Women's Jewellery

Cuff love

Dreamily delicate workmanship on a boldly outsized shape – the jewel of the moment is not for the faint‑hearted, says Vivienne Becker. Photography by Jobe Lawrenson

November 29 2012
Vivienne Becker

When I really want to – or have to – dress up and be jewelled, my default mode is to choose a knockout pair of earrings and a dramatic cuff: the former for femininity, the latter for impact. A wide bangle feels strong, supportive and comforting; it’s instantaneously glamorous, so that even with the simplest dress or jacket, ideally a tuxedo, you’re ready to go. Good news, then, that the cuff is making a spectacular comeback as this season’s jewel du jour.  

Armour-like yet sensual, it has made style statements for many fashion icons: Coco Chanel’s enamel and gem-studded Maltese cross pair, made for her by the Duke of Verdura; Nancy Cunard’s African ivory fighting bangles, which she used as weapons when necessary; Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s matching Van Cleef & Arpels crumpled gold, curled-edge cuffs, worn in the 1970s to arm wrestle Muhammad Ali (and still made, £24,500) and Diana Vreeland’s immense ivory banded armlets worn with a giant tusk pendant. There’s a touch of toughness and a certain androgyny (Marlene Dietrich liked a good cuff) that speaks of today’s assertive femininity, yet highlights a sense of something secret and precious, vulnerable even.  

Shaun Leane, who took on the role of jewellery design consultant for Asprey last year, agrees that the cuff speaks volumes about a woman’s personal style. It has, he says, always been his favourite form of jewellery, both the starting point and the pièce de resistance of every collection he creates. “The cuff provides the perfect canvas: it can be dramatic, strong, armouristic, or it can be delicate, emphasising the fragility of the wrist – a very beautiful part of the body to work with.” For Asprey, he has created a fine emerald fern design (£150,000), which resembles a glittering forest undergrowth, part of the jeweller’s British Fern collection. For his own-brand ranges, he moves between fierce and tribal in the gilt Bound series (cuff, £2,150) and romantic for the Blackthorn range (cuffs from £2,000).

The re-emergence of the jewelled statement cuff this winter brings together the season’s two themes of modernism and opulence. It’s the perfect complement and counterpoint to streamlined, 1970s-inspired fashion that is epitomised by Elsa Peretti’s signature design classic, originally created some 40 years ago: the organic Bone cuff, in silver (from £670) or gold (from £6,975) – sleek yet sensual. Or by Hermès’ iconic locked cuffs (from £320). The brand’s original Collier de Chien design (from £810), also launched in the 1970s, was inspired by Emile Hermès’ collection of hunting-dog collars, the central motif a softened pyramid-shaped stud, or “Russian cabochon”. Its Kelly cuff, adapted from the famous bag clasp, classic in leather (from £320), now comes in shiny, polished silver (£2,380), or slinky, rose-gold Milanese knitted mesh (£40,095), imprinted with a crocodile-skin texture. The Memoire, meanwhile, adapts this theme into a more fluid silver design (£1,470).  

But perhaps a pair of cuffs is the way to go this Christmas: Carmen Busquet, founder of CoutureLab, always wears two, and likes them bold and striking: “They are either the same or asymmetric, but always one on each arm. I even make sure my sleeves are tailored to be shorter for them, particularly my tuxedo jackets,” she explains. Not surprisingly, CoutureLab boasts a striking selection – from plump ebony and gem-encrusted versions by Pietra Dura, handmade in recycled gold (from £13,159), through modernist gilt armlets by Aurélie Bidermann – the Aztec-flavoured Machu Picchu (from £605) or tribal, cage-like Esteban (£440 each).

Julia Muggenburg, the designer behind Belmacz, known for her huge hand-carved wooden bangles (from £180), also advocates wearing a pair for maximum impact, but feels the cuff should be crisp and geometric, rather than organic. “It is incredibly graphic; an urban jewel, very Parisian or New York. It’s constrained and reserved, moving away from the loose and luscious towards something more proper. It provokes a certain frisson, as if there’s a secret, something more to come. A beautiful shackle.” Her 24ct-gold Tevas (£24,800) is a smooth circle, showing the inimitable Belmacz blend of tribal and the sophisticated; its Nureyev (from £6,180) is hand-carved from rock crystal – pure and icy, a perfect winter jewel.

The warm sheen of gold on the wrist is particularly alluring at this time of year: whether textured, matt or polished, it moulds to the skin – sensually tactile yet strong. Take Pomellato’s Sirene cuff (£26,980), plump with overlapping mermaid scales; or its Cocco version, engraved like crocodile skin, that envelops the wrist in butter yellow (£11,300) or rose gold, edged with brown diamonds (£14,170). At Dior Fine Jewellery, the gold cuff is central to the My Dior collection, which translates the brand’s signature “cannage” of the salon chairs into intricately woven, luscious, straw-pale matt gold (£18,000). While Roberto Coin curls a lazy crocodile on a bark-like gold cuff (price on request) or, in his newest Bollicine collection, twirls fine gold wirework into open bubbles, glinting with diamonds or white enamel.

