AS A CHILD, Guya Merkle was fascinated with the precious stones that lay in her father’s walk-in safe. Running her fingers through the glittering gems was a special treat for the young Merkle. Yet, by the time she inherited her father’s jewellery retail business at the age of 21, her interest in jewellery had dwindled.
A Different Path
Merkle had studied communications, and was working for an online fundraising platform that took on grassroots projects and helped with connecting organisers and companies willing to help.
Taking on the family business proved a significant challenge. She says, “I didn’t have a clue what to do.”
It was a research trip to Peru in 2012 that opened her eyes to the negative effects of the mining process. Merkle shares, “I visited a working gold mine (in Peru), and I actually cried. There was no nature, no natural environment; it was all destroyed. I saw women drinking from a lake polluted by mercury. It was simply terrible.”
“Then I went to a (Fairtrade-protected) mine just an hour away from the first, and saw a huge improvement,” she adds.
Making A Change
On the flight back, Merkle made two important decisions: she would relaunch Vieri, her father’s business, using only recycled or fair-mined gold; she would also set up a foundation to help mining communities diversify their income.
“I guess you could call it an ‘a-ha!’ moment,” says Merkle.
It was an uphill battle — Vieri’s production team was not familiar with ethically-sourced gold, and it was a challenge to produce at the company’s regular quantities using only fair-mined gold — but Merkle persevered. She also founded The Earthbeat Foundation, a not-for-profit foundation that promotes change to the gold mining industry to which she channels three percent of Vieri’s overall profit. So far, the foundation has helped finance a bee-keeping project with miners in Busia, Uganda. “The (bee-keepers) are now making honey and making a living out of it; some have moved away from gold mining.”
Merkle admits she was a bit naïve, thinking it would be an easy path. “If I had known the difficulties ahead, I probably wouldn’t have started,” she says with a laugh. Vieri consciously purchases diamonds with the CanadaMark that have been responsibly mined in Canada’s Northwest Territories]. Shares Merkle, “Sustainability is about the long term, and we are improving every day.”
She points out, “Our goal is to create products not only in a responsible manner but also to change the mindset of the consumer and the conditions for the workers.”