HILLBERG & BERK FOUNDER & CEO
Growing up, Rachel Mielke didn’t have a lot of special or “nice” jewellery — it was just too expensive. Then at 23, in anticipation of a trip to Banff, Rachel decided to make special happen for herself. Using materials she could afford — some freshwater pearls, Swarovski crystals, and Bali Sterling Silver — Rachel made her first-ever necklace. “I put it on and thought, this is really special. This makes me feel special. I want to do more of this.”
She started regularly making jewellery for herself and her girlfriends. Working for a non-profit called Women Entrepreneurs of Saskatchewan, Rachel had ambitions of starting her own company, but she’d yet to combine her entrepreneurial spirit and passion for design. But when some savvy girlfriends insisted her jewellery was marketable — you’ve got to sell these, they said — Rachel decided to set up a table one weekend at a nurse’s convention. The demand for her designs was astounding. “I said to myself, ‘okay, I’m going to do this.’”
Over the next decade, Rachel grew her jewellery business — named Hillberg & Berk in homage to her great-grandmother, Hilda Bergman, and her dog, Berkeley — from a kitchen-table-operation to one of Saskatchewan’s most beloved jewellery brands, now with eleven retail locations across Western Canada. Along the way, Rachel has seen the business through some pretty unique successes, including a showing at the Oscars, a pitch-turned-deal on Dragons’ Den, partnerships with Olympic athletes such as Tessa Virtue, and two designs commissioned for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. “Honestly, thinking back to both times we designed for the Queen, I have to pinch myself and think, is this even real?,” she laughs.
Designing jewellery for the Queen of England is a pretty sparkling accomplishment, but accolades like this aren’t what get Rachel through a hectic week of work and family life (she is also a wife and mother of three). Her energy comes from a desire to support women through design, and to recreate those “I feel special” moments — just like the one she had at 23 — for women who want to feel beautiful and put-together, whether for special occasions or everyday life. “What makes something like Sparkle so special is that it’s a product you can wear casually, everyday, or to the fanciest events. It’s so transitional,” she says. “I think we make some of the most beautiful product in the world at an affordable price point.”
Affordable also means accessible. It’s always been Rachel’s goal to create a brand-image that women find both aspirational and attainable, which is why she seeks trail-blazers and change-makers as the faces of her campaigns. “I think that’s an important opportunity for us: to tell stories of real women though our photoshoots and campaigns.” A couple recent cases (or faces) in point: Ashley Callingbull, the first Canadian and Indigenous Woman to win Ms. Universe, was the face of the 2017 and 2018 collections; while Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, a celebrated journalist and fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was the face of the Aurora Lux Collection in 2013. Rachel hopes that by making-visible these stories of resilience, she can show her customers what empowerment looks like at its most beautiful, inspiring them to take power over their own life-stories.
But Rachel knows that empowerment doesn’t just “happen” when someone sees a woman they admire wearing jewellery they love. “Only you can empower yourself, but I think Hillberg & Berk provides tools along that journey,” she says. “When I think about what got me to this phase in my life, there are three pillars: inspiration, education, and opportunity.” Another must-have for fellow dream-chasers? Community. “You need people who believe in you. Even if your dream is crazy. You really have to find that community of people who lift you up.”
Speaking of lifting people up: since its inception in 2007, Hillberg & Berk has donated well over $2,000,000 in cash and product to a variety of charitable organizations that educate and provide opportunities to women in Canada and globally. Rachel has also funded several scholarships for women through her alma mater, the University of Regina, and she recently established a collective of jewellery makers in Myanmar, in an effort to give back jobs to local craftspeople. Her activism occurs on a micro-level, too: it wouldn’t be uncommon to see her giving away her jewellery — sometimes from around her own neck or wrists — to people she meets randomly, or to those deserving a pick-me-up. In the wake of the Fort McMurray wildfires in 2016, Rachel and her team gave away over 500 pairs of earrings, meant as Mother’s Day gifts to women in Edmonton and Calgary who had been displaced by the fires.
There are other stories like these, all of which fall under the umbrella of “Share Your Sparkle,” a catchphrase turned hashtag turned way-of-life, established after Hillberg & Berk launched their now-iconic sub-brand, Sparkle, in 2009. “Sparkle is about sharing our light and love with the world, then having women go out and feel confident wearing the product. They can then pass that [Sparkle] on to other women.”
Rachel and her team have traveled the globe in pursuit of the best gemstones and jewellery components — whether its rutilated quartz from a small vendor in China, or gorgeous chains from an Italian merchant —but the heart of the brand still beats firmly in Rachel’s hometown of Regina, Saskatchewan, where the majority of Hillberg & Berk’s jewellery is designed and made.
Local production also helps keep things sustainable. “We have almost no waste. We use elements like sterling silver and semiprecious gemstones so the products we make are long lasting,” she says, adding that most of their scraps are remelted and made into new components for future collections.
As for the company’s future, Rachel wants to go global. “We thought, how can we become the best in the world at something? And thinking about who we are at the core of our company, we thought, we can be the best in the world at championing and supporting women through our entire supply chain.”
In other words, the future sparkles.