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More than a Betty

Ventura’s Donna von Hoesslin spreads the aloha spirit—one accessory at a time.

By Allison Costa

Philanthropy has many faces. There’s the stereotypical philanthropist who wears a dark suit, a shiny tie, and has very deep pockets. There’s also the philanthropist who’s all about telling you what a philanthropist she is, making giving the ultimate status symbol. Then there are the quieter ones, the ones who give because that’s who they are. Donna von Hoesslin, owner of Betty Belts, is one of these.

Her wholesale accessory business, based out of tiny shop on Fir Street in downtown Ventura, specializes in handmade, ocean-inspired accessories. Inside the cozy space that feels as welcoming as a friend’s living room, ornate beaded belts with braided ties hang next to hemp bags and sea glass earrings. Rings, hairpins, silk scarves, and necklaces all beg to be touched, tried on, and taken home.

Yet this shop is more than a shop. Donna is one of those people who can’t help but share her creativity; and because she exudes such warmth and openness, she often ends up in a mentoring role to her customers. “People come in here for inspiration,” she says.

As we spend the morning together, sitting on the front stoop outside her store, Donna often pauses to say hello to other business owners on their way to work, and to shout out to fellow surfers heading to the beach. As she talks about her life and her work, she throws around terms like “creativity,” “inspiration,” and “dignity,” the words rolling easily off her tongue. And after spending five minutes with this creative, it is clear this is not for show. She’s just living her truth and building a life around her one true love: the ocean.

Donna grew up in the Oakland area, but spent 17 years in Germany after high school. For ten of those years she worked as a screenplay translator, a time during which she says she had given up on her creativity. It wasn’t until she took a trip back to the states and paddled into her first wave, in Santa Cruz, that everything changed. For this self-proclaimed klutz, riding that first wave “was a pivotal moment.”

In 2002, she left Germany and moved to Santa Cruz. “I wanted to make surfing part of my everyday life,” she explains. She worked as a sales rep in the surf industry, and eventually helped a friend with marketing for his new belt business, Betty Belts. In time, Donna would buy the small company from him and turn it into much more than a belt business.

Energized by surfing and with her creativity back in play, Donna designed her first piece of jewelry in 2004: her still popular Layna earrings, made from oyster shell mother of pearl. She moved to Ventura in 2005 and opened her shop on Fir Street in 2007. And thus began a career centered around ocean-centric apparel, and a life centered around her shop and surfing down at C-Street. “It was all inspired by the ocean,” she says, “Fate brought me to this.”

While Donna designs her belts and jewelry here, most are made by a group of independent artisans on the island of Bali. “We have built something beautiful together that supports everyone involved in a manner that complements their lifestyle and respects their culture,” she says, “It’s no coincidence that people feel good energy in the product.”

From Donna’s passion for surfing and love of the ocean come two of her jewelry collections: one made from sea glass and another collection of surfboard resin jewelry. She recycles genuine local sea glass and transforms the pieces into treasures like chunky sea glass rings made with asymmetrical pieces of emerald green glass and her flower sea glass necklaces made with five “petals” of varying shades of blue glass.

Her surfboard resin jewelry is the product of upcycling, or reusing discarded material to create something of greater value. Working with a small network of local board builders, Donna collects the hardened discs of resin and turns them into chunky pendants and dangly earrings that are pleasing to the eye and make good conversation pieces.

Always looking to minimize waste, Donna takes the small scraps left from making her surfboard resin jewelry and makes them into treasures as well. She sets these smaller shards of resin into sterling silver and gives them names like “A diamond with a better story.” She also upcycles leftover hemp fabric from local clothing company Stewart+Brown to make her reversible “Ocean” belt.

Betty Belts is part of the 1% for the Planet program, an international organization whose members contribute at least one percent of their annual sales to environmental causes. A few times a year Betty Belts does a Cause Day, when Donna selects a cause to which she donates 20 percent of all sales from that day. Over the years, Betty Belts has given to causes including the East Bali Poverty Project, Friends of the Ventura River, Jean Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society, and the Ventura Charter School. Whether they are humanitarian, environmental, church-related, or educational causes—she just can’t seem to say no.

In 2009, Donna traveled to Bali with Team Betty, the small group of female surfers sponsored by Betty Belts, to design the Cause Collection. Each surfer worked with Donna and the silversmiths to create a design, and ten percent of the sales of each design go to the surfers’ charity of choice. Proceeds from local surfer Mary Osborne’s “Confidence” earrings currently go to the Ventura Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation; Hailey Partridge’s “Compassion” jewelry yields proceeds for the Seafood Watch Program.

So why does she do all this? Not because it sounds good in advertising, and not because it scores her karma points. Everything she does goes back to the ocean.

“I love the ocean, I want it to be a big part of my life, my business. That’s what drives me...my customers are all ocean lovers.” She’s spreading the aloha spirit one accessory at a time.

Betty B., 12 N. Fir St., Ventura; 805.648.6997, bettybelts.com






Though based in Ventura, Donna von Hoesslin employs a cadre of independent artisans in Bali, mostly women from the local community



Donna with Betty B. store manager Amanda Roderick and her dog, Edie.



Bits of broken glass smoothed by the sea are retooled into wearable art.

10-29-2013

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