Most designers will tell you that they take their inspiration from their environment. For Lovetta Conto this means war. Barely 17 years old, the Liberian jewellery designer has already made her mark on the Hollywood fashion scene, selling pieces of jewellery to stars such as Angelina Jolie, Halle Berry, Hilary Swank, Selma Blair and Mos Def. Though her success at such a young age has turned more than a few heads, what is most remarkable about her jewellery collection is that it is fashioned from spent bullets.
"I decided to make jewellery with bullets from the Liberian civil war to be able to help young people who had been through the (14-year) war, to provide for them and to raise funds to help improve their future, but at the same time to carry the memories of the people they had lost" she says, talking from the Liberian surf spot of Robertsport, where she shares a house with several other young, talented Liberians. "I've been amazed by the response and popularity of the necklaces".
Conto's story begins in Gbarnga, central Liberia, where she was born in 1992, just as the third stretch of a civil conflict began to rock Liberia. As tanks rolled through the country, Conto - then eight months old - was evacuated to Ghana with her father. She spent a decade in the vast Budumburam refugee camp just outside the capital Accra, at the time home to almost 50,000 war refugees. While she was there, the war in Liberia raged on, eventually killing 200,000 and displacing one million more.
But Conto had more on her mind than the hopelessness of the situation. "No matter how down the women in the refugee camp were, they always found a way to express themselves with beautiful jewellery and clothes they made from what they had," she says. So three years ago, when she was granted a Strongheart Fellowship after meeting the founder of the programme at the refugee camp, she began fashioning jewellery from what Liberia had plenty of: spent bullets. The Strongheart Fellowship, the brainchild of the American Cori Stern, is designed to help gifted young people who have been through difficult times. Its name is derived from a quote by Ernest Hemingway, which reads "the world breaks us all and afterwards some are stronger in the broken places".
"Some people may say, 'Why should a girl who comes from a place where people struggle to get food care about fashion or jewellery?'" Conto says. "But I believe that your spirit wants beauty no matter your conditions. Even something as ugly as a bullet that was fired in a war can be made beautiful if you are willing to work to change it into something else." That philosophy is now reflected in the jewellery line Aka'welle - "also known as love in the West African Pele language, which includes variations on one simple but elegant design.
"There are two parts to the necklace - the leaf pendant and the bead. They're both made from old bullets" she says. The spent bullets are collected from rural parts of Liberia, where they can still be found scattered among trees and in forest clearings. The casings are split open by hand, melted and poured into a mould that represents a leaf shape. The rough edges of the bottom of the bullet are then sanded and smoothed before being wrapped with gold carat wire and attached to the leaf pendant. "I think it's important to have part of the actual bullet untouched, to remember what it was like before," says Richard Sumo, who collects and shapes the spent bullets. "They will naturally tarnish. I think it makes them even more beautiful," he adds.
Since launching, Aka'welle has sold hundreds of necklaces and raised more than $20,000, (Dh73,500), much of which will benefit young talent in Liberia. When Angelina Jolie announced that she had bought Aka'welle pendants for her children, Conto's popularity skyrocketed. Hollywood stars aren't the only ones to be impressed by the young designer, however. In 2008 Conto was awarded a Nobel-sponsored International Children's Peace Prize, which is handed out annually to exceptional children who have demonstrated great courage or remarkable actions to help protect and improve the lives of children who face risks or injustices. She has also met with the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu as part of her quest to help raise global awareness of the good that can come from difficult situations.
Though Conto is deeply moved by the drive to support youth creativity, fashion is her first love. The jewellery designer Melinda Maria - known in Los Angeles as Hollywood's Bling Queen - has been mentoring Conto for the last few years. Of course, war is not Conto's only inspiration. "I'm a huge fan of Coco Chanel" she says. "I find her work elegant, beautiful, sexy and cute at the same time. Her clothes make people look and feel like women; they make you suddenly appear more confident.
"I'd like to start designing clothes myself," she says. "If and when that happens, there will be some Chanel-inspired designs." Conto also hopes to launch a West Africa-based magazine for teenage girls. Whether the magazine or the fashion designs come first, as Conto's career flourishes she will be mindful of two things. "I always think of the lotus flower," she says. It grows in mudflats and proves that beauty can come from hostile places." The second comes from Coco Chanel, who famously said: "In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different." Conto is certainly that.