Sleeve Jewelry

Stylish Jewelry Adds a Touch of Class to Shirt Sleeves
| By Ettagale Blauer | From 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.

There are few limits, except your own imagination, as to what is appropriate on your wrists. Janet Mavec, whose shop J. Mavec & Co. features an annual cuff- link show in December, had a pair of somewhat risqué cuff links not pornographic at all, although those can be found in the marketplace as well. These showed a pair of skis, a bottle of liquor, a woman and money, each of the four sides featuring a different image. They were bought by a woman from Ohio for her husband. He was offended and sent them back to the shop. (No, they're not available--they were lost while making their way back to the store.)

Many links offer four views of a subject such as different species of trout, four golfer's swings, four birds or four setters. Mavec offers customers the opportunity to bring in any design or a photograph and have it transformed into cuff links by a London artist. One executive had the corporate logo painted on cuff links to give to a dozen people involved in a buyout.

Mavec also offers classic styles from the 1940s made by Van Cleef & Arpels, including

a pair with fluted bars, each set with a tiny band of gemstones, that look like miniature binoculars. She has a pair of spirals by Cartier that will remind you of the Slinky toy you once played with, if you are of a certain age, although these are in gold and set with the tiniest sapphires at the end.

The whole variety of mechanisms can be seen here. Some of the links in Mavec's Madison Avenue shop have the classic flip-hinge; there are designs that twist off and some that screw apart. There are little chains that link the two sections together and the one-piece dumbbell type, in which the same design is repeated in a smaller size on the ball that passes through the cuff.

Designer Paul Flato, an American jeweler who flourished among the socially prominent in the 1930s, once made a screw-and-nut pair in gold. In that case, there was no "link," just one of the best designs ever created, though in a metal not usually seen in your neighborhood hardware store.

Cuff links, whether of the 19th or 20th century, tend to mirror the era in which they were created and follow the style of the jewelry of their day. As new materials were discovered around the world--gold and diamonds in South Africa, rubies from Burma and sapphires from Kashmir--they found their way into contemporary cuff links. When Fabergé was creating his exquisite guilloché enamel eggs for the royal family of Russia, his workshop also turned out cuff links in the same styles. Guilloché is a stunningly simple technique, but one whose secrets were difficult for the craftsmen of the day to crack. The jeweler engraves a pattern by a process called engine-turning. When translucent enamel is applied over it, the engraving shows through and gives the piece a shimmering effect. These styles can be found at antique dealers and at auction.

As 20th-century designers moved through the Art Deco era, cuff links began to take on the typical jazz-age look, with geometrics and fine gem-set surfaces. The dress sets, complete with studs and links, were often made of onyx set with small diamonds in fine, intricate designs. Platinum was used extensively for settings. With its great strength and density, platinum allowed the jeweler to work the metal into very thin strips, yet still provide a secure setting for precious stones.

In the 1940s, Cartier offered a triangle-shaped link that flipped open for insertion. It was available in a choice of gemstones including sapphires and rubies. Stephen Russell at Trump Tower in New York offers them as they become available; a recent pair featuring citrines was on sale for $5,000. This style doesn't remain on display very long, according to Russell Zelenetz. "They are very collectible. Some people come in every week or two to see what we have in." Stephen Russell also carries elegant seashells set with rubies, sapphires and diamonds; the shells connect with a few gold links. Collectors who frequent the shop will often get a call letting them know what is coming in; some of these pieces never make it into inventory.

The whole range of styles from the various periods can be seen at auctions where old and new designs can be found, including whimsical cuff links designed by Suzanne Tennenbaum. These take many forms: a set of four short studs and a pair of links depicting an entire train set including tracks, locomotive and caboose. Playing cards, dice, the planets or pandas all turn up in her designs.

If you've shopped around, gone to the auctions and still haven't found anything that appeals, drop in at Tender Buttons on East 62nd Street, just off Lexington Avenue in New York. This delightful store is often the shop of first resort when celebrities need just the right touch for their outfits. Where else could Jack Nicholson have found playing-card buttons and cuff links for his role as the Joker in Batman?

At Tender Buttons, every button can be a cuff link, including some 200 styles of blazer buttons, genuine Civil War uniform buttons, bunny rabbits, dice and snakes. You might rub shoulders with a biker looking for a skull and crossbones. You could have been there when Brooke Shields bought her gold high-heel links. You're too late for a pair of cigar-shaped cuff links in gold and platinum with enamel cigar bands, but you could still find a pair of Leica-camera links, circa 1950. The owners, Diana Epstein and Millicent Safro, travel the world looking for unique buttonsandcuff links. Midwest-erners can check out the stock in their second store on Rush Street in Chicago.

If you're not sure about your style, but want to get started, take a look in the men's shop at Bergdorf Goodman in New York. There, along with the antique and contemporary styles in enamel, gold and sterling, you'll also find a colorful choice of the classic knot style--in silk. For $8 each, you can have a pair to match everything you own.

For a bit more--well, quite a bit more--there's the look of 22-karat gold and rich granulation by contemporary jeweler Maija Neimanis. Or the more modestly priced styles by Shellie Brooks, who uses a new material--a polymer clay--and works it in an ancient technique, similar to the millefiori glass of Venice.

Don Johnson is still chasing bad guys in rerun heaven, but it appears his pastel T-shirts have lost some of their appeal. No matter. While they're shooting at each other, you could be linking your cuffs and showing off your own distinctive style.

Ettagale Blauer is a free-lance writer and frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.