By Pete Prunkl
While most of us regard cufflinks as objects for fastening the ends of buttonless sleeves, the late Frank Sinatra had a different perspective. Spotting an elegant gentleman with two attractive women - one on each arm - the dapper leader of the celebrated Rat Pack summed up the scene in one word: "Cufflinks."
Cufflinks - like the tuxedo - make every man look good. They are flashy or conservative, but always elegant; they make a statement about the wearers life style and values. As one of the few accepted items in a limited line of mens jewelry, cufflinks are practically guaranteed to get you noticed. It has worked for over a century. In Little Women, Louisa May Allcott had Jo remark that her suitor, Mr. Bhaer, "has gold sleeve buttons in his immaculate wristbands." Apparently dazzled by them, Jo lost her concentration, dropped her knitting ball, and she and Bhaer scrambled under the table to fetch it.
Mr. Bhaers sleeve buttons are cuff links, circa 1868. Sleeve buttons or cuff buttons, as they were called in the United States, had rounded shanks on the back that looked like a flat metal button. For the wealthy, beginning in the late 17th century, they replaced the ribbon or tape-ties fastening mens sleeves. "Both sides of the link were visible, " says Elizabeth Hughes, author of The Big Book of Buttons, "so both buttons were ornamented." The fastening device or linkage between the two decorated faces was typically a wire loop, a flat, curb chain or string. The cuff link has a long and interesting history intertwined with the development of buttons, the worked buttonhole, the Industrial Revolution, the evolution of mens fashion and the French cuff. "For centuries, buttons were used mainly as ornaments," says Howard Bell in his book, Cuff Jewelry. "Strings, pins or belts were used rather than buttons to fasten clothing. It was not until fitted garments became popular in the 13th century that buttons were used as fasteners." The worked buttonhole, an opening made on the outside of a garment after it is completed, paralleled the popularity of buttons as fasteners. Applied to shirt sleeves, buttonholes became "cuff fastening slits" and were noted in mens fashions as early as the mid-17th century.
The earliest cuff links date from the same period as the cuff fastening slit. Hand-made of various metals, usually gold and silver, and set with gemstones, they were clearly luxury items for the wealthy. The term "cuff link" was first found in print a hundred years later in 1788. Hand casting and other manual jewelry-making techniques continued until 1840 - 1870 when three mechanical developments, the tour a guilloche machine, the steam driven stamping machine, and electro-metallurgy opened up mens jewelry to a much wider audience. The French cuff or double cuff shirt sleeve became a popular fashion accessory in the 1840s. The historical stimulus for this elegant touch in mens fashion was the publication of Alexander Dumas The Three Musketeers. Dumas detailed description of the turned-back sleeves of the men guarding King Louis XIII inspired European designers to modify the single cuff, link-holed shirt which had been a fashion main stay in England since 1824.
While the "Musketeers" connection is the accepted origin of the French cuff, Eugene Klompus, president of the National Cuff Link Society, warns "There are no hard and fast answers to the question. Other countries and other eras claim the French cuff." There is no argument about the continued popularity of the French cuff. Readily available in retail markets such as Target, Nieman-Marcus and Bloomingdales and through the J. C. Penney catalog, the double cuff has definitely not joined the Nehru jacket in fashion obscurity.
Accepted categories of nineteenth century cuff links are correlated with the major artistic periods: late Georgian (1820-1830), Victorian (1837-1901), and Art Nouveau (1885-1920). During the reign of George IV and toward the end of Britains Industrial Revolution, the middle class adopted cufflinks. Unable to afford gems, they turned to replicas of the real thing. "Rhinestones and pastes were used as fake diamonds, pinchbeck, a copper and zinc alloy, substituted for gold, and cut steel and marcasite were used for silver," says Bell. A rose- or flat-cut was favored by late Georgian and Victorian jewelers and the public for real and fake gems. Backings were typically foil or paste, a type of leaded glass. Selected non-precious metal cufflinks from the 1820s with flat-cut paste rubies, a silver base and foil backing are valued at $300+ on todays market.
Hair weaving, a popular craft of the period and throughout the 19th century, also found its way into mens jewelry. Used as an emblem of grief, a lock of a loved ones hair was woven and displayed under glass in the bereaveds cufflinks. An 1880 example with enameled outer ring is found in Bells price guide at $350.
