wasn’t until I was setting up that I realized how important it was to bring my own personality into the mix. Just getting on with what my family was doing wasn’t possible because it wasn’t mine and I had to find out first.
What experiences have you had as a young female entrepreneur in the jewelry industry? How much have they encouraged you to follow your own vision?
In the beginning I think it was more my age than the fact that I was a woman that made it very difficult for me. A young girl came by and said: “Well, everything has to work differently somehow!” That was not accepted with applause. I think a lot of people smiled at me and were convinced that I would soon be out of the window again. The structures in the industry are super traditional – it takes time to break new ground. But after twelve years I notice a total shift. Now I get a lot of support and encouragement. That’s very nice, but in fact it would have saved me a lot of gray hair if it had been there from the start. It was a really tough show of strength to hold on to.
You then asked yourself the question: “Where does the gold actually come from?” and flew to South America. Why has this trip changed your life?
This journey opened my eyes. I’m there with my little Rimowa suitcase to Peru to look at gold mines – utterly unrealistic and in my little bubble. To be suddenly confronted so drastically with the hard facts of our system, it really worked. This trip changed my view of the world. But mostly because of the power we have to change things that we don’t agree with. Whenever I ran out of strength along the way or wanted to give up, I thought about going to Peru and found the strength to keep going.
The discrepancy between glittering diamond earrings on a jeweler’s display and the way gold and gemstones are manually extracted from the earth by humans in bare feet couldn’t be greater. So in 2012 you got the Earthbeat Solutions Foundation Founded. What positive changes has it contributed to?
Above all, the foundation and its projects help to no longer just look at the whole subject, but to understand that everything affects each other. On the one hand, it is about producing from sustainable and ethically responsible sources, which alone is an achievement of strength and super important.
But on the other hand, it doesn’t solve the problems, where 30 million people are still extracting resources from the Earth under unworthy conditions. That is why we initiate projects that promote alternative sources of income, so that people have the choice and the self-reliance to shape their own lives. I also think we played a key role in getting the issue on the agenda – especially with consumers. And that makes me a little proud.
You not only want to pay and train the workers better to make their own jewelry or keep bees, for example, but also to improve the inhuman and environmentally harmful conditions in the mines. What does it take to make such impact projects the standard in the future?
Good examples. I always think someone should keep going, try things out, make mistakes and show that it is possible. Of course, to revolutionize the entire industry, everyone must participate. And you can only do that by showing that a new model can be successful. Of course, to add to this you need other resources, such as money, team strength and reach.
You need mercury and cyanide to loosen gold from the rock. It’s highly poisonous. How, on the other hand, do you get “green” gold?
There are basically two types of “green gold”: one is gold that is sustainably extracted from the earth. For example, there are labels such as Fairtrade or Fairmind. They have a great approach and a great area of impact on individual communities. Nevertheless, we are extracting a finite resource from the ground. The second sustainable gold solution is what is known as “urban mining”.
The point here is to reuse gold that is already there. For example from old gold, but also from mobile phones, computers etc. I think this is a super exciting approach because the circular economy – that is to say the return of resources that have already been used in the production cycle – offers a great opportunity to address the major issues of the current climate crisis.
In an interview, you said that in the long run, workers need to be freed from dependence on gold mining so that they can focus on their future. Does this mean that you really want to do away with mining altogether and only work with recycled gold in the interest of a circular economy?
Yes. This is my great vision indeed. To create long-term concepts and cycles so that we no longer need new raw materials, but can work with the available raw materials. But for that, many wheels have to interlock. The products have to be recycled and, despite everything, we have to find alternatives for people who still depend on traditional mining.
To what extent has the Corona crisis caused you to sharpen your company’s vision?
For me, the Corona crisis has made two things clear: First, to see clearly how we are all connected. We live in a world where we can no longer say that it’s not our business what’s happening on the other side. It’s all so intertwined that we can see it in the way this virus got into every corner of the planet. It is therefore all the more important to understand that our decisions and actions have so much influence on the way, for example, raw materials are extracted or goods are manufactured.
“We just need to become more aware of this power. Then it motivates us to think about how we want to consume. So the crisis has encouraged me to continue in the same way and communicate even more clearly. “
What she also showed is that we should all appreciate each other so much more and of course we can reward ourselves for that. We had to do without so many things, jewelry is just the right thing to appreciate ourselves and create values that will last forever. I want to link these two subjects even more closely. Because it’s all about appreciation in the end. I like that very much.
