Wearing It On the Sleeve

Cufflinks have been riding the tide of men?s fashion since the reign of Louis XIV, when ruffles evolved into wristbands. At first, men used ribbons to fasten their cuffs, as they did their collars, but they soon discarded cuff strings for more versatile linked buttons. (To this day, the French call cufflinks boutons de manchette, or ?cuff buttons.?)

There?s more demand for antique and estate cufflinks today than there?s been in decades. ?The craze started about 10 years ago,? says Millicent Safro, co-owner of Tender Buttons in New York City, which began carrying cufflinks after customers asked her to convert the store?s antique buttons into sleeve-wear. Now the store carries cufflinks of all eras, from the Victorian to the flamboyant 1960s.

?There?s not a lot of jewelry men can wear, so cufflinks in general are always very collectible,? says Stephen Russell, who sells antique cufflinks at his shop in Manhattan?s Trump Tower. But it?s not only men who are searching for the perfect link. Eugene Klompus, founder of the National Cuff Link Society and publisher of The Link, a collectors? magazine, says 30% of his members are women, and their numbers are growing rapidly. When Brooke Shields graduated from Princeton University, her mother bought her a pair of 1960s gold cufflinks in the form of high-heeled pumps at Tender Buttons?a tongue-in-cheek symbol of the passage into womanhood.

Nevertheless, cufflinks make up one of the few jewelry categories that remain primarily a man?s domain. Women often purchase cufflinks for themselves but more often buy them for the men in their lives, says Safro. ?There is very little jewelry a woman can buy for a man other than a ring or a watch,? she notes. She describes her male cufflink buyers as ?businessmen, professionals, doctors?men who care about how they dress and appear. You have to be careful not to appear overdressed today, but there are men, as there are women, who care very much about how they look.?

Antique links. Some of the best antique cufflinks come from a time when a well-dressed gent wouldn?t appear in public without the proper accoutrements on his sleeve. Cufflinks have always reflected trends in jewelry design and fashion. Europe?s fascination with archaeology and Eastern exoticism in the 1800s gave birth to cufflinks with Egyptian motifs and mosaics as well as carved gemstone scarabs.

By the Victorian era, mass production and greater distribution of wealth made cufflinks de rigueur even for the expanding middle class, and women were no exception. Sets of studs and matching links were required for the starched shirts both sexes favored at the time.

By the end of the 19th century, precious gems were being imported from previously untapped sources?opals from Australia, rubies from Burma, sapphires from India, and diamonds from South Africa. Men were quick to buy them for women but slower to wear them. By the end of the century, however, emeralds and diamonds were appearing with color-coordinated enameling.

The fin de siècle saw the British arts & crafts and French art nouveau design movements arrive on the scene. In England, this meant cufflinks from Liberty & Co. with silver and enamel Celtic swirls, and in Paris, opalescent plique à jour enameling and Lalique?s sensuous nudes in carved glass.

Meanwhile, the house of Fabergé was perfecting what has become a perennial favorite, the guilloche cufflink?rich translucent enamel over a symmetrical engine-turned pattern. It was the same process Fabergé used on its famous eggs and involved a simple but well-kept secret process that other jewelry houses eventually picked up. Guilloche designs became increasingly intricate.

When the dashing King Edward took the English throne in 1901, his taste for bright colors (especially red) at neck and wrist soon caught on. The Edwardian era (1901-1910) brought a sophisticated playfulness to menswear, and sapphires, emeralds, and, above all, rubies and diamonds began to appear in cufflinks.

Art deco introduced a casual elegance and symmetrical, modernist designs. In his shop in New York?s Trump Tower, Stephen Russell favors links from the Jazz Age. ?Victorian cufflinks are harder to find,? Russell says. ?And they were not as tailored as deco ones. Most of the cufflinks here are from the ?20s and ?30s. Everybody then wore cufflinks and studs. Asian designs were popular. Big houses like Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels used motifs like the yin-yang symbol?black and white, very clean?or the Chinese symbol for good luck, back-to-back ?Cs.? ?

The Depression made the cufflink primarily an article of the leisure class. For the first time in a century, links and studs no longer were required at every social function. Yet the Jazz Age produced some of the most coveted and timeless designs. Forties style continued to incorporate the cufflink, and production took off again with postwar prosperity and ingenuity.

Cufflink use peaked during the 1960s; one jewelry manufacturer was producing 12 million pairs a year. After the ?60s, menswear became increasingly casual, and cufflinks seemed headed for the realm of nostalgia.

But a few years ago, even as workplace dress codes were becoming looser than ever, jewelers began reporting a strange phenomenon: sharp increases in cufflink sales. These days, collectors of antique cufflinks are encountering stiff competition. ?It?s so odd, because men are dressing down, going to the office without shirt and tie,? says Safro. ?Yet the demand for cufflinks is stronger than ever, and many more companies are making reproductions of old styles.?

Klompus has been tracking demand since he started his own cufflink collection 50 years ago. ?Demand tends to run in 30-year cycles that correspond with peacetime and prosperity,? he explains. ?Right now we?re in a high-fashion period for cufflinks?ironically, in a period of ?business casual? but high prosperity.?

Perhaps because the pressure is off to dress formally in the workplace, men are having more fun when they do dress up. ?Shirt manufacturers are finally catching on and pumping out French cuff shirts in a variety of patterns, styles, and cuff widths,? Klompus says.

