In a covert gesture of affection in 1935, Wallis Simpson gave platinum cuff links bearing the initials W and E rendered in diamond baguettes to her paramour, Edward, the Prince of Wales, who was poised to assume the throne of England. Decades later, Camilla Parker Bowles similarly bestowed Prince Charles with gold cuff links engraved with interlocking C’s upon his marriage to Diana, secretly signifying their liaison. In both instances, the cuff links were discreet, but the secrets they represented eventually were revealed. And in the case of Edward’s cuff links, the scandalous provenance would prove very valuable: They fetched $440,000 at auction in 1987, making them at the time the most expensive cuff links ever sold.
“Every cuff link is a miniature work of art,” says Eugene Klompus, a cuff link collector and dealer in Vernon Hills, Ill., who founded the National Cuff Link Society and justcufflinks.com, a web site for collectors and enthusiasts. “They are one of the few ways,” says Klompus, “that men can express themselves tastefully, rebelliously, or frivolously.” Or covertly.
The accessory emerged in the late 1600s, when men replaced the ribbons, or cuff strings, used to fasten their cuffs, with jeweled buttons that came to be known as cuff links in the late 18th century. As fashion, art, and technology evolved, those changes influenced cuff link styles: Glass designs became popular during the Georgian era, painted figurines in the Art Nouveau period, and sleek shapes during the Art Deco movement.
“Ten years ago, cuff links were a discreet adornment worn primarily by professional businessmen, particularly in investment banks and law offices,” explains New York designer Catherine Zadeh, whose gold and silver links are best sellers at Bergdorf Goodman. Today, Etro and Paul Smith are among the fashion houses producing casual shirts with French cuffs, suggesting that cuff links do not have to be a formal accessory. Nevertheless, formal designs made from precious metals with gems remain prevalent—although you also will find organic shapes made from wood and shell, and quirky novelties symbolizing careers or personal interests and hobbies.
In Black and White
Bespoke cuff links represent the pinnacle of personalized accessories. The British luxury house Asprey, for example, can produce designs featuring enamel-painted portraits of pets. It also has crafted a pair of cuff links depicting a Clark bar for one of the candy company’s founding members, and on another pair, Asprey reproduced a newspaper headline for a client who had made the news.
Jeweler Jacob Arabo, who is accustomed to fulfilling curious requests for his flamboyant clients, recently received a call from one who was sitting at a casino table in Las Vegas: He ordered a pair of diamond-encrusted dice cuff links to celebrate a big win that night. Arabo also made a pair for NBA player Jerome James featuring his jersey number, 31, portrayed in diamonds.
Fun and Games
Despite the cuff links’ diamond embellishments, the high roller and the basketball player might prize their accessories more for sentimental reasons than for their intrinsic value. Klompus, who displays his 5,000-pair cuff link collection in glass-top cases in his home, favors a pair featuring the presidential seal that former President George H.W. Bush gave him. When Klompus saw the president’s photo on the cover of Time magazine in 1992, he wrote him a letter complimenting Bush’s cuff links and offering insight on collecting. In response, Bush sent him a thank-you note along with the cuff links. “Cuff links are the quintessential conversation pieces,” says Klompus. “Some have intriguing stories to tell.” Although, as was likely true for King Edward VIII and for Prince Charles, the wearers might be reluctant to reveal those stories.