What are Cufflinks?
Cufflinks are items of jewelry that are used to secure the cuffs of dress shirts. Cufflinks can be manufactured from a variety of different materials, such as glass, stone, leather, metal, precious metal or combinations of these. Securing of the cufflinks is usually achieved via toggles or reverses based on the design of the front section, which can be folded into position. There are also variants with chains or a rigid, bent rear section. The front sections of the cufflinks can be decorated with gemstones, inlays, inset material or enamel and designed in two or three-dimensional form.
Cufflinks are designed only for use with shirts which have cuffs with buttonholes on both sides but no buttons. These may be either single or double-length ("French") cuffs, and may be worn either "kissing", with both edges pointing outward, or "barrel-style", with one edge pointing outward and the other one inward so that its hem is overlapped. In the US, the "barrel-style" was popularized by a famous 19th-century entertainer and clown, Dan Rice; however, "kissing" cuffs are usually preferred.
They’re an alternative to the buttons that are commonly sewn onto shirt cuffs. The defining feature is that cufflinks are separate objects: sew it onto the shirt and it’s a button, but if it’s fully removable it’s a cufflink.
Just like buttons, cufflinks come in many shapes, sizes, styles, and materials. They usually offer a little more contrast than a button, and are considered a more ornamental option, but they’re not inherently more or less formal.
History of Cufflinks
Although the first cufflinks appeared in the 1600s, they did not become common until the end of the 18th century. Their development is closely related to that of the men's shirt. Men have been wearing shirt-like items of clothing since the invention of woven fabric 5,000 years BC. Although styles and methods of manufacturing changed, the underlying form remained the same: a tunic opened to the front with sleeves and collar.
The shirt was worn directly next to the skin, it was washable and thereby protected the outer garments from contact with the body. Conversely, it also protected the skin against the rougher and heavier fabrics of jackets and coats by covering the neck and wrists.
After the Middle Ages the visible areas of the shirt (neck, chest and wrists) became sites of decorative elements such as frills, ruffs and embroidery. The cuffs were held together with ribbons, as were collars, an early precursor of neckties. Frills that hung down over the wrist were worn at court and other formal settings until the end of the 18th century, whilst in the everyday shirts of the time the sleeves ended with a simple ribbon or were secured with a button or a connected pair of buttons.
In the 19th century the former splendor of the aristocracy was superseded by the bourgeois efficiency of the new employed classes. From then onward men wore a highly conventional wardrobe: a dark suit by day, a dinner jacket or tailcoat in the evening. By the middle of the 19th century the modern cufflink became popular.
The shirt front as well as collar and cuffs covering areas of the most wear were made sturdier. This was practical but when clean and starched, collars and cuffs underscored the formal character of the clothing. However, they could be too stiff to secure the cuffs with a simple button. Therefore, from the mid-19th century onward men in the middle and upper classes wore cufflinks. The industrial revolution meant that these could be mass-produced, making them available in every price category.
Colored cufflinks made from gemstones were initially only worn by men with a great deal of self-confidence, however. This situation changed when the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, popularized colorful Fabergé cufflinks in the 19th century. During this time cufflinks became fashion accessories and one of the few acceptable items of jewelry for men in Britain and the U.S.
This development continued into the early 1900s, with more cufflinks worn than ever before. These were available in every type of form, color and material, incorporating both gemstones and less precious stones and glass in cheaper copies. Intricate colored enameled cufflinks in every conceivable geometric pattern were especially popular. All of these were of equal value, as Coco Chanel had made fashion jewelry acceptable to wear. In a parallel development, however, a sportier style of shirt emerged with unstarched cuffs that could be secured with simple buttons.
This spread to Europe as well over the same period. In Germany, Idar-Oberstein and Pforzheim were key centers of cufflink production. Whilst in Idar-Oberstein cufflinks were produced using simple materials for the more modest budget, the Pforzheim jewelry manufacturers produced for the medium and upper segments using genuine gold and silver. In Pforzheim premium cufflinks are still produced today, some of them to historic patterns, some modern, all of them using traditional craftsmanship.
Following the end of shortages related to the Second World War, into the 1950s a gentleman liked to adorn himself with a whole range of accessories, comprising items such as cigarette case, lighter, tie pin or tie bar, watch (now worn mostly on the wrist instead of the pocket), ring, key chain, money clip, etc., an ensemble that also included a wide range of cufflinks.
In the 1970s cufflinks were less emphasized in much of middle class fashion. Fashion was dominated by the Woodstock generation, with shirts primarily manufactured complete with buttons and buttonholes. Many fine heirlooms were reworked into earrings.
The 1980s saw a return to traditional cufflinks, as part of a general revival in traditional male dress. This trend has continued to this day.
How Cufflinks Works
A cufflink fastens a shirt by sliding through holes on either side of the cuff opening, then swinging into a locked or fixed position to hold the sides together. The most common cufflink consists of a large head or “insert member” with a decorative front face, a post that extends from the back of the head, and a hinged toggle that swings out from the post to fasten the link.
