Today's cufflinks are a recognized symbol of elegance for men and women alike. They can be seen wearing them at weddings, dinner parties, conferences and all kinds of official events. But cufflinks underwent a long journey before they became what we know them for today. It all began in the Middle Ages.
Every ornament started off as something practical. It’s the same with cufflinks. The cuffs on men’s clothes had to be held by something – mostly strings, laces and pins. Somewhere around the 13th century, buttons, the closest predecessor to the cufflink, started being used. To be fair, there are records of what are called “wrist-clasps” as early as the 6th century AD. They were elaborately made clasps used to fasten the two sides of long-sleeved clothes. Wrist-clasps were worn by women of high status in parts of East England but they were definitely not the norm everywhere. Fast forward to the Renaissance. With the arrival of the stitched buttonhole, buttons were gaining in popularity, but lacy cuffs and ribbons (mostly a status symbol) were still the preferred way of cuffing the sleeves. It was not until the 17th century that lace was replaced by sleeve buttons. Sleeve buttons were jeweled buttons, most often made of silver or gold and sometimes ornate with precious gems. In the latter part of the century, during the reign of King George, sleeve buttons were even ornate with miniature paintings made on a piece of glass or quartz. These, as you can guess, were very expensive to make and were thus reserved for the nobility. They mostly used them to celebrate special occasions.
Cufflinks and the Industrial Revolution
What about the common man? Well, it took the Industrial Revolution to facilitate the manufacturing process and therefore make prices more affordable. In the 1840s, the so-called French cuff shirts came into fashion (sometimes called double cuff shirts) and people usually credit Alexander Dumas' novels for their rapid popularization. Oddly enough, that is something that lasted until today. Yet, it wasn't until the end of the 19th century that cufflinks became a common accessory of the middle class. One of the most notable inventions of the time came in 1882. George Krementz, an American jeweller, invented a machine (based on a Civil War cartridge) that could mass produce cufflinks. As you can imagine, most of these cufflinks were not as exquisite as those of the royalties and were made out of cheap replicas of precious stones. Still, the fact remains that cufflinks were no longer reserved for gala events but were granted a more casual status.
Cufflinks at their Peak
You could say that the early 20th century saw the golden age of the cufflink. Luxury jewelry makers such as Tiffany's and Cartier began producing them. In the 1920s, they saw a new redesign when the Fabergé family started making them out of enamel. Forced out of Russia by the communist government, they spread throughout Europe and enamel cufflinks became part of the glamor of the Roaring 20s. Today, cufflinks made during that period are highly valued. The 1930s ushered in the Great Depression, however, which led to the production of cheaper cufflinks, made of plastic.
The remainder of the 20th century saw ups and downs in the popularity of cuffs, but then came the 90s when the French cuff shirt was reintroduced into mainstream fashion. That once again spurred interest in cufflinks and both designer houses and mass manufacturers started coming up with new lines. Today you could say the cufflink is here to stay – people of all ages, genders and backgrounds wear them for a range of occasions. And here's a curious fact – some people believe that men shouldn't buy their own cufflinks. Instead, they should be given to them as gifts. That's something to consider next time you are looking for gifts for groomsmen!