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Fashion: Links to History

Vintage cuff links captivate collectors with romance and functionality
Bill Strubbe
From the Print Edition:
Andy Garcia, Mar/April 2004

“The man had been in a coma in the hospital for months, and when he eventually regained consciousness, his wife placed in his hand a pair of cuff links shaped like miniature Martini glasses. Throughout their long marriage, the couple had always made a Martini toast on every special occasion. Thus, the Martini glass cuff links celebrated that he was out of the woods and would recover.”

Gene Klompus, president emeritus and founder of the National Cuff Link Society (NCLS), is recounting the yarn that won Best Story at one of the group’s Cuff Link Conventions. “The man, the audience and judges were all teary-eyed.” If cuff link societies and conventions, let alone awards for maudlin stories involving a minor item of apparel,

strike you as improbable, think again. After more than three decades of exile, beside the monogrammed hankies and stray golf tees in the dark recesses of the sock drawer, cuff links are back and fashion catalogs are increasingly featuring them.

The category is rife with the elements that make it a good collectible. Cuff links have always reflected the state of the art, economics, life and fashions of the era of their manufacture. Cuff links, along with other auxiliary collectibles such as cuff buttons, dress sets, tie tacks and stud boxes, have also been largely overlooked in the serious world of collecting. For that reason they can still sometimes be had at a bargain. However, as auction track records develop and their popularity increases, cuff links will become more valuable and scarce. “I’ve bought links for 50 cents or a dollar which turned out to be very old and worth up to $1,000 to $1,200,” says Klompus. “It’s still possible to find those kinds of deals, and it’s one of the attractions they have as a collectible.”

“They’re really an ideal collectible. They’re affordable, available, make good personal gifts; they’re functional, and can be stored or displayed in a small space,” says David Hrobowski, a cuff link collector and dealer. “With cigar smoking, wine tasting and Martinis back in vogue, the wrist has become a highly visible portion of one’s anatomy again. I believe the resurgent interest in these neglected articles of men’s apparel is about the return to class and elegance. Timepieces, tailored suits, money clips and French cuffs add a flash of yesteryear and make cuff links a new, yet old, way of expressing who you are.”

Such miniature works of art run the gamut from small and discreet to oversized and outrageous, from traditional and refined to trendy and whimsical. Cuff links often express the wearer’s success—jewel-encrusted precious metals, dollar signs and moneybags. Exclusive social, religious and political logos, and indulgences such as cigars, cannabis leaves, playing cards, dice and spirit bottles, are popular themes. Diminutive versions of carpenter tools, typewriter keys, the New York Stock Exchange logo, stamps and coins hint at one’s occupation or hobbies. Hand-tied fishing flies under glass, National Football League helmets, yachts, horses and team insignias can be just the ticket for sports fans. If gadgets are your bag, there are doers—compasses, watches, music boxes, roulette wheels and cap pistols.

When Hrobowski, a NCLS charter member from Los Angeles, bought his first pair of cuff links—mirror-image scrimshaw zebra heads carved from African ivory, with sterling toggle-back plates, signed by the artist—he had no idea what he was starting. Twenty years later he had amassed more than 5,000 pairs ranging in price from $20 to several thousand dollars. On his Web site (www.cufflinkking.com), link aficionados can view and buy a variety of cuff links.

The convention has drawn as many as 2,000 collectors, dealers and wearers from as far away as England, Germany, Australia and Japan. They’ve taken in lectures on such subjects as the evolution of the cuff link, its relationship to fashion, manufacturing processes such as electroplating and enameling, and gemstone identification.

“At the convention we have an on-site auction of rare and unique cuff links or collections, and a vending area with about 50 dealers with lots of buying and swapping among themselves and the public,” explains Klompus, whose company, Just Cuff Links (847-816-0035), offers free photo appraisals. His interest in links dates back to age 13 when an uncle came to supper wearing marcasite cuff links, and he remarked how much he liked them. His uncle, who died two years later, left them to young Gene. He still owns the pair to this day.

“Soon after, I began buying them at yard sales for a quarter a pair,” says Klompus. “As I got older and traveled for my work, I began picking them up in other cities and countries. Friends knew I collected them and gave them to me for various occasions. I now have over 35,000 pairs.”


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