These are fastened by setting the toggle in its closed position, so that there is a straight post descending from the underside of the head. The post slides through the holes on both sides of the cuffs, and then the toggle is swung outward to prevent the post from sliding back out. That holds the cufflink in place, with the front face of the insert member placed decoratively atop the buttonholes.
Though most often made from nickel or gold, cufflinks nowadays can be made from a wide assortment of materials. The most common ones are listed below, but if you need more of a primer on materials used for men’s jewelry, look at our jewelry guide.
- Carbon Fiber: Strong material with a silver surface that’s easily colored during manufacturing. Very popular in modern, all-metal cufflinks.
- Crystal: If you’re into cufflinks with some sparkle, crystal is a common choice. Note that crystal is available in colors besides what we know as crystal, such as black.
- Enamel: Made of fused, powdered glass, enamel cufflinks have a colored or black gloss atop a metal surface.
- Venetian-glass-cufflinks Glass: Typically, on the more casual end of the spectrum, glass links are available in a multitude of colors and are often very affordable.
- Gold: A classic material for cufflinks. Quite dressy, best for C-level businessmen and formal events.
- Gunmetal: A darker metal that’s an alloy of zinc, tin, and copper. Makes for a contemporary, masculine look.
- Mother-of-Pearl: A glossy material that comes from seashells, mother-of-pearl is often used for buttons on high-end dress shirts. As a cufflink, it’s a great dressy option and works well for formal events.
- Onyx: A black stone, onyx is best for formal cufflinks.
- Gemstones: They had their heyday in the mid-twentieth century, but cufflinks made with gemstones like diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and other such jewels are available. Note that when the stones reach a certain size, they go from elegant to gauche quickly. You’ll know it when you see it.
- Rose Gold: A more contemporary metal that’s an alloy of copper and gold, it’s a reddish-pinkish metal.
- Silk: Limited to knots, silk cufflinks are inexpensive and informal.
- Stainless Steel: An affordable, practical cufflink, stainless steel links are great for everyday business wear.
- Sterling Silver: Essentially a brighter, shinier, more expensive version of stainless steel.
- Titanium: A highly durable, greyish metal, titanium makes for a more subdued cufflink than silver or gold. Its durability lends itself well to engraving and etching.
Types of Cufflinks
There are dozens of variations on the basic theme of the hinged cufflink, and several other mechanical alternatives as well. Here are some of the most common types of cufflinks:
- Whale Back Cufflinks have a flat head, a straight post, and a “whale tail” that flips completely flat against the post. They are very simple, and their large post and closing mechanism make them easy to use. This is probably the most common type of cufflink on the market.
- Bullet Back Cufflinks are quite like whale tail cufflinks, but the post is a hollow frame, and the closing mechanism is a narrow cylinder of metal that nests inside the frame. To lock the links in place, the cylinder is flipped outward, leaving the frame in place as the post.
- Stud or Button Style Cufflinks have no hinge mechanism. Instead, they have a large head, a straight post, and a smaller, interior head or backing. The smaller head is tilted, worked through the buttonhole, and then straightened out to lock it in place. Once in place, they are quite secure, and the lack of moving parts makes them very durable.
- Chain Link Cufflinks have two heads connected by a short length of fine chain. This creates a slightly looser fastening than other styles, with visible decoration on both sides of the closed buttonholes.
- Ball Return Cufflinks have a curved post with a small, heavy ball opposite the decorative head. They provide a slightly looser fastening than hinged cufflinks, but a slightly tighter one than chain. They can be expensive when made in precious metals, as the size and weight of the ball adds considerably to the material cost of the item.
- Locking Dual-Action Cufflinks use a hinge mechanism like the closure of a metal watch band. The entire post is the hinge: the cufflink swings open, the smaller end is slipped through the opening, and then the cufflink is swung shut once more, clipping the sides of the cuff together underneath the head. This is a contemporary style, and after a short learning curve is one of the easiest to use and most secure styles available. Want to grab a pair of quality locking cufflinks that I have personally tested and approve of?
- Knot Cufflinks are like chain link, with two heads connected by a short, flexible length, but they are made of soft cord (usually silk) rather than metal, and the heads are decorative knots. The irregular surface of the knotwork makes this a more casual style, particularly when multiple colors are involved.
- Fabric Cufflinks can be almost any fastener style but have a fabric “button” on top as the ornamental face. They are a deliberately casual style.
HOW TO WEAR CUFFLINKS AND STUDS
Cufflinks and Studs are generally worn with most formal shirts and may also be referred to as “formal jewelry”. They’re a great way to add personal style to any tuxedo, suit, or dress shirt.
Difference Between Cufflinks and Studs
A complete set of formal jewelry will include two cufflinks and four studs.
With your shirt on, pinch the cuffs of your sleeve together so that the insides of both sides of the shirt sleeve are pressed together.
Prepare your cufflink by rotating the clasp so the cufflink looks like a “T.” Insert the cufflink through both holes in the shirt’s cuff. The colored, decorative part of the cufflink should face the outside when your arm is at your side.
