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Sleeve Jewelry

Stylish Jewelry Adds a Touch of Class to Shirt Sleeves
Ettagale Blauer
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95

The bullets whiz by as glamorous, elegantly dressed Don Johnson careens through Miami's Art Deco district in hot pursuit of yet one more bad guy. But there's an innocent, unseen victim in that scene. Just ask Mortimer Levitt, owner of the Custom Shop, a nationwide group of 75 stores devoted to the well-fitted, well-tailored, long-sleeved, cuffed shirt: for his business, "Miami Vice" was a disaster. Although Johnson wore exquisitely tailored suits, underneath he wore silky T-shirts. A suit without a dress shirt--that didn't sit well with Levitt. In his view, it practically put the custom shirtmaker out of business.

The nature of fashion, however, is change, and with 75 million dress shirts made in the United States during the past year, it's clear that, outside Hollywood, the T-shirt-with-suit look has limited appeal. There will always be men who believe that a suit demands a fine shirt with French cuffs and those cuffs are complete only when they meet a pair of cuff links.

The little cuff link allows for an extraordinary variety of styles and materials, from the basic gold knot to diamond-studded links, from abstract designs to literal motifs. There are cuff links that trumpet hobbies, vocations and avocations, ideas, memberships and simply style. 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.

There's not much history behind what we call the French-cuff shirt. Men's shirts, or shifts, as they were known in earlier times, went through numerous metamorphoses over the centuries, at one point covering not only the arms, but most of the hands as well. The sleeves were usually loose fitting, often ending with a flourish of ruffles in lace or linen.

In the 17th century, turned-back linen cuffs were prevalent. During the 19th century, English dandy Beau Brummell (1778-1840), whose name became synonymous with elaborate men's attire, focused on the neck cloth. This precursor to today's tie was so elaborate that a valet would work for hours until it was properly arranged. That kind of extravagance in dress is an old story: in ancient Rome more than 2,000 years ago, the simple toga was the style for both men and women and was worn by people of all classes. But those of wealth and position managed to set themselves apart by the way their togas were draped. The simple style became so complex that draping required a slave whose only job was to arrange the toga.

While cuff buttons, as they were originally called, made some earlier appearances, it was not until the Victorian era that they began to be worn universally. The 1920s were probably the height of cuff-link invention. Manufacturers created a variety of devices and designs to do one simple thing: allow a man to insert and remove his cuff links with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of security.

Cuff-link use hit a high during the 1960s. According to Arthur Gately, a senior vice president for Swank Inc.: "In the late 1960s, we were producing 12 million pairs a year." Even though these were aimed at the lowest end of the market, retailing for an average of $2.50 a pair, that adds up to a lot of men wearing French-cuff shirts. Now the firm makes 150,000 to 200,000 pairs a year.

Today's French-cuff shirt wearer is a more devoted cuff- link collector simply because he has made the decision to dress in this specific fashion. He can be seen in a variety of settings from evenings out on the town to power breakfasts at dawn. But more than anywhere else, the French-cuff shirt has always had a place in the board rooms of American corporations. Whatever the setting, the cuff link is often regarded as the only acceptable jewelry (besides a wedding ring and a watch) that a man can wear. David Wittig, a New York investment banker and cuff-link wearer, doesn't think of them as jewelry. "I don't wear jewelry," he says, though he owns about a dozen pairs of cuff links.

Wittig's passion started, he likes to say, with one pair. He spotted it in a jewelry store in Philadelphia. "I saw a pair of old Schlumberger cuff links about 10 years ago. This was before people started paying attention to Schlumberger," he says. That first pair, made by one of Tiffany's best-known designers, started him collecting. But a cuff-link collection is a static thing unless the collection can be worn and shown. "I converted to French-cuff shirts. I was only occasionally wearing French-cuff shirts before that," Wittig says. Once he donned cuff links regularly, Wittig also began to keep an eye out for other styles. His collection is modestly jeweled: a pair of gold with blue enamel, a pair by David Webb in gold and black onyx, a pair with diamonds in the middle.

The banker also inadvertently brought a Tiffany design back into production when he took in a link for repair. You know how you sometimes drop a cuff link in your driveway and run over it with your car? In this case, the driveway was at his beach house, and the link stayed there until the next week when Wittig returned. In any event, the link, a pyramid style with red and gold stripes set with a ruby, had probably been custom-made for someone, according to Tiffany. Why? Because the jeweler had never mass-produced the style with stones. Tiffany, let us remember, has its own dress code, which forbids making a diamond-set ring for a man.

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