Meyer Guggenheim was born in Lengnau, Aargau, Switzerland on February 1, 1828. He was of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry and emigrated to the United States in 1847. He started out in the importing business, but made his and his family's fortune (which was one of the largest fortunes of the 19th century) in mining and smelting.
Guggenheim invested in silver mines of the Leadville mining district of Colorado. From mining he expanded into ore smelting, also in Colorado, then built a number of smelters across the US and in northern Mexico. In 1891 he consolidated about a dozen of the family’s mining operations into the Colorado Smelting and Refining Company. The Guggenheim family then entered a lengthy struggle with the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO), backed by the Rockefeller family. By 1901 the Guggenheims had acquired control of ASARCO, and became the dominant force in the mining industry for the next three decades. As his sons grew up, they took roles in the family businesses with Daniel taking the lead in the mining and smelting business.