From her parents’ restaurant to Starbucks to dental school: The path that Dr. Lynna Van Merkey took toward creating jewelry highlights everything she learned from childhood through today, where she now serves as founder and creative director of V Coterie, a jewelry and accessories company that celebrates the modern health care professional.
V Coterie seeks to balance her interest in the arts as well as science, Merkey says, inspired by her own journey in becoming a dentist. During those years, she needed a creative outlet to work through her loss of a parent, the rigors of school, and the demands of medicine as a career.
Her goal with V Coterie is to humanize health care and the grit of health care professionals through personal storytelling, clean design, and a sense of fun. Seeing a void in the market in accessories for health care professionals, Merkey designs each V Coterie piece to incite meaningful connections with a playful approach.
It all started at a Chinese restaurant—the one that her parents owned and operated. Merkey’s father was a physician in Vietnam, but his life was completely displaced as a result of the war. After immigrating to the States, his credentials were denied, and he found work doing cabinetry and nails and then becoming an entrepreneur by owning a restaurant.
Merkey’s mom was able to teach herself English and complete nursing school, all while raising her and her older sister. They instilled strong values of grit, determination, and education in both children at an early age, Merkey says. Merkey bussed tabled and ran the register when the restaurant got busy.
In high school, Merkey became a barista at Starbucks inside of a Target. She was supposed to stock the store shelves but was made a cashier instead. Given her life experience, it was a relatively easy gig—but the management noticed her skills, so they moved her to the coffee giant.
“That role taught me how to balance multiple competing priorities—all the while keeping the environment positive and enjoyable,” Merkey says.
It proved the best kind of experience—Merkey’s next move was to the University of Tulsa, where she received her biology degree. She completed dental school at the University of Oklahoma College of Dentistry in 2019.
“I thought I wanted to follow in my dad’s footsteps, but after shadowing in a few hospitals and ERs, I saw myself in a different type of practice setting,” she says. “I chose dentistry because of the unique blend of art and science; I’m literally creating art with my hands every day.”
Jewelry started simply enough—she was part of a student organization in dental school that needed a fresh brand. She helped to create a new logo, and she started making enamel pins for the students to wear. Her work was a hit, so she dug in deeper. She taught herself Adobe Illustrator and continued to design—mostly because it made her feel good to watch her designs come to life.
“I didn’t plan on building a business from it—it happened organically and felt quite natural to me,” Merkey says. “As the brand progressed, I envisioned it to be more of a lifestyle brand, not just a single type of product offering. That’s when I started designing more wearable jewelry pieces, like necklaces and earrings.”
Merkey says she continues to design for the health care community because of her experiences, her insider perspective, and because she, too, has been through the highs and lows of this profession. Plus, her entire family is in medicine: Her eldest sister is a pharmacist, and she has two younger sisters: one works as a sonographer and the other is in pharmacy school.
“I know the feeling of burnout all too well. The path to any career in health care, especially doctoral programs, is grueling.… There is a lot of pressure to be extremely high-achieving and almost robot-like in our performance,” Merkey says. “My dad passed away during my second year of dental school. Four days after his funeral, I took my board exam, and, thankfully, I passed.
“I came back to school and felt like I was in overdrive because I had to do twice the amount of work to make up for the time I had missed. I emphasize wellness and self-care in our brand’s messaging because the health care industry desperately needs humanization,” Merkey adds.
Top: V Coterie founder and creative director Dr. Lynna Van Merkey (all photos courtesy of V Coterie)Follow JCK on Instagram: @jckmagazine
Follow JCK on Twitter: @jckmagazine
Follow JCK on Facebook: @jckmagazine