Enameled cufflinks were a favorite during the late Georgian period, but it was during the Art Deco years that enamels reached the height of their popularity. An ancient craft, metal decorated with enamel was an art form since the 13th century. Enamels are mixtures of silica, lead oxides, salts of soda, potassium and boric acids -- essentially colored lumps of glass -- which were ground into powder with a mortar and pestle. When mixed with distilled water and rinsed thoroughly, the powder became a wet paste which was applied with a small spatula to holes or depressions in a backing of gold, sterling or copper. When the enamel dried, it was fired at high temperatures and then polished several times to a luster. Because each color required a separate firing, the process was delicate and time consuming. And the results were fascinating.
"What really turns people on about Faberge," opines Derek Anastasia, author of The History of Enamel Cufflinks (in press), "is the gem-like brilliance of their enamels." Today, says Anastasia, "the antique enamels are the most sought after of all cufflinks." As a leader in the quest, Anastasia is proud of his large collection. "It now includes 1244 pairs of antique enamel cufflinks and 439 half-pairs or singles," he said.
A variety of techniques were available for creating hollows, grooves or cells in the cufflinks metal backing into which enamels were applied. Designs were outlined on the base with fine and flattened silver wire (cloisonné) or applied at varying heights and depths (basse taille, pronounced baahs-tie). The Victorians perfected champleve (pronounced sham-plah-vay), a competing process which was popular in Limoges, France in the 12th and 13th centuries. In this latter technique a pattern was incised, etched, engraved, photoengraved or chiseled in the metal and the depressions filled with enamel. In champleve there are rather clear figure-ground relationships. At times the colored enamel served as background for the metal figure, at others the enamel was figure, the metal ground. In general, more metal is seen in champleve; more enamel in cloisonné and basse taille.
Mass-produced enamel jewelry began in France in 1840 with the invention of the tour a guilloche (pronounced tour ah ghee-oh-shh) machine. Referred to in the United States as a rose lathe, this engine turning machine could scratch out circular, straight or wave patterns on a metal backing. Faberge used the device to produce over 40 different patterns -- his favorites being the moire, sunburst and wave. Powdered enamel was hand-applied to the incised metal by sprinkling or painting and the completed cufflink was kiln-fired. Although guilloche surfaces had been created by hand since the early 1800s, the swirls, patterns and radiating lines created by the mechanical device were precise and perfect. "You can easily tell the difference between machine- and hand made guilloche," said Anastasia. "The machine changed the entire field of mens jewelry.
After 1840, cufflinks were affordable." Victorian lucky charms, hearts, flowers, love birds, ivy, love knots, angels, snakes, even babies found their way to cufflinks of the era. As did the horseshoe. Horse racing was a passion of Edward, Prince of Wales and many commoners apparently liked the idea of linking themselves and their shirt sleeves to royalty through this symbol. Free-flowing whiplash lines, organic motifs and stunning, romantic feminine figures and faces were not missed by cufflink makers during the era of Art Nouveau, a short-lived, but intense artistic movement.
Although Art Nouveau included all artistic expressions, its real revolution, says Vivienne Becker in Antique and 20th Century Jewelry, was in its interpretations in the applied arts: glass, ceramics, furniture, silver, graphics and jewelry. Especially mens cufflinks. Gold was an Art Nouveau favorite for cufflinks - either gold filled, plated, or between 10 and 18 karat. Three pages of photographs and prices of Art Nouveau cufflinks are featured in Howard Bells Cuff Jewelry. Prices range from $45 for an etched and embossed gold-filled pair from the 1890s to $175 for a gold-filled and etched concave pair with a double flap fastener, circa 1885.
The fastening device or linkage connecting a cufflinks front to its back has its own fascinating history. Late Georgian fastening devices are essentially the same as Mr. Bhaers sleeve buttons - wire loops, curb chains and string. Introduced earlier in the mid-Georgian period was the dumbbell form. Small and in one solid piece, the dumbbell was carved from ivory in the early part of the 19th century and by mid-century, from pearl. Carved dumbbells had a slightly curved shank; they looked like exercise weights whose ends were too heavy for the bar. Dumbbells of glass, coral, gold, gold plate and various hard stones became fashionable by the Gay 90s.
While the decorative elements of cufflinks correspond to the artistic styles and fashions of the day, their fastening devices have a history of their own. How many ways are there to connect shirt sleeves together? During the last quarter of the 19th century, cufflink artisans crafted seven new types of fasteners or linkages with another five designs tentatively attributed to the period. Thats a new fastener every two years - a speed comparable to new computer technology.
