The dilemma of glamour

Valentin Rickert 
A young jewelry designer develops her own idea of ​​luxury and entrepreneurship. Gold mines with poor working conditions and polluted soil are not among them.

Whether as thalers or bars: gold has been in great demand for thousands of years and has shaped the world like no other commodity. Whether in ancient Rome, in the colonial empire of Spain or today on Wall Street: the precious metal enchants, intoxicates and destroys at the same time. In Germany, the shiny form miracle is most often used in the manufacture of jewelery and jewellery.

Pforzheim, the sunny city on the edge of the Black Forest, is a traditional stronghold of German jewelery and watchmaking. In the so-called Gold City, the precious metal also entered Guya Merkle’s life. The daughter of jewelery designer Eddy Vieri Merkle got to know the jewelery hype of gemstone fairs and champagne evenings at an early age. Today, the 32-year-old scratches the facade of pomp and showmanship in search of new splendor.

Guya Merkle in her office
Guya Merkle | Photo: Valentin Rickert

But for now she had other things on her mind. She studied entrepreneurship in Potsdam. Just grown up, the 21-year-old wanted to make a difference socially and started at the betterplace lab in Berlin . But the jewelry world caught up with Merkle again. After the sudden death of her father, she took over the family business. Without any practical experience in company management and the jewelry trade, she began to rediscover her once childhood environment. For professionalization, I went to London to the GIA , the Gemological Institute of America, the hotbed for today’s gemologists and gold specialists. With the common good in mind, Merkle quickly asked herself where and, above all, under what conditions the gold for her jewelry was mined. The GIA was of little help in this regard, which is why Merkle called fairtrade without further ado .

Searching for gold

Back then, in 2009, the fair trade organization had only just begun to take an interest in gold. She invited Merkle on a trip to a Peruvian mine. And so it went, despite the fear of flying, to Lima and further over bumpy roads in the direction of the gold mining community. A journey that got the cornerstone of the Merkle corporate philosophy rolling. The landscape was “great great great”, but at the end of the street a slum was waiting at over 3,000 meters above sea level. Merkle was advised against eating and drinking because the water and food quality at that location was too poor. The problems were omnipresent: rampant poverty, difficult working conditions and extreme health and environmental burdens due to mercury.

Merkle looked at everything: she climbed into the mine, talked to the people and – plagued by hunger – ate the food. What did you take away from your visit? Disbelief – “Dear jewelry industry, you can’t be serious!” – and food poisoning.

The social vein

Gold mines like this: not with Merkle! That much was certain. In Germany, however, doubts were already waiting. How could it be otherwise? How to continue “Dad’s life’s work”? In any case, the public should learn about the grievances. Merkle established a foundation, the Earthbeat Foundation. It should be a mouthpiece for gold mines, their workers and their families. Over 100 million people worldwide depend on gold mines.

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A mine shaft in Uganda | Photo: Robert Hörnig

A trip to Uganda came about with friends from Viva con Agua . The Earthbeat Foundation made initial contacts with a gold mining community and local activists and made a film. That alone wasn’t enough: “First you’re a beacon of hope and then you’re gone again quickly.” E arthbeat wanted to provide lasting help and organized new equipment for the work in the mine. But when the workers put on their helmets, safety shoes and goggles, they just laughed at the ballast and said: “We’ll never do that, it takes us 20 times longer”.

The mistake became clear: the conditions in the mine were the wrong starting point. The community lacked alternative sources of income. People mine gold because they have no other options. So they have to take the risk of spills and mercury poisoning and keep gold supplies at rock-bottom prices. Only the other beads in the supply chain earn money.

A “learning” from the initial phase, Merkle sums up. That is why the foundation now focuses on creating alternative sources of income. She promotes permaculture gardens whose plants clean up the contaminated soil, donates goats and teaches imbeekeeping craft. The Earthbeat Foundation has declared war on the gold mines per se. Building fair trade mines is too complex, explains Merkle. The market is too complicated to be transparent. In case of doubt, poverty remains. So the goal: no more people underground.

The foundation would also like to continue to provide information, but it is easier to make progress in Uganda than to make a difference on the consumer side in this country. Merkle should know, because as an entrepreneur she still deals with consumption on a daily basis. Your family business continues. However, it has undergone a few restructurings. Named after Merkle’s father, the company is now called Vieri and only produces jewelery from recycled gold. There are refineries that recover the precious metal from cell phones, laptops and old jewelry.

Merkle combines many things that appear contrary. As a jewelry designer, she is against gold mines, and as an entrepreneur, she says the unusual: “Less consumption!” That is her credo. She wears little jewelry herself. She shares her office in Berlin with others. And Merkle prefers to give away time, beautiful experiences and emotions. Jewellery, these are ultimately just objects on which emotions hang. A luxury that no one really needs, but which can be beautiful. Merkle doesn’t understand why some people don’t care where these objects come from: “You can’t call anything a luxury if you know that the world will perish because of it.”

The new luxury

honey in a pot
Liquid Gold | Photo: Timon Koch

The small company and its principles are well received. With the #VieriWoman campaign , the company presents women who are enthusiastic about Vieri jewelry and its ideals. Among them are prominent names, such as blogger and journalist Kübra Gümüşay. Merkle is happy about that: “I have really great customers”. And it’s not just an upper class that buys their ethically correct jewellery. Sometimes eight months are saved for a new chain.

The fruitful mixture of company and foundation should continue in the future. For E arthbeat to other countries and hopefully to the first complete decommissioning of a mine. For Vieri in the trade, to compete with the conventional products and to stimulate discussions. And Merkle? She has bigger plans: “I would really like to turn the economic system upside down”.

Well then, luxury for everyone!