Cuff links make a comeback to go with conservative look

IF the 1960s were the height of ``anti-Establishment'' dress codes, the 1980s represent a return to a more conservative style. Moving right along with the trend is a surge in the popularity of cuff links -- many of which will be on display at the International Silver and Jewellery Fair at the Dorchester Hotel here from today through Feb. 3. Although cuff links never quite disappeared from the scene, current interest sees them as a final touch to a new ``dressy Establishment Look'' which also includes more colored French-cuffed shirts, pocket handerchiefs folded into breast pockets in multipoint effect, and sometimes even unusual stickpins.

It was, in fact, an unusual stickpin in the corner window of an old established jewelry and silver firm, Plante & Johnson at 11 Bury Street in St. James's, which caught the eye of exhibitor Paul Longmire in 1979. Within a week Mr. Longmire had purchased not only the stickpin but the entire business, where he continues the 70-year-old tradition of supplying the Royal Family, through Royal Warrants of Appointment, with presentation gifts in leather, silver, and gold.

Since he opened his shop six years ago with but three pairs of cuff links on hand, Longmire has become something of a specialist. He has his own workshops and teams of skilled craftsmen for making today's cuff links, many of them custom designed for individuals, companies, organizations, and American Ivy League colleges. These are made in 18-carat gold, silver, silver gilt, and gilded base metal, and the designs are put on by means of enameling or engraving. Prices range from about 75 ($100 US) to 1400 ($1,900 US), and sometimes even as high as 7500 ($10,000 US) and over when they are set with gem stones such as rubies and diamonds.

``Today,'' says Longmire, plucking numerous specimens out of trays, ``we always have between 500 and 600 pairs in stock, and we sell them all over the world.

``Seventy percent of those we display in our Edwardian shop windows are old ones, dating back to the heydey of cuff links from the 19th century up to the beginning of World War I, and again through the 1930s until the austerity dressing of World War II,'' explains the dealer who sells not only cuff links but other 19th- and 20th-century jewelry, as well as various ``portable antiques.''

Demands from clients vary widely, from those who want very personal cuff links decorated with family crests, clan tartans, and pictures of houses, grandchildren, and animals to those who want designs based on their polo playing, golfing, tennis playing, or racing colors.

``We have instant retrieval of almost 16,000 different armorial crests,'' says Longmire, ``and access to over 160,000 coats of arms through reference books in the company archives. We have also found the dies of some old Edwardian designs and are now making them in contemporary colors.'' The dealer himself was wearing regimental cuff links in 18-carat gold when we talked.

About 20 percent of the cuff links he sells are for use by women, he says, and all the designs that men like for their cuff links are also reproduced in brooches and pendants for women.

Some men are collectors of cuff links and own up to 100 pairs, changing them often. Some make do with one conventional and classic set, plain gold with their initials engraved. ``We sell a lot of full-dress sets for formal wear to men in the states. These consist of a pair of cuff links and three studs for the shirt and four buttons for the waistcoat,'' he explains.

Why the renewed interest in cuff links? ``Men have been neglected for a long while when it comes to jewelry,'' Longmire contends. ``A man doesn't necessarily want to affect a tiepin. There really isn't much room for the poor chap who loves to buy jewelry for his wife but doesn't see much opportunity to buy jewelry for himself that indicates something of his own character. As a man becomes a bit affluent, however, he soon discovers that cuff links can be an expression of his own individual taste and he begins to invest in jewelry for himself. For myself, I also enjoy mid-19th century stickpins because they are out of the ordinary and often have a sense of humor and a slighty quirky quality all their own.''

Meanwhile, inquiries on this side of the Atlantic indicate lively interest in cuff links in New York as well. Edward Munves, of James Robinson Inc. on 57th Street, explains that ``most of our men customers do not want to wear bracelets or necklaces but prefer the idea of cuff links for adding a bit of color and design to their dress. Certainly we are finding that executives are wearing far more cuff links now than before. Most of ours were made between 1890 and 1940, and prices range from about $400 to $1,200, with big jeweled ones bringing $3,000.''

Cuff links require double or French cuffs on shirts, but there is no shortage. Custom Shop Shirtmakers, with six stores in New York, offers, as always, a side range of shirts with French cuffs and announces that its own line of cuff links, old and new, is moving well. Brooks Brothers, that bastion of sartorial correctness, indicates it has had a strong season for basic colored all-cotton shirts with French cuffs, and a corresponding demand for cuff links, those set with onyx and lapis lazuli selling best.

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