“I Have No Right To Give Up”: Valeriya Guzema On Running A Jewelry Business During The War In Ukraine

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“When the Russians invaded, we stopped production and began volunteering,” says designer, entrepreneur and activist Valeriya Guzema, who has helmed the successful jewelry business Guzema, since 2016. Known for timeless contemporary treasures seen on Milla Jovovich and Ukrainian First Lady Elena Zelenska, the business is based in Kyiv, and every piece of jewelry is hand-made in Ukraine. When war broke out, there was never a doubt in her mind that that would change.

Previously a well-known journalist and broadcaster who “learnt the business from scratch” when she decided to start her own fine jewelry business, Guzema has form in tackling adversity head-on. Her first collection was stolen, then her store burnt down. She picked herself up, threw a “Guzema on fire” party and renovated a bigger and better showroom nearby. “Whatever happens, the main thing is to accept all challenges and believe in your strength and the future of your business,” she says.

That mettle and determination must have been sorely tested since February 24, 2022. But despite the air raids, devastation, and an early hiatus in production to concentrate on the war effort, Guzema has not only kept her business afloat since the Russian invasion, but has managed to release new collections — including Spadok, a tribute to her homeland — and enter new markets.

Here, in her own words, she shares her experiences.

What is your first jewelry memory?

My grandmother gifted me jewelry from an early age and one special piece started my passion for jewelry when I was a child. I remember that in the first grade of school I had a ring that looked like a spring, I gently bent it so that I could wear it on different fingers.

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Which piece in the Guzema collection is most significant to you?

My first piece of jewelry was a ring with three large balls – probably the most significant for me, since it all started with that. Our charity collaborations are also very dear to me — Charity Chain was one of our bestsellers, thanks to which we were able to finance operations to save 160 children’s hearts.

What does the new Spadok collection represent?

Jewelry, passed from generation to generation, carries special energy and national spirit. I was inspired by Ukrainian heritage – embroidery, natural materials and the symbol of our native land, viburnum. The pixel shape of the jewelry looks like embroidery and at the same time references the pattern of the Ukrainian defenders’ military uniform, reminding us of that the struggle for independence continues.

In the necklaces and earrings I used natural beads. Firstly, coral. Hundreds of years ago, coral for traditional Ukrainian accessories was sourced from the Mediterranean Sea; nowadays, my necklaces have the same appearance and value as in the jewelry of our ancestors, but are made from bamboo. Next, come amber beads. My grandmother once showed me an amber ring, which is now a family heirloom. This is my personal thread that connects me to my ancestors.

The Spadok collection is special, because we use cross-stitching on gold, just like our great-grandmothers used to make embroidered towels and shirts. We intend this collection to become Ukrainian family heirlooms.

How has your business been impacted since the Russian invasion in February?

On February 24, the whole world turned upside down. Unless you were there and woke up to the bombing, you will never be able to understand. I wouldn’t wish anyone to experience what the Ukrainians are going through now. We all had our happy lives — I was spending time with my son, going out with my husband, growing my business, speaking at conferences, meeting friends, planning vacations, learning the piano, taking a pilot course – and in one day everything just collapsed.

Our lives and business had to be rebuilt. In the early days, I didn’t even think about work, I was worried about the safety of my loved ones, the safety of my team. First of all we sent 1 million hryvnia ($27,000) to the Ukrainian army and paid wages to all employees. We stopped our production and commercial activities and began volunteering, and I changed the focus of my charitable organization, Guzema Foundation to support the military, hospitals and refugees.

We resumed sales in Ukraine in April and entered the international market. My team mostly works remotely from Ukraine, I represent the brand at events myself. Now, my strategic focus is on foreign markets. I want Guzema to be fully present in the US market, as well as in Europe. We produce exceptional quality products. And I believe they are worth shelf space next to well-known foreign brands. I want to carry our “be yourself, feel special” philosophy to the world. A serious challenge for us today is production. I want to maintain the quality that my jewelers in Ukraine provide, production facilities abroad are not suitable.

Have you noticed a change in your clients’ behavior since the invasion?

I know that many of our clients have taken Guzema jewelry into their alarm bags, to have special memorabilia with them when the sirens sound. Many people fled the war, wearing their beloved necklaces and earrings. These jewels have become even more symbolic.

People increasingly want to buy special things that they can pass down as family heirlooms, to mark current events. Ukrainians continue to live, they want to treat themselves and feel good.

How does one keep going through such difficult circumstances?

I adapt to new realities and continue to work simply because there is no other choice. Ukrainians need resilience more than ever before. Doing business in a war under bombs and sirens is difficult, but I know why am doing it. I am a patriot, and I have no right to give up for the sake of the future of my homeland, for the future of my son, who I want to grow up in his country rather than as an immigrant.

I am not only known as an entrepreneur, but also as an opinion leader and activist, so I have a social responsibility to Ukrainians. All this motivates me to continue my business and charitable activities every day, no matter how difficult it is for me. I am sure that our victory is very close, we just need to push a little more.

Tell me about the work of the Guzema Foundation.

Initially, I created the foundation to help children undergoing treatment at the Chernihiv Regional Children’s Hospital and to upgrade the equipment there. However, since the start of full-scale war, the foundation has been helping the army and Ukrainian people affected by the occupation. Today, the help that we have provided since the beginning of the war amounts to 7.8 million Ukrainian hryvnia ($210,000).

Over the past few months, we have been providing assistance exclusively to the military, who are on the front lines. I am convinced that the more we help the army, the less we will have to help injured civilians and hospitals in the rear. We are actively looking for and connecting business partners who are ready to donate their profits to help Ukraine.

What are your priorities for the business at this point? And for yourself?

My business is moving confidently into foreign markets, but we also continue to live and produce jewelry in Ukraine, and hope for a brighter future. We only create “made in Ukraine” products, so it is very important for us to maintain production in Ukraine. Despite the circumstances, the sirens, the airstrikes and explosions in Kyiv, our team is still working. Our goal is to show Ukrainian products all over the world.

Business is not just business for me. We invest in this word also other meanings, like ‘freedom’, and the strength of all Ukrainians who continue to live, work and fight for their freedom despite everything. We invest a lot of resources and time into the Guzema foundation and will continue to actively help our country at this difficult time, without stopping either commercial or charitable activities.