Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Linking the Past With the Present

QUESTION:  I purchased a pair of antique finger pronged cufflinks stamped, "Pat. 2 Dec. 1884" a while back on eBay. Can you tell me more about these cuff links?  The cuff links are finger pronged and clearly marked on the back, "Pat. 2nd Dec 84" although there’s no brand name. I did some research and found out that finger prongs first came into style in 1885, so I presume the date is 1884. I also wonder about the carnelian. If it’s not stone, could it be molded glass?

ANSWER:  Cufflinks are one of the few accepted items in a limited line of men’s jewelry. No other collectible causes such an array of reactions. And this is precisely why so many people collect cuff links. Other reasons are their relatively inexpensive cost, easy storage, and availability. A search through virtually any antiquing site attests to the seemingly endless styles, shapes and designs produced in the last 200 years.

Cufflinks, which are small, and spend most of their lives under coat sleeves or in drawers, are  pieces of adornment which have much to say about society and about the individual who wears them. They mirror the fashions, the economy, the manufacturing and the art of their era, usually  larger and more colorful in good times, smaller and more conservative in bad times.

Cuff links originated long ago as removable buttons for shirts and jackets. When buttons became mass-produced and cheap enough to sew onto the material itself, men used these little studs only at the cuffs. The variety of cufflinks increased dramatically with mass production techniques. Of course, the need for cufflinks increased, too. Every member of the peerage, as well as every business man who wanted to socialize in high society, had to wear "tails" at every dinner party and evening activity. And tails required a shirt with French cuffs.

The earliest cuff links date from the same period as the cuff-fastening slit. Handmade of various metals, usually gold and silver, and set with gemstones, they became a luxury for the wealthy.

Hand-casting and other manual jewelry-making techniques continued until 1840 to 1870 when three mechanical developments—the tour a’guilloche machine, the steam driven stamping machine, and electro metallurgy—opened up men’s jewelry to a much wider clientele. The French or double-cuff shirt sleeve also became a popular fashion accessory in the 1840s.

After 1840, cufflinks were affordable. Victorian lucky charms, hearts, flowers, love birds, ivy, love knots, angels, snakes, even babies found their way to cufflinks of the era. As did the horseshoe. Horse racing was a passion of Edward, Prince of Wales and many commoners apparently liked the idea of linking themselves and their shirt sleeves to royalty through this symbol.  Cufflink makers employed free-flowing whiplash lines, organic motifs and stunning, romantic feminine figures and faces during the Art Nouveau period.

The publication of Alexander Dumas’ novel The Three Musketeers in 1844 stimulated this new elegant touch in fashion, as detailed descriptions of the turned-back sleeves of the men guarding King Louis XIII inspired European designers to modify the single cuffed, link-holed shirtsleeve that had been the mainstay of English fashion since 1824.

The English middle class adopted cuff links during the reign of George IV, toward the end of the Industrial Revolution. Unable to afford gemstones, they turned to replicas of the real thing. Designers used “rhinestones” and pastes to represent diamonds, pinchbeck, a copper and zinc alloy, as a substitute for gold, and cut steel and marcasite as a substitute for silver.

Late Georgian and Victorian jewelers favored a rose or flat cut for real or fake gemstones. They typically used foil or paste, a type of leaded glass, for backings.

Reverse intaglio was also a popular way of embellishing 19th century cuff links. After carving a figure or scene in great detail into the back of a cabochon crystal, an artisan would carefully fill in the work with paint and apply a mother of pearl backing. Manufacturers used this elegant process almost exclusively for jewelry worn by men.

Cuff link makers used this same process to carve designs, often of classical gods, into carnelian, a brownish-red mineral, which gets its deep rust color from impurities of iron oxide in the silica mineral chalcedony, commonly found in Brazil, India, Siberia, and Germany. Used as a semi-precious gemstone, its color can vary greatly, ranging from pale orange to an intense dark rust.

Men favored enameled cuff links during the late Georgian period, but it was during the Art Deco period that enamels reached their peak of popularity. Metal decorated with baked enamel— colored lumps of glass ground into a powder with a mortar and pestle—has been an art form since the 13th century.

Manufacturers of the 1950s arid 60's frequently marketed cuff links in a series, for example pairs featuring cars, sports themes, and so on. Various caricature cuff links, images of sports, political and theatrical celebrities were also popular during that time. One interesting category of cuff link is the "do-ers" category. As. the name implies, cuff links in this category do something in addition to fastening. Nail clippers, thermometers, music boxes, and watches have all been built into the links.

But the front design on cuff links is only have of the story. Fasteners on the backs have their own intriguing history. Late Georgian fastening devices featured wire loops, curb chains and string. Makers introduced the dumbbell form earlier in the mid-Georgian period in the late 18th century. Small and in one solid piece, craftsmen carved the dumbbell from ivory in the early part of the 19th century and by mid-century, from pearl. Carved dumbbells had a slightly curved shank. They looked like exercise weights whose ends were too heavy for the bar. Dumbbells of glass, coral, gold, gold plate and various hard stones became fashionable by the 1890s.

A metal button fastener, circa 1880, looked like an oversized shirt stud. Another, the "one-piece link" from the 1890s, continues to be produced today. It has a metal face, slightly curved fastening device and a metal oval to hold it fast to the inside of the cuff.

The patent, dated 1884 on the back of these cuff links, most likely refers to the closing mechanism. By that time celluloid collars and cuffs were popular. And since they were stiff, cufflinks with that mechanism would have been very compatible.

Generally, cuff links backs can be classified into the following groups: Flipbacks are turn-of-the-20th-century on English and Scandinavian ones; chain-backs are 18th, 19th, and 20th century until the 1920s and usually look like a big “S” or a figure; spring-backs date from the 1930s, 1940s, and later. All Swank cufflinks feature this sort of clasp.

As far as brands go, cuff link manufacturers didn’t begin to mark there products until somewhat into the 20th century.

Many collectors tend to specialize in cuff links from a particular era such as Art Deco, Victorian, or contemporary. Some prefer to concentrate on a theme like animals, sports or automobiles, while others look for novelty pairs incorporating watches, music boxes or other devices. With so many styles to choose from, most collectors concentrate on one particular type. Some look for a particular material, like silver, Bakelite, wood or brass, while others look for military issue, fraternal emblems or a particular era. Still others search for unique fastening devices like snaps or springs.

For more information, go to Button Down a Collection of Antique Cuff Links .


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