Depending on the cufflink style, you may need to secure the cufflink on the backside of the shirt’s cuff…
Bullet Back or Toggle Closure Style
The most common of all cufflink styles and the easiest to put on. This style has a bullet-shaped or narrow bar that is suspended between two posts. Prior to inserting it through the shirt’s sleeve holes, the bar should be flipped 90 degrees, so that it lines up with the posts. The bar is then flipped back to the horizontal position, securing the cufflink in place on the shirt (see photo below).
Fixed Backing Style
Fixed backings are an extension of the cufflink. This means that the cufflink post and backing are one solid piece and are affixed to the decorative side of the cufflink. The backing does not bend or move in any way. The rounded backing may be a bit harder to insert through the shirt’s holes, but the non-moving parts make it more resilient in the long run.
Look for the stud hole next to each pearl button on the front of your tuxedo shirt. Insert the front or decorative side of the stud through the stud hole starting from the inside of the shirt. You can ignore the pearl buttons found on your tuxedo shirt as they are not needed when wearing studs.
Then, with the stud acting as a button, feed it through the font button hole on the formal shirt. Once the stud is through, you should repeat the steps for all four studs. When you are finished, straighten the front of your shirt so it lays nicely.
Cufflink and Stud Styling
Although black is the traditional color for tuxedo jewelry, the color of your formal jewelry may vary depending on your choice of tuxedo or suit.
Cufflinks arrive as a pair and studs arrive as a set of four. Plan to wear both cufflinks. If you’re wearing a bow tie with your tuxedo or suit, you should wear all four studs.
However, if you choose to wear a Windsor tie and vest with your tuxedo or suit, you may choose to skip wearing the studs, since they won’t be visible under the Windsor tie. But do wear both cufflinks, always!
How to Wear Cufflinks & Pair them with Shirts, Suits & Ties
A lot of gentlemen are unsure what kind of cufflinks to wear with their outfit. Therefore in this guide, we will show you how to combine cuff links in your clothing, so you look dashing while at the same time you also have fun incorporating this accessory to your wardrobe.
Generally, cufflinks don’t pair well with suits, so I suggest you look at your shirts. Obviously, it depends on your personal taste. But to start, I think a plain white or light blue shirt works well because you can have all kinds of cufflinks on them. They can be contrasting, such as a green one, blue, red, yellow, basically anything that contrasts those colors will stand out.
Usually, your cuff links are hidden underneath your suit sleeve so if you have something contrasting, they show up when you move around sometimes and you can get a little glimpse of it which is nice.
Wear Contrasting Cufflinks with Solid Colored Shirts
If you have a solid white shirt, maybe a solid silver cufflink is not the best choice because it blends in. You can go with a gold cufflink so it’s slightly more contrasting or you just get something bolder in color. Diamonds for day wear are not really recommended because they are strictly reserved for evening wear. Usually, it’s a tacky thing to wear diamonds during the day, and it just shows that you don’t have style but a lot of money.
Create Contrast but Keep It Balanced
If you have a striped shirt, you can try to combine the color with the stripe. If it’s yellow, go with yellow. If it’s orange, go with orange. Brown with brown and so on. With the striped shirt, you also want to create contrast and depending on what kind of stripe it is. If it’s a very fine stripe, you may get away with a pair of solid cufflinks because there’s enough of a contrast, but it depends on the individual shirt.
Whether you choose a fixed bar cufflink, a chain cufflink, or a T-bar cufflink, ultimately, it does not matter. If you wear checked shirts, I suggest you keep it simple with your cufflinks and either go with a solid silver, solid gold, or solid rose gold, because checks are already busy and by adding another strong contrasting cufflink, it’s just over the top. The goal is to create some contrast but to keep it balanced and harmonious.
What Cufflinks to Wear for Black Tie and White Tie Events?
If you have a black-tie invitation and you wear your tuxedo, you wear a white shirt, and you should usually go with either a gold and black insert such as an abalone stone or dark mother of pearl. You can also go with onyx or hematite.
Traditionally for white tie, you’d wear either pearl studs or mother of pearl studs paired with matching mother of pearl cufflinks that are white gold or platinum on the outside. If you buy or rent a tuxedo you can go with gold or silver, it’s up to you. Black is the number one choice, but you can also go with semi-precious or precious stones in contrasting colors.
Coordinate Cufflinks with your Socks
Another great way to wear cufflinks is to coordinate them with your socks. If you have red or burgundy socks, you can go with a carnelian. If you have brown or blue socks, you can go with lapis lazuli or a tiger’s eye. If you have a pair of gray socks or charcoal socks, an onyx or hematite or abalone stone will work well. Basically, pick up a color in the socks and pair it with your cufflinks. It makes for a cool look and it’s coordinated, but it’s subtle and stylish.
Match Your Cufflinks with your Accessories
You can always match your cufflinks with your tie and your pocket square. Just like with socks. You want to ideally pick one of the colors and incorporate it into your outfits. For example, if the overall color palette of your outfit is warm such as orange and green, choose gold because it’s a warmer color. Silver is good with cooler colors such as blue or gray.
If you are daring, you can also try to combine a pocket square that matches your socks and your cufflinks but what you should avoid is having the same tie and pocket square because it just looks gaudy. Overall, pairing cufflinks is a lot easier than pairing pocket squares and ties.