Head of Jewellery at Christie's London, Keith Penton shows How to... Buy cufflinks
Pictured Left - A pair of gold and enamel jockey cap cufflinks circa 1920, estimate £2,000-3,000
Jewels: The London sale
1st December 2010
Whether classical or avant-garde, set with precious metal or plastic, cufflinks provide the perfect opportunity for a man to wear his art on his sleeve.
Cufflinks as we know them first appeared in the late 18th century and evolved from sleeve buttons. Previously the wristbands of a shirt had small openings either side through which a thin ribbon or string was passed to hold the sleeve closed. Surviving pairs of early sleeve links are often set with colourless paste (a lead based glass), coloured agates and sometimes rock crystal with compartments for hair or miniature portraits - they are frequently mounted in silver with pieced bar or figure of eight connecting links between the two plaques or buttons. For centuries men had worn a profusion of jewels of different types, but gradually this declined until the early 19th century when Benjamin Disraeli excited comment for wearing a variety of studs, rings, chains, fob seals and stickpins. By the early 1900s a signet ring and a pair of cufflinks were the only acceptable jewellery for a gentleman. Hardly surprising then, with so few opportunities for display, that cufflinks have retained their appeal and become ever more collectable; the fact that they still perform a function is also in their favour.
Designs range from bars, hoops, spheres, knots, animals, to every shape of plaque that you can dream of, some with chain connections others with bars of different types, folding terminals and patented mechanisms. Some connoisseurs only accept double sided plaques, others are happy to have a single decorative link with a swivelling post and bar fitting which they maintain is easier to use. The gift of cufflinks is something of a right of passage and complete dress sets including links, waistcoat buttons and shirt studs for use with white tie are still sought after for 18th and 21st birthday presents. These often have fitted cases, and even though the opportunity for formal dress is much more limited nowadays the giving of a dress set is somewhat symbolic. Typically they range from hexagonal or circular panels usually made from white gold or platinum inset with onyx, rock crystal or mother-of-pearl with a central diamond or seed pearl accent.
Late Victorian and Edwardian gold cufflinks can be purchased from as little as a few hundred pounds for something relatively plain, rising to low thousands for an enamelled pair depicting game birds or another sporting subject, or the four vices (usually depicting playing cards, a bottle of champagne, a horse and jockey, and a dancing girl!). Another popular type were set with rock crystal cabochons, carved from the reverse and painted with dogs, animals and sporting themes - known variously as reverse intaglio or Essex crystals, the appearance from the front gives a three dimensional effect. Cheaper costume copies were prevalent in the 1930s using moulded glass, but these are quite crude in comparison.
The crème de la crème were produced in the early 20th century by the great jewellery houses from Cartier to Van Cleef & Arpels, Boucheron and Faberge to name but a few. They range from delicately engraved and enamelled examples featuring pastel coloured enamel and rose-cut diamonds, to bolder geometric patterns and the strong chromatic contrasts of the Art Deco period. Some of the most popular designs are still in production today including the Cartier stirrup cufflink with folding ring terminals and the reeded batons of Van Cleef & Arpels with a plain or gem-set central band (the baton slides through the central hoop and ingeniously clicks into place) can command low thousands at auction. Throughout the 1960s and 70s cufflink designs were often quite sculptural with textured nuggets, abstract shapes and random scatterings of gem stones reflecting the gold work of the period - this style is now much more appreciated after languishing throughout the 1980s and 90s.
Practical considerations if buying vintage cufflinks:
* Check that the panel will fit through your button hole if contemplating a pair of double sided cufflinks with chain connections, also bear in mind that a small panel may fall through a soft cuff and come undone too readily (shirts were starched in the 19th century and provided more resistance).
* Beware that very bulky cufflinks (from the 1960s and 70s) might be uncomfortable to wear if working at a desk or keyboard.
* Cufflinks that have been in regular use for 80 years may have very worn chain links/connections and this might be expensive to repair.
* Check vintage enamel cufflinks, they are often chipped and may have later restoration, the price/auction estimate should reflect this.
* Check that the links are a true pair - a single double side link is often divided and bar backs added to form a working set, after a loss replacement copies are sometimes commissioned, so look out for subtle differences and changes in the colour of the gold. Waistcoat buttons are often converted to links with the addition of a detachable S shaped link (not really a problem if the plaques all match).
* Study genuine Edwardian enamel cufflinks and be aware that there are later copies.
* Buy from a reputable source and ask a specialist for their opinion.