Thursday, August 12, 2010

LOVETTA CONTO

Let's take a walk through time to the days of Egyptian Pharaohs and visit the remarkable temple known as the Ramesseum near the Nile River in Africa.

The foreboding structure features giant statues of Ramses II, as well as a well-preserved schoolroom made of mud brick. Africa is also the birthplace of featured jewelry designer Lovetta Conto.



There is no question that life is often a journey fraught with hardship, struggle, and setbacks.

The unexpected twists and turns--sometimes of our own creation--can seem like an endless maze of misfortune and heartache.

A home is lost, a long marriage suddenly ends, and a trusted friendship is irreparably broken. Such experiences staunchly challenge one's will to go on, and can darken the hope for new beginnings.

From a psychological and emotional standpoint, an onslaught of challenges occurring over a long period can have a diminishing effect on our self-esteem and the sense of connectivity to others.

Seventeen-year-old Conto is a singular inspiration to anyone who has ever felt forgotten, unloved, and disenfranchised. Due to a civil war in Liberia, as a very young child Conto fled with her father, Larry, to a refugee camp in Ghana.

Here she grew up living with the despair and hopelessness of others having fled their homeland. Despite the oppressive weight of the situation, Conto managed to maintain a positive outlook.

"No one around me saw a future for themselves. My dad taught me that education was the way to raise your life up, and he taught me to believe in my dreams," she recalls. "For some reason I would look around me and look for what was good. I saw beauty.

People told me there was no beauty but I knew another life, another way of being was possible. Going through the war gave me strength and I knew it was not the end of my life."

Conto's "future" came in the guise of Cori Stern, the founder of the Strongheart Fellowship Program. In 2005, while Stern visited with AIDS-stricken pregnant women in the refugee camp, Conto watched her feeling Stern was somehow the key to unlocking her future.

"She told me about her plans to help young survivors of civil war or genocide receive an education and access to resources that would help change their lives," Conto says.


"She told me I had the intelligence and inner resilience necessary for the Strongheart Program, and invited me to come to the United States to be the first to participate in the program."

The goal of Strongheart Fellowship is to help develop entrepreneurial opportunities for "orphaned or uprooted" young people by creating small businesses to provide financial stability to the program participant (or fellow) and their communities.

Initially Conto wanted to pursue the legal profession but realized she was more passionate about fashion. "I had no idea what to do for my project related to law. Nothing seemed right. Something inside me pulled me to fashion and design.

No matter how down women felt in the refugee camp they always found a way to express themselves with beautiful jewelry and clothes they made from what they had. I believe your spirit wants beauty no matter your conditions."

Conto chose shell casings scattered throughout Liberia as her building block. She reinvented this symbol of destruction and anarchy into a symbol that affirmed life, the Akawelle Necklace.

The pendant necklace hangs from a sterling silver ball bead chain, and comes in four lengths. The pendant necklace is also available on an Eco-suede cord, and as a bracelet.

"The leaf pendant is made from melted bullet shells; the part that is left over after the bullet is fired. The bead is the actual bottom of the bullet shell. I had the word "life" inscribed into the leaf to remind myself that new life can begin after hardship."

Conto's incredible maturity is a beautiful reminder of the inherent strength of the human spirit. Her steely determination to build a future despite her surroundings or naysayers is so uplifting.

What gets me more is she not only fought to transcend her experiences but she fought for her very soul. She fought to maintain the existence of her own humanity choosing to see beauty and light within a gloomy, violent landscape.

"I am not ashamed of my past. It has made me who I am. It does hurt--sometimes I wonder why I was born into war and strife--but I always hold on to what my father taught me and to the strength I gained through those struggles."

With the end of the civil war in 2003, the sale proceeds of the Akawelle Necklace help to support the Strongheart House, a safe house for the program's "fellows" located in Robertsport, Liberia.

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Photo 1 (top right): Akawelle Necklace with Sterling Silver Ball Beads Chain
Photo 2 (center): Conto Wearing the Akawelle Necklace with Eco-Suede Cord
Photo 3 (bottom left): Akawelle Necklace Bracelet with Sterling Silver Ball Beads Chain
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