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Whiting & Davis Reimagines the Mesh Jewelry Market It Created

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At estate sales, on eBay, and perhaps in your grandmother's recollections of yesteryear, the name Whiting & Davis is commonly heard, as its chain mesh legacy extends back to the early 1890s, permeating the jewelry and handbag markets ever since. Founded in Plainville, Massachusetts, the company today calls Attleboro Falls home with a twenty-person production team working in a factory that continues to churn out mesh from its historic, proprietary machines. The applications of this unique material have segued from accessories to shark suits, interior design, and even occasionally gracing the pages of magazine editorials in the form of ready-to-wear apparel.

The brand's recent focus is back on fashion jewelry, having relaunched the collection just last year after putting it on hiatus in the early 1990s. With designer Aimie Maston bringing thirty years of experience to the line, bracelet styles and the introduction of both fine mesh and enamel coloring have proven successful for the reborn Whiting & Davis. Most pieces hover below $200, offering unrivaled value for a Massachusetts-made, highly crafted item. Check out the steps involved in its process and see what president Darrin Cutler has to say about the former jewelry capital of the world, the Whiting & Davis archive, and producing domestically.

Whiting & Davis pieces are token items for collectors. To what degree are you interested in seeking out vintage pieces?
Always looking. We're actively trying to rebuild our archive. There's just so much. Again, it speaks to the brand and how the pieces are cared for. We find pieces made in the 1950s or 1960s that look like they haven't been worn. People bought these items, kept them in a safe place; it's something we need to be aware of and continue. When people buy a piece of our jewelry they expect it to last and have the same quality that their grandmother or great grandmother bought and handed down. Semi-precious stones, highly quality crystals, and high quality cameos have always been a part of the Whiting & Davis fashion collections; they've always been embraced.

Oldest piece of jewelry you've encountered?
When the company first started everything was sterling. The oldest we have is probably this bag [from the late 1800s, early 1900s]; similar to the very first handbag. These were worn from the belt with a little clip and it would often hold a woman's dance cards. There wasn't much else you could fit in it.

How do you begin to archive this legacy and work through it? What is the most surprising thing you've learned from digging into the company's past?
I think just the scope of jewelry. The brand is well known for handbags, but we have books dating back to the late 1800s showing original sketches and designs of jewelry. And just the fact of how fashion forward it was. Think about Victorian times—this snake bracelet here was made early 1900s, and it's not a conservative piece. We're always fashion forward and taking chances. A lot of these designs we can use as inspiration today.

Though the handbag division is now a separate entity based in California, walk us through that history a bit.
In its heyday, Whiting & Davis was selling almost a million bags a year. It really was an accessory and fabric bags didn't come into existence until after mesh bags. They are treated like jewelry. But the earliest pieces we have are actually jewelry because the company was founded by silversmiths. The bags didn't really take off until Whiting & Davis pioneered the mesh machine and made it possible to mass produce the bags. It really exploded from a small cottage industry to a major product.

What are the benefits of producing in Massachusetts?
Shorter development times, we can adapt and make changes quickly, obviously we don't have transportation costs, minimum order costs…plus it's something we believe in. It's surprising how much of the [jewelry] industry is still here. Attleboro, Providence…this area was the jewelry capital of the world and much of the infrastructure is still here. We call it The Village [in RI], this tight knit community of people who have been doing this for over a hundred years. The reason we're still here today at Whiting & Davis is that they were engineers. They built their own machines, things made to last.

And what's the new innovative thing now?
Our color mesh. The fine mesh, too. It's probably the finest mesh we've ever made, even dating back to original examples 100 years ago. Applying color to our flat mesh and snake mesh has never been done before; we think we're the only ones. Mesh to begin with is a unique and challenging material. Applying color takes us to a whole new level.

Setting a footprint for the future, Cutler is optimistic about American-made goods: "All you hear about is outsourcing; you never hear the good stories about the brands that are doing it and making it happen. Everything we do, we feel we have a great community out there looking at what we're doing and comparing it to how they remember the brand."
· Randolph Engineering Leads the Way on US-Made Eyewear [Racked Boston]
· Whiting & Davis [Official Site]