NEW YORK – If clothes make the man, then cuff links make a statement. Whether bold or understated, cuff links are alive with personality just by being worn.
Fashions change. Prior to the Middle Ages, men’s fashion depended on the skill of textile weaving and availability of clothing, particularly open tunics, that were comfortable, able to be kept clean and affordable. Special adornment was left to those with much more disposable income.
An example of an enamel double-panel cuff links where usually only one side of a cuff link is shown, here both sides are noticeable connected by a short chain. This is the style of cuff link most prized by collectors. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
After the Middle Ages, that special adornment around the neck and wrists was usually colored ribbon, frills or buttons. This is the precursor to neckties and cuff links. As the 19th century progressed, more formal wear included starched collars and sleeves, particularly around the wrists. Buttons were no longer able to secure them effectively. Enter cuff links.
It’s not clear what the first cuff links were made of, but it seems that those with means produced these “sleeve buttons” from gold, silver and even jewels, according to The History of Cuff Links by jewelrykind.com. The Industrial Revolution democratized the use of cuff links, so more of the middle class were able to afford them using quartz and rhinestones in place of jewels and polished metals like steel or brass instead of silver and gold.
As time progressed, cuff links took on many forms, styles and design. During the Art Deco period of the 1920s, for example, enameled cuff links took hold in that unique style. “…[E]arly craftsmen such as Faberge, Tiffany and Cartier began to use enamel to create unique cuff link styles,” according to a jewelrykind.com online article. These early enamel cuff links are highly valued by collectors today, especially if signed by an artist such as Jean Schlumberger, who designed jewelry exclusively for Tiffany & Co. from 1956 until the late 1970s.
Vintage Tiffany & Co. blue enamel and 18K gold double panel cuff links with chains that are signed ‘SCHLUMBERGER TIFFANY,’ stamped and numbered, that sold for $3,200 inclusive of buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy of Fortuna Auction and LiveAuctioners
Designing cuff links is a challenge, particularly double panel versions where each cuff link has a special design on both sides. Each design, while different, must complement each other in a very small space, fit directly against the sleeve, and be able to be held together perfectly. It must also appeal to the wearer as fanciful and fashionable at the same time. It’s difficult making something uniquely fashionable to be functional as well.
For cuff links to be functional, there needs to be a way to connect it through a starched sleeve and tighten it enough to close the sleeves together snugly. As it happens, there are 21 different ways to do just that, according to the website cufflinkguru.com. Collectors are most familiar with the type that is the fixed back where the post (the raised piece of metal that slides into the sleeve’s button hole) is attached to the reverse and does not move. To fasten the cuff link, a stationary toggle is attached at the end of the post which keeps the cuff link from slipping out of the sleeve.
While the post doesn’t move, sometimes the toggle at the end does. There are different shapes designed to keep the cuff link secure such as a cylinder shape called a bullet back, a whale back that looks like the flukes of a whale’s tail, or a torpedo shaped toggle that is fixed to the post. Sometimes the post is angled at a 45-degree angle with a moveable toggle at the end.
Pair of cobalt blue lapis lazuli cuff links from Bulgari showing the swivel-style post that sold for $913 inclusive of buyer’s premium in 2016. Image courtesy of Fellows and LiveAuctioneers
There are also cuff links that use a chain to connect them, others with the shape of a barbell, and the most collectible are the double panel cuff links where each front and back of a cuff link is a unique enamel design connected by a chain. And there are other posts used to secure cuff links, more unique then the next.
It is also the design of the cuff link that provides a palette for uniqueness in style. Hardly any two cuff links are alike, much like snowflakes it seems. Many manufacturers like Krementz and Swank produce reasonably priced cuff links available to those with a fashion statement, but without the need for the detailed designer touch. Geometric, figural, whimsical and unique shapes are just as fashionable. Personality need not be costly.
Bulgari, Tiffany & Co. and Cartier are jewelers extraordinaire with personal lines of cuff links unique to their style and sophistication. Gucci, Hermes, Burberry and other fashion lines feature cuff links as part of their overall fashion sense, too. It is possible for a collector to feature their entire collection on one fashion house or jeweler.
Every U.S. president since John F. Kennedy in 1961 has provided a visitor with a set of cuff links featuring the presidential seal similar to this gold-tone set provided by President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s that recently sold for $636 inclusive of buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of RR Auctions and LiveAuctioneers
Cuff links are also a badge of office. It is no wonder that the president of the United States has given a set of cuff links featuring the seal of office since the administration of John F. Kennedy in 1961. Each president has had a unique version of cuff link featuring a swivel and fixed posts with enamel, die cast and cobalt blue. At times, sterling silver and different karats of gold have been featured in a pair of presidential cuff links. Kings, queens and all manner of government officials and organizations also offer unique sets of cuff links to visitors as a memento.
There are many ways to create a cuff link collection. Design, color, presentation, element, era, and uniqueness all play a part in what a pair of cuff links represent – you.
“It’s my passion,” says Gene Klompus, a cuff link collector. “I wear cuff links at every opportunity. I look for excuses to wear them. They’re great for business too. They’re great conversation starters.”