Cuff Links: Men’s Collectible Jewelry

More men are buying jewelry for themselves, say antique and estate jewelry dealers, and the “lowly” cuff link is rising to the top of their shopping lists. Indeed, cuff links are one of the few pieces of jewelry (along with a wedding ring and watch) that many men will wear.

Prices of vintage cuff links range from under a hundred dollars for those plated with precious metals to many thousands of dollars for more elaborate gem-set examples. As for the taste level, it varies from the sublime to the ridiculous – depending upon your preference.

The rising popularity of French-cuff shirts initiated the most recent surge in the use of cuff links. “Just about every man on Wall Street wears French cuffs,” says Janet Mavec of J. Mavec & Co., New York, N.Y., which features a cuff link exhibition every December. To satisfy this need, she offers a wide selection (photo #9).

Many cuff link customers are collectors looking for unusual styles from particular periods. Others are looking for yet another set to accessorize a well-tailored suit. “Cuff links are to men what earrings are to women: one can’t have too many, and there’s always another interesting pair waiting to be found,” Ettagale Blauer writes in the Winter 1994-’95 issue of Cigar Aficionado.

Cuff links in their current form didn’t appear until the end of the 18th century. Until then, men used a ribbon or string to hold wristbands together. The first cuff links were buttons joined together by a short chain. When the Victorians started to starch collars, shirt fronts and cuffs, they also devised a sleeve fastener with a metal chain or link that could be slipped easily through the now stiff cuff. Thus, necessity gave birth to the modern cuff link. Some of these were designed in a rigid dumbbell shape with a bar connecting the two halves to make it easier to insert into both sides of the cuff.

Pricing variables: Like all jewelry, prices for cuff links depend on several variables, including condition, style and the maker.

Desired jeweler names such as Cartier, Tiffany & Co., David Webb and Verdura – to mention but a few – bring higher prices than similarly styled pieces by lesser known makers or those that are unmarked. Two pairs of cuff links from the turn of the century illustrate this point. An oval-shaped pair of Tiffany gold cuff links with a simple border and diamonds (photo #1) recently sold for $2,875, while an unmarked pair (photo #2) with diamonds accenting the square sides and set in the centers sold for $1,725. (All prices quoted in this article are from 1994 sales.)

Cartier cuff links are among the most desirable. A pair of black enamel, diamond and gold cuff links (photo #7) sold for $2,530, well above their $1,200-$1,500 estimate.

Also last year, Christie’s in Geneva offered the cuff link collection of the late Hans Nadelhoffer, author of the definitive work on the subject, Cartier Jewelers Extraordinary (Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York, 1984). Thirty pairs of cuff links were featured, seven by Cartier. Not surprisingly, given their provenance, all sold significantly above their modest estimates. A pair of superbly designed Art Deco cuff links with carnelian and black onyx (photo #4) sold for $6,670. Three pairs from the Belle Epoque period fetched exceptionally strong prices: a pair of diamond and enamel cuff links sold for $10,350 (photo #5); a pair of rose-cut black onyx and diamonds for $4,600 (photo #6; five diamonds were missing); and a pair of spectacular cuff links with sapphires, diamonds and rock crystal for $14,950, well above the $2,000-$3,000 presale estimate.

David Webb, another popular name at auction, created enameled cuff links featuring an assortment of creatures, including his famous frogs and illustrated lion heads. The strong design, together with the general desirability of Webb’s jewelry, usually translates into high prices. The pair shown in photo #3 sold for $3,450.

Dress sets: The vogue for jewelry dress sets (studs, cuff links and sometimes buttons) has accompanied the fashion for cuff links. Sets are offered in a variety of styles and designs to please every taste. Henry Blank & Co., a relatively unknown Newark maker, produced an early 20th century platinum-topped yellow gold set with guilloche enamel, each piece enhanced in the center with a seed pearl (photo #8). It sold for $1,610, well above its modest estimate of $500-$600. In contrast, Paul Flato’s gold square-shaped set decorated with ribbing on the diagonal (photo #3) sold very reasonably at $1,495.

Two gem-enhanced sets by Tiffany (photo #3), one with sapphires in a basketweave pattern and the other with rubies set into a baton-shaped mounting, brought $4,887 and $8,050 respectively, both doubling their high estimates. A less traditional dress set by Verdura, made up of cushion-shaped yellow sapphires within a gold wire cage (photo #3), sold for $2,587.

In the above-mentioned article, Ettagale Blauer says that more than 75 million dress shirts were made last year, creating an enormous demand for suitable cuff links. Although the same pair of cuff links can be worn with different shirts, the properly attired gentleman seems to prefer appropriate cuff links to accessorize each suit. A splendid assortment can be seen in the book Cuff Links by Susan Jonas and Marilyn Nissenson (Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York, 1991). The book has made many aware of the variety and diversity of these charming jewels.

Note: I would like to thank Janet Mavec, Jacqueline Fay at Sotheby’s, Anne Choate at Christie’s Geneva and Daphne Lirgon at Christie’s East for their help with this article.