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Cuff 101: History of an Iconic Accent

Mimi O’Connor

It’s no accident that the cuff bracelet has adorned the wrists of some of the most compelling and beautiful women throughout history. (Not to mention being the bangle of choice for more than a few fictional female powerhouses. Think Wonder Woman and her formidable “Bracelets of Submission”; Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom, courage, and inspiration, and more recently, Game of Thrones’ resident Khaleesi and badass, Daenerys Targaryen.)

The cuff style, typically characterized as a rigid, open bracelet that slips over the wrist or arm, or one of significant width (indeed, some are both) can be traced back thousands of years, making appearances in ancient cultures worldwide, from Asia to Africa, Europe to the Americas.

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The Egyptians fancied the cuff, often decorating it with precious stones and inscribing the inside with hieroglyphs. (It’s not uncommon to see depictions of both legendary Egyptian queens Nefertiti and Cleopatra sporting a gold cuff or two.) Mayan kings wore metal cuffs to signify rank and family, while in China, circa 2000 B.C., intricately carved cuffs of jade were highly prized. In ancient Greece, cuffs made appearances on both the lower and upper arms, and Greek soldiers employed cuffs of leather and metal for decorative as well as protective purposes; similar cuff stylings by the elite and the military would later be seen in ancient Rome.

The good news is you don’t have to be royalty or going to war to pull off this impressively pedigreed style. (Although we can’t promise you won’t feel kind of fierce — that sort of goes with the cuff territory.)

Case in point: the cuff evangelists of the 20th century — women of style, wit, and a point of view.

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The Coco Chanel classic cuff look

The creator of one of the most iconic and coveted cuffs, Coco Chanel, designed her instantly recognizable Maltese Cross cuffs with Italian jeweler Duke Fulco di Verdura in 1936. Chanel was routinely photographed wearing her creations — identical pieces on both wrists — and the design is still available today. (Fashion maven Sofia Coppola is a fan.)

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Diana Vreeland on the cover of New York Magazine in her beloved cuff bracelets

Another lady devoted to her cuffs was legendary 1960s Vogue editor and writer Diana Vreeland, who owned not only a pair of Venduras, but many others, and was rarely photographed without a pair of the dramatic bands encircling her wrists.

In the 70s, style icon Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, AKA Jackie O, sent cuffs sales soaring after wearing hand-hammered gold cuffs by Van Cleef & Arpels to an RFK Tennis Tournament Party. (In yet another “cuff seen ‘round the world” moment, a photo from the event captures her interlocking hands with none other than fellow legend Muhammad Ali.)

A true champion of the form, Onassis turned the spotlight on the cuff once again in 1989, when she paired a little black dress with a golden Ben-Amun creation at the inaugural John Kennedy Profile in Courage Award Charity Gala. (Sotheby’s later sold the cuff she wore for $299,000.)

Cuffs can be big and bold, or slim and delicate. They can be worn alone, doubled up for instant invincibility — or stacked three- and four-high for extra shimmer and impact. The question isn’t really if you should wear a cuff: it’s what kind, how — and how many?

Go ahead. You’re in good company.