When London-based interior designer Broosk Saib received his first pair of cufflinks, he came close to tears. It wasn’t that he was overcome with emotion at their beauty; rather that he was hoping for a toy. “I was six years old and these silver and amber cufflinks were a gift from an aunt,” he recalls. “I’ll never forget how disappointed I felt.” Fast forward 50 years, however, and Saib has amassed more than 60 pairs. “Rarely a day passes when I don’t put some on,” he says, adding that his favourites are made from two 2,300-year-old silver coins depicting Alexander the Great. “I am always on the look-out for new pairs, usually in markets such as Portobello Road and Bermondsey, or around the small jewellery shops in Burlington Arcade.”
One such jeweller is Michael Rose, who has been selling vintage cufflinks since first setting up shop in 1980. His current stock ranges from discreet classics (c1940s Cartier ribbed-gold stirrup-style cufflinks, £3,950) to flamboyant jewels (c1920 jockey-cap gold, coral and pearl cufflinks, £4,995), and includes a distinctive torpedo-shaped art-deco-style pair of silver links (£345) inlaid with mother-of-pearl and lapis lazuli, as well as 1940s-style gold bar links (£1,695) with octagonal motifs in onyx and enamel. “Our most typical customers are high-level businessmen who want well-made cufflinks and appreciate their craftsmanship,” says Rose, whose workshop offers a rare repair service and can replicate lost vintage links.
The history of cufflinks dates back to the 17th century, according to Susan Jonas and Marilyn Nissenson’s fascinating tome, Cuff Links, but it wasn’t until the mid- to late 18th century that their popularity took off, fuelled in the 1850s by the evolution of the double or “French” cuff. By then, the almost endless potential of cuff adornment was being thoroughly explored – from portraits of newlywed couples (husband on one sleeve, wife on the other) to depictions of sporting pastimes. The dawn of the motor car brought with it a glut of new designs, while art deco examples are sought after for their geometric enamel patterns and precious stones.
The early 20th century was also a golden era for cufflinks made by celebrated jewellery houses such as Cartier, Tiffany & Co, and Van Cleef & Arpels, as well as famed designers such as René Lalique. A c1910 gold pair (£25,200) stamped by Lalique and modelled as coiled snakes are being offered by London jeweller Wartski, alongside a c1935 Boucheron pair (£14,400) of lapis lazuli and diamond pyramids, a diamond-set platinum c1925 Chaumet set (£14,400), and an intriguing, unsigned French-made pair (£5,000) from c1900 featuring gold masks of good and evil.
Among Wartski’s most enthusiastic cufflink-collecting customers is a prominent investment banker and philanthropist. “Cufflinks are one of the few things men can wear to express personality and style. They individualise an otherwise boring business uniform,” says the collector, whose cufflink cache runs into the hundreds and includes two pairs of Fabergé cufflinks sourced from Wartski that were made for Tsar Nicholas II, as well as artist-made pieces by Alexander Calder and Andy Warhol. “I also have a beautiful pair featuring micro mosaics of papal bees that were actually given to me by a previous Pope, as well as a pair depicting elephants made by the New York jeweller David Webb for Cary Grant,” he says.
Vintage gems can also be sought out in London at Piccadilly Vaults – whose stock encompasses diamond-studded-gold c1920s Cartier semicircles (£6,250) and architectural 1950s French cufflinks (£1,800) in textured gold and lapis lazuli – and Berganza, which currently has versions by Cartier (c1968 circular plaques, £4,500, with a relief design of the Mirage prototype fighter jet), Tiffany & Co (c1950 gold and sapphire rectangles, £3,000, with sunburst engraving) and a fetching c1960s pair (£1,500) with spheres and lozenges in hammered gold. Meanwhile, auction houses such as Bonhams, Christie’s and Sotheby’s all feature high-quality cufflinks in their sales. “There is a strong demand for cufflinks of all types, especially those made and signed by the big-name jewellers,” says Sotheby’s London head of jewellery Kristian Spofforth. “They were at the vanguard of jewellery design during the early 20th century, with Cartier among the first to make cufflinks using invisibly set diamonds or rubies. A ruby pair can easily fetch between £10,000 and £15,000. A recent highlight was a lot of four early-20th-century pairs offered among the royal jewels from the Bourbon-Parma family. They fetched SFr12,500 [about £9,800], over a SFr2,000-SFr4,000 estimate [about £1,570-£3,140].”
It is rare to find sales dedicated to cufflinks, but last October Sotheby’s Milan did just that with an online auction entitled The Gentleman’s Edit. The 132 lots fetched a total of €238,063 and featured examples by Cartier, Bulgari and David Webb, whose green enamel frogs sold for €4,750, while a pair of gold Formula One cars from Vancouver jewellery house Stittgen made €2,250. None of them, however, could boast quite the quality and provenance as the pair of cufflinks sold by Sotheby’s for £115,250 in 2010. They formed part of a diamond dress suite given to Edward VIII in May 1935 by Wallis Simpson, who had the bars of each cufflink engraved with their respective names. One of the accompanying dress buttons carried the apposite instruction “hold tight” – a prediction of the turbulence that was to come with Edward’s abdication in 1936, and a delightful example of sartorial trappings with historical significance.