Three years ago, I received a phone call from a man asking if I could help his soon-to-be 90-year-old mother make her birthday one that would be very memorable, not only for her but also for her guests. I love anything to do with celebrations, so I was willing to help however I could!
I had recently been interviewed about my jewelry business for a neighborhood magazine. They wrote about how I got started repurposing vintage costume jewelry from the 1920s to the 1960s era. The article talked about my treasure hunts all over the U.S. for vintage pieces to remake into rings that made a statement with lots of sparkle. It also spoke of my passion for transforming jewelry that has been handed down by a family member into something sentimental for them to wear in a new, contemporary way.
The article had just been published, and on the other end of the line, the son of the woman turning 90 could hardly wait to tell me his idea after reading it. His mother wanted to figure out a way to give a sentimental gift to all of the girls in the family at her big birthday bash. He thought that if I could remake some of her beautiful vintage pieces of jewelry into rings, she could give them as gifts at her party.
I loved the idea! We made a plan to meet so I could look through her vintage jewelry to help pick out what I thought would make the best rings.
An Extraordinary Collection
She had quite an amazing collection which including vintage Chanel and many other highly coveted signed pieces. Before I left with several of her dearly loved and worn treasures to begin my assignment, I was given one of her beautiful mother of pearl clip earrings from the 1960s to make a ring for myself as a token of appreciation.
If there was a signature on the back, it had worn off. It was not until just recently that I found out it was actually a signed piece after spotting another one exactly like it.
The signature was WHITING & DAVIS CO. They are known for their metal mesh accessories, but they also make beautiful jewelry and have been around for over a hundred years!
The Beginning of Whiting & Davis
Whiting & Davis started out as Wade, Davis & Company in 1876 in Plainville, Massachusetts. William H. Wade, Edward P. Davis, and Louis Heckman founded a silversmith company selling sterling silver jewelry that was fashionable during the Victorian era which included stickpins, bracelets, hatpins, earrings, and bar pins.
In 1880, they hired a boy named Charles A. Whiting who worked for nine cents per hour to help out in the office and run errands for the company. Charles worked his way into management and the name was changed to Whiting & Davis after he partnered with Edward Davis in 1896.
A Demand for Mesh Handbags
Whiting wove his first purse by hand in 1892, converting chainmail mesh into a fine fabric. This became highly fashionable well into the 20th century. Until 1909, skilled goldsmiths were making ring mesh completely by hand. As the demand grew for mesh purses, workers began bringing the mesh home, weaving the rings by hand in their spare time. The technique was slow and quite labor-intensive which made it difficult to keep up with the growing demand.
Knowing they needed to come up with a faster and more efficient method to produce this mesh, Whiting began working with a young inventor in 1912 named A.C. Pratt to create the world’s first automatic mesh-making machine. It was able to cut, split, and join 400 rings per minute!
The technology was quickly patented. As mesh bags started to become a must-have accessory, Whiting & Davis added more machines. Within eight years, they grew from only 12 machines to having 500, becoming the world’s largest specialty manufacturing powerhouse for mesh fashion and jewelry.
From 1912 until 1925, most of the handbags they produced were made of sterling silver or vermeil, a gold plating over sterling silver. These were very small bags lined with silk with hand-engraved frames, often set with genuine sapphires and other precious gemstones.
During the latter part of the 1920s, Whiting & Davis made an effort to lower their prices to appeal to a wider customer base. Bags began to be made of base metals such as silver or gold plated brass, copper, and nickel silver. The frames were machine-stamped instead of being engraved by hand.
A Contribution to the War Effort
World War II brought with it a shortage of brass and aluminum metals for Whiting & Davis. Shifting their focus from designing metal mesh jewelry and accessories to helping with the war effort, they subcontracted with Raytheon Manufacturing, producing various parts for radar and electronic equipment. They also produced mesh for the Navy to throw overboard, diverting the enemy’s sonar systems.
Whiting & Davis was also quite innovative by creating jobs during this time. They designed dainty mesh handbags to help promote their company which were sold for 25 cents through Home Journal magazine. Employees were given the opportunity to assemble these mesh bags after hours to make extra money.
After the war, Whiting & Davis brought their focus back to fashion once again. Since metals were hard to come by, they substituted with materials such as Bakelite, the world’s first synthetic plastic, for their jewelry and handbags. White enameled bags made of larger, bubbled mesh called Alumesh were also produced.
This is my Whiting & Davis Alumesh handbag from the 1940s with a Bakelite chain handle, frame, and clasp:
During the 1950s, costume jewelry sales for Whiting & Davis increased as they continued using fine craftsmanship and detail in their designs. Some of the more popular styles included cameo pendants, earrings, and charm bracelets.
Here is a Whiting & Davis cameo clip earring that I repurposed into an adjustable ring:
In 1963, Whiting & Davis collaborated with Vogue, Twentieth Century Fox, and several other upscale designers to promote the film Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. They launched their “Cleopatra Collection” inspired by Cleopatra’s dramatic accessories such as serpent bracelets, earrings, necklaces, and a dazzling collection of jeweled pins with stones representing the Egyptian period.
During the 1970s, women were fanatical about Whiting & Davis’ shiny gold and sterling silver mesh scarves, handbags, and jewelry. They began to manufacture mesh jewelry that was designed by Elsa Peretti for Tiffany and Co. As their brand continued to grow, they employed 275 people at the factory and their showrooms in several cities across the U.S.
Back to Its Roots
Over the years, Whiting & Davis went through several changes in ownership. In 2010, it had been decided to close the mesh factory in Massachusetts. But the company was bought by the plant manager, Darrin Cutler, who set out to return the company to its original roots as a handbag and jewelry manufacturer. Today, they still make these accessories along with other mesh products.
I had so much fun repurposing those beautiful vintage jewels for the 90-year old birthday girl and I know she was delighted to be able to hand down something dear and sentimental to those she loved at her big celebration. I am grateful to have been included in receiving a part of her memories as well as a fashionable piece of history from Whiting & Davis.
Kimberly Moore is a vintage costume jewelry expert, blogger, speaker, and author of Beauty in a Life Repurposed. To learn more, visit her website at kingdomsparkle.com.
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