A Brief Guide to: Cufflinks
Blog by Debra Palmen
Cufflinks were invented at the end of the 18th century. As men’s shirts moved from being only undergarments, ruffs fastened with string or ribbon emerged from jacket sleeves. But men’s fashion was highly competitive back then. Before long, trend-setters figured out they could better flaunt their wealth if they replaced the ribbons with bejewelled buttons linked with a small chain.
By the mid-19th century, ruffs had shrunk to become the cuffs we recognize today - simple single-folds in England and double-folds in France. The small chains on cufflinks diversified to include swivelling bars, and a vast number of designs became available.
Part of the fun of collecting cufflinks is observing their reflection of major design eras. Some examples include:
Many designs were simple because the focus was primarily on the materials used. Expensive metals and stones were a good indicator of your wealth and social status. Today, those made in gold and with semi-precious gems such as turquoise or amber can cost up to $800. With precious stones, they’re worth double this.
End of the 19th century
Rich young men returning from their Grand Tours wanted decorative designs that drew inspiration from important archaeological discoveries in Egypt, Greece and Turkey. Even though you could buy these cufflinks in England, the impression you wanted to convey was that you bought them as souvenirs from the cultural centres you had visited.
Arts & Crafts and Art Nouveau eras
These designs were distinguished by sinuous curves. They often featured vines and leafy foliage, butterflies and elegant women with long, wavy hair. Good quality examples, with enamelling and semi-precious stones, are around $200. You can also find base metal examples, which are still beautiful and much cheaper.
Many see this as the heyday of cufflink manufacture. Fashion for women was elegant and flamboyant (think My Fair Lady), and cufflinks became more extravagant. The big jewellery houses, including Fabergé, Cartier and Tiffany, produced gold, silver and platinum cufflinks, many set with precious stones. Smaller jewellery houses also produced beautiful examples, with more accessible prices. They provided spots of colour and exuberance on the era’s other-wise sober suits.
Engraved and guilloché enamel designs were in hot demand in the Edwardian era, with wavy lines and sunbursts produced in a wide range of colours. Skilled artisans using metal lathes created guilloché enamel by making super-fine patterns overlaid with translucent enamel. Guilloché enamel is gorgeous, and you can pay anywhere from $100 to $600 for a pair of cufflinks. But modern jewellers find this type of enamel almost impossible to repair well, so limit your purchases to those in excellent condition.
Cufflinks with heraldic designs were also popular and are readily available today. But unless they have interesting mottos or great provenance, they don’t appreciate as well as other designs.
What totally appreciates from the Edwardian era is a four-set series called ‘The Four Vices’, or ‘The Road to Ruin’. Made from solid gold and enamel, each pair in the series variously features a champagne bottle or cocktail glass, a racehorse, a cancan dancer and a playing card. Original pairs from this series easily cost $2000, but originals are rare. Inexplicably, top quality modern reproductions can cost even more than originals, so price is not always an indicator of authenticity. Even for lesser quality reproductions, you can still expect to pay up to $400 for a pair.
Art Deco era
This era saw bright, bold colours with angular and geometric designs. They look fabulous and have steadily increased in value over the decades. The good news is, with hunting, you can still find day-wear cufflinks for around $200 a pair. For evening-wear, look for platinum and white gold set with precious stones. These little squares of fabulousness cost $2000+.
1930s to 50s
Bakelite and plastic were great new products with the advantage of being cheap. Tiny printed sporting scenes became fashionable, with golf, horse racing and hunting the big sellers. Within the hunting category, guns, dogs and game birds were the usual images. The images must be crisp and undamaged for these cufflinks to keep their value, but you should find a ready supply at around $60 upwards. Also popular was plastic imitating metal, fashioned into tiny cars, guns and playing cards. These are ‘figural’ cufflinks and they were made in their millions, so rarity isn’t an issue. Quality can be an issue, though, so inspect carefully before buying. You’ll find plenty for under $100 a pair.
1950s and 60s
Cuffs incorporated little plastic buttons and cufflinks were less popular with the middle class. But while convenient, buttons aren’t remotely stylish. At the upper end of the market, cufflinks were still in high demand. French makers such as Boucheron, Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and Hermes produced beautifully textured patterns, chunky cabochons and the first ‘space-age’ designs. Each firm also produced stirrup-shapes which appeared to grip the sleeves closed, and these are among the most readily available now. Today, prices for these pieces are exactly what you’d expect to pay for top-quality design from the best jewellery makers in the world: a lot. A whole lot.
Fortunately, style is back and cheap plastic buttons are increasingly being banished. Cufflinks provide a discreetly elegant touch to a suit, and they’re an essential accessory for any tasteful and well-dressed man. With such variety, and prices for all budgets, you can easily amass a quality collection that not only looks good but also appreciates in value.