The category enjoying the biggest demand seems to be novelty cufflinks. ?Novelty and whimsical cufflinks are extremely popular?more than ever,? Klompus says. ?There has always been a segment of cufflink wearers looking for novelty, but today it?s a major part of the market. It has to do with the casual workplace. You don?t want to be over-formal, so what better compromise than showing up in working watch cufflinks?or hot and cold faucets??

In department and jewelry stores, people are seeking out graphics that spell ?stop? and ?go,? ?left? and ?right,? and ?yes? and ?no? as well as symbols like the bear and bull and hobby and sports emblems such as tennis rackets and sailboats. Safro reports that links in the form of gold pipes or Leica cameras from the 1950s and golf clubs and balls from the 1930s are popular, as are a classic double-sided Victorian pair with the theme of ?the four vices: wine, women, song, and gambling?naughty men?s pursuits.?

Wearing one?s heart (or humor) on one?s sleeve dates back to the earliest cuff buttons. Painted miniatures were a fad in the 18th century, and some of the earliest surviving cufflinks feature tiny portraits under faceted crystal. Double-sided wedding portraits?the groom on one side, his bride on the other?were a popular wedding gift.

During the late 1800s, when fashionable huntsmen wore cravats and starched shirts when they followed the hounds, equestrian cufflinks were produced in great numbers. Gold hunting horn cuff buttons were popular, and Cartier offered a pair of agate cameos carved with images of horse and rider. A pair of cufflinks made of moonstones carved into jockey caps was sold recently at New York?s A La Vieille Russie.

The sporting life continued throughout the Edwardian and art deco eras with hunt scenes enameled on gold and painted on reverse intaglio. A pair of white gold cufflinks from 1910 features tiny fishing flies set beneath cabochon crystals. By 1920, Chaumet was turning out enameled motorcars studded with diamonds and rubies.

Perhaps the most famous novelty cufflinks?and the most sought-after among collectors?are the nuts-and-bolts pair designed by Paul Flato. The prototype links were actual brass nuts and bolts that Flato had hastily screwed into his cuffs after failing to locate a real pair before a society ball in the 1930s. Bandleader Eddie Duchin noticed them and commissioned Flato to make him a set in gold. They proved enormously popular, and Flato made several more over the years.

Collecting cufflinks. Perhaps because the type of jewelry available to men is limited, those who collect cufflinks often collect obsessively. In terms of quantity, few can beat Klompus, who owns nearly 40,000 pairs. New York stockbroker Derek Anastasia chooses to specialize?his comprehensive collection of enameled cufflinks numbers 1,460 pairs. When he began working on Wall Street, where snappy dressing is encouraged (as are ostentatious displays of wealth), Anastasia was exposed often to fine cufflinks and soon began coveting his own. They?ve proved to be a sound investment. He says the cufflinks purchased for an initial outlay of $20,000 are now valued at close to $500,000.

Like any collectible, cufflinks are most valuable when they?re in good condition and have a written record of provenance or connection to famous people or events. ?Needless to say, that would include anything owned by the Duke of Windsor or the kings of England,? Klompus says. Add to that kind of provenance the name ?Fabergé,? ?Tiffany,? or ?Cartier? and you have yourself a museum piece.

Limited-edition cufflinks connected to a war or a world?s fair bring big prices. The prize of Klompus?s collection is a pair owned by Kaiser Wilhelm before he fled Germany at the outbreak of WWI. The bulky links are platinum and 24k gold enameled with a ?W? and family crest. ?A rather ostentatious pair, to say the least,? Klompus acknowledges. With their written provenance and original box, they?re worth about $50,000, he estimates.

Function limits cufflinks? form and size, but makers have been remarkably versatile in devising link mechanisms. ?What?s really unusual about cufflinks is the huge variety of closures produced over the years,? Klompus says. ?Going back to the Victorian period, say 1860 to 1950, I?ve personally tracked at least 300 different closure devices, including tweaks on common mechanisms.? Cuff buttons were usually joined by links, tiny chains, or bars, while one-sided cufflinks were anchored with swiveling toggles or the curved barbell design. But postwar designers were particularly inventive. Sculptor Alexander Calder made gold spirals that were a single solid piece, and Phillip Fike created indented cylinders of wood and gold.

There?s been a longstanding division between European and American preference in cufflink styles, says Klompus. Europeans prefer double-sided links, with two matching faces joined by a chain. ?With double-sided, you see the beauty of the cufflink from either side of the cuff,? he notes. ?Americans acknowledge that from an aesthetic standpoint, double-sided is superior, but the preference here is for the familiar toggle that rotates inside the shank.?

While traveling in Europe recently, however, Klompus noticed more department stores and jewelers carrying toggle styles. ?It also seems that more Americans are interested in double-sided,? he notes. ?Eventually, the global marketplace will probably offer cufflinks in both styles.? Klompus says double-sided cufflinks are not that difficult to maneuver. ?As every European knows, the secret to wearing double-sided cufflinks is to put them on before putting on the shirt,? he says. ?Then you cup the hand and slide it through the sleeve.? Cuffs and hands, of course, have to be the right size to accommodate this age-old maneuver.

Cathleen McCarthy, a Philadelphia freelance writer, specializes in articles about jewelry design, collectibles, retailing, and travel.

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