Born and raised in Ethiopia, Debbie Mekonnen fashions bold, intricate jewelry that reflects the everyday lifestyle of her home country.
Debbie came to San Francisco from Addis Abada in 1992. She landed in the heart of the Haight Ashbury, where she felt at home among the swirling colors and the message of freedom she saw all around her. Long interested in fashion illustration and beadwork, she took a workshop course at a Hayes Valley bead shop and was soon selling her own designs on the sidewalk outside her apartment in the Haight. It was not long before the posh shops on Union Street were carrying her creations, and later Mission District shops such as House of Hengst and Minnie Wilde, the shop that used to occupy our space, were selling her designs.
In 2001, Debbie’s green card came through and she was able to return to Ethiopia for the first time in nearly 10 years. There, she was struck afresh by the hunger and poverty, and also the beauty of the land and people she had left behind. Soon after arriving, she began to form the Bella Abisinia project, designing jewelry inspired by the Ethiopian people and landscape that makes use of recycled and traditional materials such as horn, giraffe tail hair, and Maria Theresa coins.
Back in the US, Debbie began working on her MA in Art Therapy and Youth Leadership, with particular attention on homeless youth. On a research trip to Ethiopia in 2003 she started a small non-profit organization to serve homeless mothers and their children with cerebral palsy and HIV. Today, with profits from the sale of her jewelery, Debbie is able to help provide food for these families and resources for getting them work and tools for getting on their feet. She would very much like to expand the project, and is planning to work with a young metalsmith in Addis Abada who will help produce her Bella Abisinia designs. Down the line, she has her sights on building a larger work studio where she’ll be able to employ more talented craftspeople and extend assistance to more folks in the community.