Although cufflinks were invented in the 1600s, they did not become popular until the end of the 18th century. Their evolution is strongly tied to the evolution of the men's shirt. Since the introduction of woven fabric 5,000 years ago, men have worn shirt-like garments. As styles and manufacturing methods evolved, the core form remained consistent: a tunic with a front opening, sleeves, and a collar. The shirt was worn adjacent to the skin and was washable, protecting the outer clothing from contact with the body. By covering the neck and wrists, it also shielded the flesh from the rougher and heavier textiles of jackets and coats.
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 the 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, while 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.
The old splendor of the nobility was surpassed in the nineteenth century by the bourgeois efficiency of the emerging employed classes. Men wore a relatively standard wardrobe from then on: a black suit during the day, a dinner jacket, or a tailcoat at night. Modern cufflinks became fashionable by the middle of the nineteenth century. The shirt front, as well as the collar and cuffs covering the most worn regions, were strengthened. This was utilitarian, but collars and cuffs emphasized the formal nature of the clothing when clean and starched. They may, however, be too stiff to secure the cuffs with a single button. As a result, men in the middle and upper classes began to wear cufflinks in the mid-19th century. 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 trend lasted throughout the early 1900s, with more men wearing cufflinks than ever before. They were available in every shape, color, and material, with both jewels and less costly stones and glass in less expensive versions. Cufflinks with intricately colored enameled patterns in every possible geometric pattern were very popular. As Coco Chanel had made fashion jewelry acceptable to wear, all of these were of comparable value. In parallel evolution, a sportier form of shirt with unstarched cuffs that could be secured with simple buttons arose.
Over the same period, this spread to Europe. Idar-Oberstein and Pforzheim were important cufflink-producing centers in Germany. While Idar-Oberstein cufflinks were made with cheap materials for a lower budget, Pforzheim jewelry manufacturers used genuine gold and silver for the medium and upper segments. Premium cufflinks are still made in Pforzheim, some with ancient patterns, others with current patterns, and all with traditional skills.
Following the end of WWII shortages, a gentleman liked to adorn himself with a wide range of accessories, including cigarette case, lighter, tie pin or tie bar, watch (now worn mostly on the wrist instead of the pocket), ring, key chain, money clip, and so on, 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 more or less continued to this day.