Given that there are no events taking place, I wonder: do we still need celebrities who show us on the red carpet that luxury and sustainability are no longer mutually exclusive, or who do you think are the main ambassadors for this? to strive?
I have long believed that celebrities are not true brand ambassadors. In the very beginning, of course, I tried very hard to get my jewelry on the red carpets of the world – and with success. Besides the German celebrities, Rihanna and Emma Watson wore my jewelry. That was of course super cool, but it really didn’t help.
I tend to think that the women who buy and wear my jewelry are the much more important ambassadors. They are the ones who are convinced of the message and design and talk about it and share the topics with their friends. This is so much more important and that’s why a long time ago I stopped investing time in placements and prefer to spend it on my clients.
Vieri jewelry is made from 18 karat recycled rose gold, yellow gold and white gold. Where is the gold recycled from?
Most jewelry is made from what is known as “secondary gold”. This comes from old gold, so old jewelry and production waste, but also from medical equipment here and there. There are so-called separators; This is the name given to the companies that “separate” old gold into its components, i.e., separate the fine gold from the alloy.
“This is very widespread in Germany and this is mainly due to the value of gold, which is used over and over again. But I wanted to go a step further, so I used what is known as “urban mining” gold for my first collection. This is gold, which is practically not extracted from the earth, but from products that have already been made and broken. In my case these are old mobile phones and smartphones
Gold is built into each of these devices. Between 0.028 – 0.034 grams. So if you collect a few phones you can turn them into jewelry. That’s what drives me. These are exactly the ideas that I love and that are forward-looking to me. My goal: to make all collections from this type of gold.
Even the major fashion chains now have cheap jewelry that is “gold-plated”. This applies, for example, to earrings that come in packs of 10. As an expert, what quality differences do you see and why should you stay away from them, even if the price seems like a bargain? Why is 18 carat gold a quality mark of Vieri Fine Jewelery?
As a super jewelery and above all a lover of durability and impact, I don’t think much about fashion jewelery. Certainly not gold-plated jewelry. I know that the prices are very attractive and that not everyone can afford real jewelry just like that. But I think in the long run you should always look at it. There are also great costume jewelry from fair labels, such as Folk daysThat is good, because an overarching goal is pursued and everything revolves around impact. But you have to be super careful with gilding. It is always just a very thin layer of gold that is coated in a gold bath. Especially with rings it wears very quickly and then you have a stained and shabby looking piece of jewelry.
In addition, allergy sufferers can have problems because the material is not that pure. Ultimately, it leads you to buy more and more of it because it is so “cheap”. But if you add up how much money you spent on it after a few years, you could probably have bought a real gold piece of jewelry. It is simply not a long-lasting product and therefore not very useful. In addition, the gold in the gold bath largely comes from indefinable sources and you never know what will be added.
18 karat is the highest class. It indicates the highest proportion of fine gold you can have and means that it only contains 250 parts of other metals. You need this part once to harden the gold, because fine gold is very soft. On the other hand, you can use it to determine the color of the gold. There are also jewelry made from 8 karat gold, but I would keep my hands off that, because, for example, way too much copper is mixed with rose gold. Copper reacts with sweat and often leaves dark discolourations.
14 karat is the so-called “semi-fine jewelry”. It has a share of 585 other metals. When made right, it is a great alternative and slightly cheaper than 18 carats. But if you want to invest in a great piece that will last forever, I would always go for the 18 carat.
For the stones you also collaborate with mines or use vintage stones. Where do they come from? There’s no catcher for grandma’s old rings – or is there?
We mainly use sapphires that come from a small cooperative in Sri Lanka. A Munich family operates the mine together with a Sri Lankan mine. The quality is excellent as the best sapphires always come from Sri Lanka. Besides the quality, this mine is super focused on sustainable mining and grinding methods. You can visit the mine – it should be done as soon as we are allowed to travel again.
In addition, we very rarely use diamonds, and when we do, it is diamonds that we buy from bequests – i.e. stones that have already been used or that come from mines that can at least be identified and that the working conditions are in order. But I’m not happy with that at all. It’s just too opaque.
That’s why we get a lot from grandma’s old rington. There is another recycling center for old jewelry, but there are also many jewelers and goldsmiths who buy old jewelry and bring the stones back to the market.
