Vintage cuff links captivate collectors with romance and functionality
“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.”
As well as for Best Story, the convention offered competitions in such categories as Best Antique (over 100 years old); Best Do-er (with functional or moving part, such as thermometer, light, pen, dice, etc.); and Best Precious Metal. A past winner in the grammatically challenged category of Most Unique Pair was a pair of cuff links crafted from oxblood coral and emeralds set in gold, designed by Howard Rifkin of San Diego, an insurance broker with a decided aesthetic bent. He creates only several pairs each year, describing them as “Faberge eggs reborn as cuff links.” They cost from $2,500 to $20,000.
A new prize category was added in 1997, Best Link “Single,” won that year by Hrobowski. Some collectors specialize in “orphan links” and have attempted to find the missing mates at the convention’s singles matching session.
Cuff links are a post-Renaissance fashion device. They first gained popularity in the late 1600s, when lace trims decorating men’s shirtfronts and sleeves were replaced by ribbons. Shirt springs were next employed to keep cuffs fastened. Jeweled buttons—called sleeve buttons—soon took their place. At first an affectation of the aristocracy, they were soon adopted by the middle class and tradesmen.
In the Georgian era, of the 1700s, a type of faceted
glass, known as paste, became a popular material for jewelry and, despite
the difference in cost, was sometimes worn with diamonds. Some of the
earlier links are paste or rock crystal mounted in silver or gold. More
elaborate links were reverse painted (painted figures on the underside of
glass or quartz) and/or decorated with twisted gold wire designs under the
facet. In the London Museum, an eighteenth-
century painted rock crystal link depicts Prince Charles Edward and Princess Louise of Stolberg. An exhibit by Sandra Cronan Ltd. of London featured a rare pair of Stuart crystal cuff links, most likely commemorating the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza in 1662.
Elizabeth Hughes, coauthor of The Big Book of Buttons, conjectures that by the late 1680s, glass sleeve buttons must have been so common that a thief might have mistaken real diamonds for them. An amusing historical reference penned by William Fuller of the escape of King James II in 1688 illustrates this. When the king was halted in Kent by a group of fishermen, “His Majesty had in his pocket a pair of very large diamond buttons for his shirtsleeves which one of the fellows taking from him cried out ‘see this old fop carries glass buttons about him,’ and flung them on the ground, the kind who knew the value, took them up again.’’
During the Industrial Revolution in the 1860s, the development of precious metal electroplating afforded the masses a look that was formerly beyond their means. In the 1880s, around the time removable starched cuffs and collars were introduced, George Krementz patented a machine adapted from a Civil War cartridge shell–making machine that produced one-piece collar buttons and cuff links. “There were several other American cuff link manufacturers based in Newark, Philadelphia, New York and Rhode Island competing for the market,” explains Hrobowski. Almost every major U.S. business company during the first half of the twentieth century commissioned cuff links either for advertising purposes or as gift incentives for employees or executives.
Cuff links and studs from the late 1880s through the late 1930s, covering the Victorian, Edwardian, Art Deco, Arts and Crafts, and Modern periods, are highly sought. During the war years, interest in cuff links waned; however, postwar technology and travel opened the world market again. Then, from the mid-1970s to the early ’90s, cuff links virtually disappeared from shirtsleeves. Only in the last few years have links become fashionable again, and for the first time, they are holding their own as a viable collectible.
Perhaps the most famous and expensive pairs of cuff links—they sold at auction for $440,000 in 1987—was a gift from Wallis Simpson to Edward, the soon-to-be king of England. As recounted by Susan Jonas and Marilyn Nissenson in their book Cuff Links, the diamonds set in platinum, with baguette diamonds forming the initials E. and W., were custom ordered by Simpson in 1935. An accompanying set of buttons and studs were inscribed with “Hold Tight.” (Later, Edward VIII presented his true love with a ruby-and-diamond bracelet bearing the same inscription.)
The popularity of cuff links in recent years inspired a businessman, Claude Jeanloz, to open The Cuff Link Museum in Conway, New Hampshire, in the late 1990s. Jeanloz, who obtained his first pair as a confirmation gift from his godmother, began collecting cuff links in the mid-1960s.
After amassing a large number of them, he decided to establish the Cuff Link Museum, which boasted of 70,000 pairs on display in 10,000 square feet—by far the largest collection in the world. (The museum closed recently after the building where it was housed was put up for sale. Jeanloz hopes to reopen if space can be found.) Though it’s difficult to precisely date the pair, the museum’s oldest links were from the late 1700s. Also on display were cuff link memorabilia such as vintage cuff link ads, record jackets and photos featuring performers like Arthur Fielder and The Beatles sporting links, and photos of famous politicians, including John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev at the United Nations, both wearing cuff links.
As with most popular fashion trends, comebacks are inevitable. Jeanloz asserts, “If you wear to an event a pair of treasured cuff links, whether they’re high-end or not, you will feel special. Granted, you’ll also feel different by wearing an Armani suit or driving a Ferrari, but the difference is that with a $50 pair of links, you can capture a semblance of that feeling.”
Menswear designer and author Alan Flusser ventures so far as to say in his book Style and the Man that some fashion historians mark the decline in men’s style from the point at which ready-made buttoned cuffs replaced cuff-linked ones. “No form of shirtsleeve closure dresses a man’s hand better than a well-fitted French cuff punctuated by the subtle glamour of its buttonhole-covering link.” With a hint of snobbery, he concludes that “wearing a set that clips on one side not only exposes its superstructure, but suggests you could only afford to pay for the gold or gemstone on the outside.”
“This business of casual dress in the workplace is begging for some definition,” adds Klompus. “There’s a trend toward more structure in office dress code. Rings and watches are the only opportunity for men to wear jewelry at work. Ties, although personal, still fall short of cuff links in reflecting the wearer’s personality.”
Rifkin, the cuff link designer, contends, “Man is the forgotten animal where jewelry is concerned. Cuff links are the only piece of jewelry a man can wear and be elegantly outrageous and still be in good taste. I think of my unique cuff links, like all good jewelry, as gifts to Mother Earth. Artwork, fine jewelry and fine cuff links will long outlive their long succession of owners.”
Freelance writer Bill Strubbe owns exactly one pair of cuff links, but no French cuff shirt with which to wear them. All cuff links shown are from the collection of David Hrobowski.