For the cuff-link connoisseur there are certain emblems that trigger recognition and stir desire. Take Cartier, whose historic and distinctive 1920s Agrafe hook-and-eye design (third picture, £510), inspired by couture-dress fastenings, serves as insignia, while its ornate, iris-esque enamel and diamond cuff links (first picture, £6,550) provide a striking contrast. Hermès has its own cipher – a Chaîne d’Ancre, manifested in the plain silver (£410) or gold Marine (£2,590) and the lively lacquered Guernesey model (sixth picture, £325) in red and lime, which look great with darker shirts. Bulgari incorporates ancient coins into its creations, a Roman tradition that fits perfectly with the company’s aesthetic. Taking Phoenician, Roman or Greek coins, it adapts the mountings to embrace, rather than conceal, their imperfections. The Monete Antiche cuff links (fourth picture, £3,240) have a beautiful juxtaposition of metals. Equally striking but with a more contemporary aesthetic are the batons from Boucheron’s signature Quatre collection (second picture, £6,100), which are divided into sections of 18ct yellow, white, rose and chocolate gold. Then, of course, there are aficionados who deploy cuff links as neat vehicles for family or regimental crests.
But cuff links’ value goes beyond emblems. Their true raison d’être is style and adornment. They make a more intimate statement than a wristwatch – that other legitimate form of male jewellery – as people need to be up close and personal to appreciate them. Yet while cuff links hold so much potential as taste arbiters, it’s curious that so many are blokey and jokey. The propensity for propellers, dice, wheel nuts, Monopoly dogs and slogans could suggest men are unremittingly one-dimensional. Hard-edged, chunky designs are also out of step with the softer, more tactile direction of men’s suiting. The best examples channel a sensitivity or verve from past eras – especially the 1920s and 1930s.
Tiffany & Co’s Great Gatsby cuff links, 18ct gold ovals with green enamel and art-deco lettering (£3,900), are a tribute to this year’s film, but remain refined. Alternatively, clients can have their own monogram or crest engraved on its classic pieces in 18ct gold (£2,250) or engine-turned silver (£205). Longmire (founded in 1979 in response to the period’s huge demand for cuff links) also offers plain ovals that can be either engraved with initials and emblems (from £1,680), or hand-enamelled in colour with any image (from £4,000). Its classic spiral or basket-pattern pieces (from £2,500) in grey or green have a lovely, ageless appeal.
Few fashion-led brands seem to get cuff links right. With its antiqued-silver Intrecciato spheres (£460) and rock-crystal orbs (£420), Bottega Veneta is one exception. Lanvin is another; its aesthetic avoids the blocky and overly masculine, with rhodium-plated sculptural forms (about £177) and grey mother-of-pearl bars (about £211).
Dark, semiprecious materials set in gold feel particularly lavish and fit well with the rich, gutsy fabrics in current menswear collections. Texan jeweller Armenta takes inspiration from Old World Spain and her cuff links are characteristically unusual, such as gold pieces set with black diamonds (£1,910) and the Monk Intaglio pair (£2,640), which looks like ancient talismans pillaged from the Spanish Armada. Tateossian’s black mother-of-pearl cuff links with hand-twisted 18ct gold wire (£1,850) also tap into this opulent feel, while the bold impact of Chaumet’s ebony and gold cuff links (£3,250) is softened with gentle angles. Trianon’s navy shagreen and gold batons (fifth picture, £1,605) resonate with the retro-plush theme, as do its vintage-style citrine and garnet squares (£2,790).
While many men shy away from precious-gem-set jewellery, they often make an exception for special-occasion cuff links. Fabergé’s convey a typical sense of Russian flamboyance. Its lapis lazuli evening cuff links (£7,774) are spectacular, and the tiny Felix cigarette-case pair in diamonds and sapphires (£7,700) enchanting. I also admire Asprey’s gems, such as the otherworldly Bouton cuff links with sapphires (£5,250) and the smoky quartz and peridot pair (£1,875). Van Cleef & Arpels’ ruby Mystery-Set cuff links (price on request, made to order) look like diamond-flanked raspberry slices and exhibit the jeweller’s historical technical prowess.
Though one of the last vestiges of male adornment, cuff links do have a natural bedfellow. “When the dinner jacket was introduced in the 1880s, it became fashionable to own matching dress sets of studs and cuff links,” says jewellery historian and How To Spend It contributing editor Vivienne Becker. Dunhill’s Jet Stone cuff links in black PVD metal (£170) are overtly masculine with an interesting combination of materials – and the option of matching studs (£130).
Sotheby’s regularly auctions cuff links with elegant pedigrees and fascinating histories, and the antique fine-jewellery pieces fetch in excess of £3,000. In July, a number of cuff links and dress sets by Van Cleef & Arpels reached almost double their estimate. I asked Mayfair antique-jewellery dealer Sandra Cronan whether fine cuff links are an important market. “They’re definitely a serious part of our business, and all the collectors I know actually wear them; men who take great pride in their clothes and love good suits and shirts.” Cronan favours pre-1930s cuff links. “They have jewels that were not heated or treated, superior settings and exceptional workmanship. It’s key to understand those qualities in cuff links, even if they have no signature.” She currently has a stunning c1920s art-deco dress set for sale, consisting of cuff links (seventh picture), four buttons and three studs, all mounted with an onyx cabochon and diamonds set in platinum (£12,500). Other notable pieces include a 1925 platinum pair with cabochon sapphires, and some 1950s lapis lazuli batons with 18ct gold settings by Van Cleef & Arpels (prices on request).
“It’s often wives who request dress sets,” Cronan says. “We also make dress studs to go with existing cuff links, as we did recently for pianist Marielle Labèque, who commissioned a set for her husband, the conductor Semyon Bychkov.” Bychkov’s cuffs may receive more critical attention than most, but regardless of profession, a man’s style is enhanced no end by a sophisticated pair of cuff links.