It started with a single hide of tanned leather, a handful of tools, and a little curiosity. A self-described “watch nerd,” Joel Mills always had a timepiece on his wrist, but he’d grown tired of replacing store-bought leather bands that didn’t hold up with wear. So he decided to make his own — and quickly fell in love with the process.
It didn’t take long for Joel and his wife, Kerri, to turn the hobby into a full-time business: Choice Cuts Industries in Huntersville. It was a natural fit: The couple, who met while studying graphic design in college, have always considered themselves “makers.” “Some people might feel good when somebody says, ‘You’re beautiful.’ For me, if somebody says the thing I made was beautiful, that’s even better,” Kerri says. Seven years later, the pair create a variety of products ranging from personalized keychains to leather valet trays to dog collars. And, of course, their signature watch bands (a version made for the Apple Watch is a best seller). Although their product list has expanded, their goal remains the same: “Not only is it important that it’s beautiful, but also that it’s functional and thoughtfully made,” Kerri says.
Our State sat down with the Millses to learn more about how they craft their unique leather products, and the inspiration behind their work.
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Tell us about how you began working with leather.
JM: I started getting into creating leather goods as a hobby for myself. I love watches, and I just decided that I could do it better, that I could make a better watchband. Because store-bought bands are usually not the highest-grade leather, they kind of fall apart and break down really quickly. If you get a really nice band, it might cost $60 to $100. And I saw a piece of leather that was $150 and thought, well, I could make a lot of watchbands if I just learned how to do it. So I purchased a big hide of leather instead of the watchband and just kind of started tinkering. Then people started wanting to buy them. It got to a point where somebody had to take it over full-time, and that’s where Kerri stepped in.
What sets Choice Cuts apart from other leather businesses?
KM: One of the things that differentiate us — certainly from mass-produced items but also from other leather makers out there — is the kind of leather that we use. We are very committed to using only U.S.A. tanned leather, so all of our leather comes from basically three tanneries, and they are some of the oldest tanneries in the U.S. All of our leather is full-grain or corrective-grain leather, which is the top-caliber leather available on the market. We care very much that we start with a really quality leather because we feel that when we’re making a leather item, we’re just showcasing how beautiful and how functional that leather is to begin with.
How do you decide what kind of products to make?
KM: The way we choose products is actually pretty personal. Our product development is very intuitive. Joel started with the watchband out of necessity and wanting to play around with that. Similarly, I really wanted a leather purse. I would have to buy a new purse every six months to a year because they would fall apart, and I wanted to make a purse that would hold up and last me a long time. And the leather we’re using just gets better as it ages. So I made a tote bag, and it was the tote bag that I wanted. That’s kind of how we’ve always grown our items. Now, we get so many requests from customers — “Can you make this passport cover? Can you make this type of wallet?”— that if we really like something, we’ll add it to our lineup.
What is your favorite part of the business and working with customers?
JM: One of my favorite things is when we’re doing a show and someone who we sold a watchband to two years ago comes up and they’re still wearing it, and it’s got this beautiful patina on it. Just knowing that I was able to make something for somebody that they wear every single day and it’s that personal — it’s a great feeling. You don’t always get that in other fields.
How have your skills and approach evolved?
JM: There was a lot of heartache and learning curves along the way — things that were hard that are now second nature. But it’s taken us seven years to get to this point.
KM: You can feel vulnerable when you send products out to someone. What we’ve learned over the years is that if you want to grow and make a better product, you have to listen to your customers and hear their feedback because it’s invaluable. Our customers’ comments over the years have helped us to refine our products and to make them better and better. I mean, a watchband is a tiny item, so every little detail on it needs to be done very intentionally. Over the years, we’ve really refined that design and gotten it down to where it is pretty much perfect. But it took a long time to get there.
What is it like when you’re in the process of making something and you see it come together?
KM: There is no deeper and darker frustration than not being able to figure something out, and no more sublime joy than when you finally do. Break out the champagne! The angels sing.
Choice Cuts Industries
11329 Fullerton Place Drive Northwest
Huntersville, NC 28078