In this context, how do you convince skeptical jewelry customers who prefer to buy something ‘new’ instead of ‘used’?
The beauty of real jewelry is the materials and their properties. We are talking about commodities such as gold and gemstones that have been made in the Earth over thousands to millions of years. If you put it like that, you will be completely great.
“Nature’s treasures are never disposable. You can process and reuse them over and over again. “
In this respect it is difficult to speak of “new” and “used” in this context. Some customers even like this vintage character; there are great shops for it. If you don’t like it that way, you don’t have to look at the piece of jewelry that it has a history.
Gold has been recycled since use solely for its value and properties. It is very easy to separate compared to other materials – this is the name given to the process when the fine gold is separated from the rest of the metals in the gold alloy. The fine gold, which is exactly the same in quality as the fine gold that just came fresh from the earth, is then made into an alloy and the jewelry is poured out of it.
It is comparable to stones. Due to their composition, these do not just break. If there is a mistake, you can sharpen the stone again, clean it and even make it energetic again.
Plenty of arguments to reuse the individual parts in jewelry. I also find it incredibly fascinating when you imagine gold being used again since ancient Egypt, and maybe you have some gold in your wedding ring that was already in a Cleopatra ring.
Each Vieri piece of jewelry is a personal creation. Why did you choose not to stock items when online retailers expect immediate availability and express delivery from many customers?
There are several reasons for this: on the one hand, it is an investment demand. On the other hand, it is a matter of appreciation. I really enjoy making jewelry for a customer. There is something valuable about that. This gives us the ability to respond to special requests, adjust colors and advise customers more holistically. Ultimately, you just know that a lot of love and attention has gone into a piece of jewelry. And I think it just does more justice to the product per se – but also to the special moments behind it.
World Gold Day will take place on 15 November: what is the message of the # begolden campaign you founded?
It is very important to me to have a holistic approach to the whole topic of sustainability and responsibility in the jewelry industry. In the long run, my vision is really only to use recycled materials – so-called “urban mined gold” – and to do away with small-scale gold mining. That is, of course, a bold forecast and will only be possible in the long run if we manage to cover annual gold consumption through recycling. We are still a long way from it.
“This is mainly because gold is often just lying around somewhere and does not really“ work ”. The financial sector is a good example of this. However, until now I haven’t dared to dive into our financial system, so I’ll focus on something easier to implement for now. Gold is also found in cell phones, laptops and computers. And they are often broken or unused at home. “
The main goal of World Gold Day is to raise awareness of the resources that make our lives easier and to use them carefully and responsibly. A major fundraising campaign is planned this year. The donations that we can receive through the broken cell phones then flow to the alternative impact projects on the ground.
Like other minerals, raw gold is a limited resource. What do we do when at some point there is no more gold?
As is so often the case, it will turn out that it is possible with the resources we already have. Then gold is recycled and processed and returned to the cycle time and again. I wish we hadn’t waited until there was no more gold in the earth and the last tree in the rainforest has been cut down. It’s possible, so let’s do it now!
To what extent do you consume sustainably in your own life? Which principles are important to you in your daily life as a mother of a son in a city like Berlin?
I really try to live very sustainably, but don’t put myself under pressure. I think life should be fun in the first place. That is why I try to look for solutions instead of practicing renunciation. We buy 100% organic and regional. I drive a small electric car, we sort waste, and I really think five times before buying new clothes.
There are just such great opportunities: whether second hand, for example via the Sustainable insta market, which I started with Janine Dudenhöfer, or sustainably produced clothing. I also went to the Marktplaats a few years ago The wear involved. I also don’t buy fast fashion for kids because there are simply too many options not to support this system.
Incidentally, it was a great book that helped me free myself from unnecessary consumption “A New Earth” by Eckhart Tolle. Above all, he describes the ego that we all have within us that repeatedly makes us believe that we must identify with things. If you deal with it more consciously and keep asking yourself “Do I really need it now and just want it to feel better or stand for myself in the short term?”, that changes a lot.
Last question: Which Vieri jewelry are you wearing today and how are you feeling?
As usual during the day, I carry my little ones Vieri Midi Hoops in rose gold with small diamonds. They give me that confidence because they change my attitude and make me feel good. When I wear them, a little bit of lipstick is often enough for me and I feel ready for the day. This is exactly what jewelry can do to you.