A metal button fastener, circa 1880, looked like an oversized shirt stud. Another, the "one-piece link" from the 1890s, continues to be produced today. It has a metal face, slightly curved fastening device and a metal oval to hold it fast to the inside of the cuff. Three spring steel fasteners came into fashion in the 1885-1888 period: the turret, loop and finger prongs. The ball motif, a metal variation on the carved dumbbell but with a straight shank, was introduced in 1895. Among the fasteners attributed to the late 19th century was the post-fastener, a simple, straight forward design which resembled a shirt stud. Both sides of the post-fastener were essentially the same size with a short, solid connector between them. The S-wire fastener was designed so that the inside and outside faces mounted at the top and bottom of a stylized letter S. It is attributed to 1895. The double stirrup fastener sounds sturdy and it was. Two stirrups pivot together to insert the link through the sleeve slot and then snapped out to hold the link in place. The center-hinged fastener, circa 1880, looked like two pair of miniature ice tongs welded together at the handles. Both sides of the cufflink rotated around the points of the ice tongs or center hinge. A wishbone fastener, a device which may have been introduced in 1899, looked and functioned like a large paper clip, says Howard Bell. The thin, wiry device was used with a wristband, not a fold-over French cuff. "It could only fit through two thicknesses of fabric," said Bell, "not four."
The bachelors button was a complex mechanical cufflink fastener circa 1872 - 1875. Referred to by many collectors as a "solitaire" or "Wests patent," after Englishman George West, the cufflinks face and backing were separate pieces. With the face on one side of a shirt slit and the backing on the other, the two snapped together and were held in place by a sturdy spring clip. The term bachelors button "probably came from the fact that they did not have to be sewn onto the cuff like a regular button," says Elizabeth Hughes in the newsletter of the National Cuff Link Society. "Bachelors seem to have had a problem with sewing on buttons from time immemorial," added Hughes.
By the late-19th century, cufflinks were purchased with shirt studs or stick pins as a set. Cuff Jewelry lists a 14 karat gold cufflinks and tie pin set, circa 1895 at $200; a faux ruby set, circa 1885 at $75. An 1895 shirt stud and cufflinks set in mother-of-pearl was priced at $95.
These were important and valuable possessions to men of the times.
Charles Dickens specifically listed his treasured shirt studs, shirt pins and sleeve buttons in his 1860 will. By the mid-18th century, when neckwear became a separate item in a mans wardrobe, a short pin was placed into the silk folds just below the knot to fasten it to the shirt front. Pins grew longer in the 19th century to accommodate changing fashion and jewelers added a zig-zag or spiral twist in the middle or at the top to aid their holding power. The pin head reflected the Victorians love of novelty. Serpents, insects and the fox were common motifs and tiny rubies served as eyes and chased gold for animal hair.
According to the National Cuff Link Society, stick pins are enjoying somewhat of a revival. At the 1997 Milan fashion show, several houses featured conservative stick pins worn not below the knot, but in the middle of the tie or on the lapel. Reverse intaglio was a popular way of embellishing 19th century stick pins. After carving a figure or scene in great detail into the back of a cabochon crystal, an artisan would carefully fill in the work with paint and apply a mother of pearl backing. The elegant process was used almost exclusively for jewelry worn by men. A pair of Victorian crystal intaglio cufflinks was the highest priced item at Christies June 17, 1997 sale in South Kensington, a 175-lot, cufflinks-only sale. They displayed, painted in color, a mans four vices - the champagne bottle, playing cards, a race horse and a dancing girl. Selling price: 4600 pounds or $7558.
Other 19th century cufflinks were among the higher priced items at the same Christies sale. Two pair of Victorian and one late Georgian each brought over 1000 pounds or $1643. Many others bringing high prices were 20th century examples with precious jewels by noted designers such as Cartier, Graff, Piaget and Hermes. Christies is not alone in their enthusiasm for cuff links. Many of the better known auction houses have regular cuff jewelry sales. In addition to their 1997 sale, Christies held another cufflinks-only auction in 1998. Bonhams, a London auction gallery, generated enormous interest and prices with their May 7, 1998 cufflinks sale. Phil McBride, owner of Page Auctioneers and Appraisers, Batavia, New York has seen an 18-25% increase in gross sales of cufflinks for each of the past five years. Fueled by the interest in cigar bars and the trend toward elegant gentlemans fashions, cufflinks, says McBride, are doing very well. "They are items one can buy, enjoy and then sell at a percentage that exceeds the stock market," he adds.
Although Frank Sinatra was not a National Cuff Link Society member, a pair of his non-female cufflinks were offered for sale recently by NCLS member Richard Wilson of Chevy Chase, MD. From the collection of makeup artist Gordon Bau, the pair are gold-filled and engraved with an "F." The price for all you swinging lovers is $950. Although that expense could rival your mortgage payment, think of the impression you would make. As Frank might have said, "Its the way you wear your hat . . . and cufflinks."
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