The extravagant attention-seeking expanse of the cuff is also inviting lavish displays of rare and precious gemstones. Bulgari’s two deep, gem-set examples – among the most dazzling highlights at this year’s Paris Biennale – capture the mood to perfection. Their ancient Greek and Roman references conjure up a charioteer’s wristbands, yet the cuffs stay true to the brand’s inimitable sense of architectural line and audacious colour. One is in rose gold, one in yellow, both are designed with row upon row of specially cut turquoise and triangular pavé diamond elements, between which are lined riotously coloured gem beads, in rich Mediterranean tones; hundreds of carats of deep berry tourmalines, garnets, amethysts, rubellites, highlighted with yet more diamonds. Each is tied with a gem-bead tassel.  

At Graff, a series of one-of-a-kind high-jewellery cuffs (from £100,000) unveil a new design-driven direction for this most classical of jewellers, in response to a demand from clients for dramatic “wrist embellishment”. Its designers worked closely with the goldsmiths and gem-setters to engineer a sculpture for the arm that is comfortable, easy to put on and take off, and that scintillates from every angle. Unusually for Graff, the cuffs showcase both diamonds and important coloured stones, such as rare sapphires. Complex and lace-like, these designs are created by different cuts and shapes of gems, intermingling one pattern of white diamonds with another of coloured stones, or yellow diamonds, to create dynamism and fluidity. One creation, hot off the workbench, traces a ribbon and petal design in sapphires, among a lively scheme of round and pear-shaped white diamonds, edged with diamond rondelles (price on request); another centres on a magnificent 38.03 carat pear-shaped yellow diamond and works arabesques and floral traceries to give the impression of a lace cuff (price on request).  

A stunningly original example is at the core of Boucheron’s ingeniously engineered Perle au Trésor, in its L’Artisan du Rêve high-jewellery collection. At first sight, this is a ball, or perle, crafted from a mosaic of inlaid mother-of-pearl, opal and diamonds, on a rock-crystal stand. Push a raised diamond, though, and the sphere springs open, James-Bond style, to reveal a small bag containing an opal-bead necklace, and transforms into two brooches and an opalescent, domed cuff (price on request).

At Moussaieff, with its store of some of the most creative and audacious high jewellery in town, cuffs are impressive vehicles for both design and rare, precious stones, such as star sapphires. The newest pieces come as a slender band with a huge circular boss, set with rubies and spinels, or sapphires embedded in mother-of-pearl that cover the wrist like a precious prom corsage,  (all prices on request).

In Chanel’s superb 80th-anniversary collection, Mademoiselle’s favourite cuff, that so complemented her studied simplicity, is reincarnated in sand-blasted titanium and white gold and set with a night sky of diamond celestial emblems (£159,675). At Chopard, creative director Caroline Scheufele believes that the cuff, like the hoop earring, is always in fashion. For this year’s Red Carpet collection, she, too, used titanium to bring a lightness to voluminous openwork pieces, designed as lilting stems, leaves and flowers, paved in rubies, sapphires, tsavorites or diamonds.

A pioneer of contemporary Italian jewellery, Damiani, meanwhile, plays up the glamour and sexy connotations of the cuff in its new high-jewellery collection. This features the Peacock in gold, sapphires and emeralds (£161,167), alongside burlesque corset-inspired creations in white diamonds, or racy black diamonds and rubies (£101,818); its Décor bracelet sweeps giant swirls of diamonds across the wrist onto the arm and the hand (£52,945).

Taipei-based art jeweller, Cindy Chao, has made her name with extravagantly exuberant cuffs, especially the sculptural, pavé gem-set Equinox ($960,000) and Solstice ($580,000) from her Four Seasons collection of one-of-a-kind masterpieces. The daughter of a sculptor and granddaughter of a revered Chinese architect, she fashions the models for each piece herself, to achieve, with Solstice, the organic flow and flounce of soft spring flowers in candy pink and sun yellow sapphires and coloured diamonds. While, in Equinox, she creates the look of thick undulating drifts of winter snow through which burst optimistic green bamboo shoots of sugar-loaf cabochon emeralds. The theme continues with an autumnal design, due for completion this Christmas, featuring a cuff of burnished bronze, curling maple leaves (about $1m).  

There is a cuff for all seasons, for fashion, high drama or high jewellery. From ebony and diamonds at Sotheby’s Diamonds (from $50,000), to the high-voltage pair of Rebel Victory cuffs (from £4,750), in rose gold, half set with upside down diamonds, half with shockingly beautiful gold spikes, like electrical peaks, made by rebellious artist‑jeweller Jasmine Alexander. She always wears her deep leather Instinct cuff, with lion’s fur in sculpted silver and claw in rose gold (£1,550), that makes her feel like a warrior: “From the moment you adorn yourself with a cuff, you feel elevated, a sense of power, ready for the battle engaged everyday.”

See also

Bangles, Cuffs, Bracelets