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The teenager who makes jewelry from bullets

By Mark Tutton, for CNN
  • Liberian Lovetta Conto makes jewelry from spent bullets
  • She fled Liberia's civil war as a child and grew up in a Ghanaian refugee camp
  • A U.S. social enterprise gave her the chance to leave the refugee camp
  • Conto's jewelry is worn by Angelina Jolie and Halle Berry

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London, England (CNN) -- Still a teenager, Liberian Lovetta Conto makes jewelry that is worn by the likes of Angelina Jolie and Halle Berry.

But Conto, 17, is no pampered Hollywood fashionista. She grew up in a Ghanaian refugee camp. And rather than using precious stones in her designs, Conto makes her jewelry from the casings of bullets fired during Liberia's civil war.

Born in Liberia, she was separated from her mother at the age of 18 months as Conto and her father fled the country to escape its civil war. When she was five they made it to Ghana and spent the next nine years living in a refugee camp with 47,000 other people.

"We had to flee to Ghana and leave my mother behind. We thought we would be safer there because our whole country was ruined," she told CNN.

"I felt alone because I was in another country where I wasn't really welcome. I always wanted to go back to my country. But you have no choice because your country is in a civil war and it's the only place you have to be."

Conto said her father had to leave her with other families while he went to work, trying to earn enough to send her to school.

"I didn't really go to school because my dad didn't have the money to pay my school fees, so I stayed home a lot," she said.

"Sometimes I would go to school without eating. I went to school hungry a lot and there wasn't much safe drinking water for people to drink and the water made people sick. There was just a little well and you had to get the water from there, and it wasn't safe."

In 2005, an American named Cori Stern visited the camp. Stern was the founder of the Strongheart Fellowship, an organization dedicated to helping gifted youngsters who have been displaced or orphaned by conflict.

Aged 12, Conto met Stern and made a lasting impression on her. Recognizing Conto's untapped potential, Stern began working to get her out of the camp.

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Strongheart taught me I could do anything if I put my mind to it and I could become whoever I wanted to be.
--Lovetta Conto
  • Liberia
  • Jewelry
  • Africa

It took two years for Conto to get a U.S. Visa, but aged 14 she left her father in Ghana and moved to America as part of the Strongheart program.

Adjusting to life in the U.S. was difficult for Conto. She found it hard not be angry when she compared the wealth around her with the poverty she had grown up with. But the experience changed her life.

"In your life you are used to people not telling you that you can do more or you can be better or become a future leader or do whatever," she said.

"Strongheart taught me I could do anything if I put my mind to it and I could become whoever I wanted to be.

"If something happens to you, you hold on to it so hard, but Strongheart taught me to let go of things and to express my feelings and how to expect good things in my life. That was life changing for me -- for me to love myself."

Conto started making jewelry as part of a Strongheart project. Tasked with creating something that reflected her environment and the people around her, Conto came up with the idea of making something from a bullet fired during Liberia's civil war.

Find out how Lovetta makes her jewelry

"I always wanted to be a fashion designer," Conto told CNN. "I admired people so much when we would go out of the camp to Accra, in Ghana, and see all the people in their fancy clothes.

"I always admired how they put them together and I always thought maybe one day I could do that -- I could design clothes or make people look nice."

Conto came up with a design inscribed with the word "life." It's intended to show new life can arise from even the worst hardship. She has now sold hundreds of necklaces under the name "Akawelle," which translates as "also known as love."

"All the bullets [we use] are from Liberia; they were used in the Liberian civil war," she said.

"I wanted to keep the memory of my people alive. Everything I was doing I had in the back of my mind 'I can use this money to help the other people who are left behind -- kids whose parents died in the war, or kids who don't have the opportunity I had.'"

Profits from Akawelle's sales go towards the "Strongheart House" -- a home built in Robertsport, Liberia, for Strongheart youngsters from all over the world. It's the place Lovetta calls home, and she shares it with 11 other youths.

She is now trying to put together a teen magazine intended to inspire young Africans, and she runs a discussion group in Robertsport to empower teenage girls. Lovetta was also recently reunited with the mother she left behind as a baby.

Still a teenager herself, Conto has come a long way since her childhood. And the advice her father gave her as a child has proved true.

"He always taught me to work hard and make my life a better life," she said. "And he always told me I if I believe myself, I could go far in life."