amy azzaritopast & present

past & present: napkin ring + cuff link history + DIY

by Amy Azzarito

Image above: Various English sterling silver napkin rings, ca. 1883, 1910 and 1948, $150; Liberty head cuff links, $500; Destino cuff links, $300; 1920s Dragon’s Breath cuff links, $95; and 1920s Art Deco Greek key cuff links, $350

When Kate, Grace and I were in Brimfield last week, Kate and I found ourselves drawn to a boys’ club aesthetic. (Kate posted about all of our favorites here.) Kate liked the vintage sporting gear, and I became enamored by model airplanes and ships. (I’m still kicking myself for not springing for these planes.) But we both became captivated by cuff links and spent hours hunting through piles for the perfect pairs to bring home to some lucky boys (see all of our finds here). I must admit to being a little jealous of all the man jewelry, so during the car ride home, Kate and I brainstormed ways to utilize cuff links in home decor as napkin-ring closures. While Kate worked on the cuff-link napkin-ring project in Oakland, I delved into the history of both napkin rings and cuff links here in Brooklyn — a true bi-coastal collaboration! Don’t miss her project here! — Amy A.

Image above: Selection of six 19th-century Victorian napkin rings, $190

Before we talk about napkin rings, it seems only fitting to begin with the napkin. The first napkins were actually lumps of dough that the Spartans cut into small pieces and rolled and kneaded at the table. This evolved into actually using sliced bread to wipe hands. The Romans were civilized enough to use pieces of cloth — both large and small pieces. They reclined to eat, and a large piece of cloth called a mappa was spread over the edge of a couch to protect it from food. Each guest brought their own mappa to dinner, and afterward, the cloth would be filled with leftovers from the meal — the first doggy bags!

Cuff links and napkin rings come together in this fantastic project created by Kate! (And it doesn’t hurt that leather is in the mix — another favorite Brimfield trend!)

CLICK HERE for more napkin ring history + a super chic cuff-link napkin ring!

Image above: Russian enamel napkin ring, Christies lot estimate, $973–$1,298

During those uncouth Middle Ages, the napkin disappeared from the table, and diners wiped their hands and mouths on whatever was readily available — clothing, the back of the hand or a piece of bread. When the napkin reappeared, it took the form of a communal napkin that hung over the edge of the table. Then by the 16th century, the individual napkin became accepted as a component of refined dining. Once the fork took hold as the essential dining tool in the 18th century (see the history of the fork here), neatness became an important facet of dining etiquette.

Image above: Ethel napkin ring, $75

And napkin rings? Well, they are a relatively recent addition to tabletop accessories. The napkin ring appeared in the 19th century when, in order to save laundering time, napkins were enclosed in personal rings at family meals. After World War II and the advent of paper napkins, napkin rings became almost obsolete. But they’ve been rediscovered as an accessory to add a little pizazz to the table.

Image above: Assorted cuff links from Doyle & Doyle

And now that we’ve covered napkins and their rings, here’s just a wee bit about cuff links: Cuff links were invented by those oh-so-chic French. Prior to the reign of Louis XIV, in the 16th century, ruffled wristbands would be fitted with “cuff strings.” Simple strings would never be enough for Louis XIV — Louis preferred using diamond buttons to fasten his sleeves. (This was, after all, the King who created the mania for diamonds – one of his coats featured 125 diamond buttons, each fashioned from a single diamond. He even went so far as to wear diamonds on his shoes). For those who didn’t have access to the French treasury, glass buttons were another option.

In the 19th century, the practice of wearing cuff links became ubiquitous, and by the Victorian period, both cuff links and shirt studs were essential components of the gentleman’s wardrobe. (My favorite cuff link expert is Jesse Thorn, and I defer to him on the subject of cuff links and in all matters concerning a gentleman’s wardrobe.)


Like Amy, I’ve been gravitating towards objects and materials that fall under the menswear aesthetic lately. It might be partly due to the fact that everyone at Brimfield would ask us if the cuff links we were buying were intended for us, but I started to realize that cufflinks are actually a beautiful and useful accessory, good for so much more than just men’s shirt cuffs. These simple leather napkin rings can be connected two ways using the snap cuff link style, and if I had more cuff links I would love to create an entire mismatched set of napkin rings using different leathers. You can complete this project in just three steps, then keep them plain or embellish these as you see fit. Enjoy! —Kate


  • drill
  • awl or metal skewer
  • cuff links
  • scissors
  • sewing machine or needle and thread (optional)
  • scrap leather


1. Cut leather into strips that measure 2″ wide by 5″ long.

2. Overlap the leather by at least 1/4″ and use the awl to mark the center of the overlap with a dot. Use your drill to create a hole through both layers of the leather. Use your awl to push through both holes again to widen and clean the holes.

3. Fit your cuff links through the holes and check to see that they snap securely. For the snap version of cuff links, you should use very thin leather to ensure the links will snap shut. If you’re using chain or bar cuff links, you can use thicker leather if you wish.

4. You’re done! You can add sewn or embroidered designs or an illustrated design, as well. I like the simplicity of the plain leather, so I left them without embellishment.

Suggested For You


  • My dad is British, and grew up with engraved napkin rings. Everyone in my family had one, and when I got married they gave a lovely engraved antique one to my new husband. It was a classy welcome to the family!

  • Wow, I’ve never seen the snap kind of cufflink! In the early 90’s I went through a period of only wanting french cuff shirts so I could wear cufflinks – some from my grandpa. They’ve been in my jewelry box ever since.

  • An amazing DIY! I’ll definitely be trying this out. I see so many nice cuff links at thrift stores and never know what I would ever do with them. Now, I need to start stocking up on them…and perhaps some nice white leather!

  • Years ago, my mother gave me a gorgeous pair of Victorian woman’s gold cuff links. At the time, I had a shirt that required them. After the shirt became a rag, I had them made into earrings. Still one of my faves, and as my mother is gone, they make me think of her.

  • Love the napkin ring history- my mom collects sterling silver napkin rings and we always thought it was funny to be Ethel, Myrtle, Henry, Gertrude or whomever was engraved on the napkin ring where you sat. At Christmas, she decorates a tree with all of her sterling silver napkin rings – it is a fun way to show her collection all in one place!

  • As has been said above, it was once customary to have your own napkin ring. But what really amazed me as a kid was that this allowed the family to re-used their cloth napkins for more than one meal. How ‘green’ is that? Maybe it’s a custom we should consider reviving today.

  • Hi there! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept talking about this. I will forward this post to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read. Many thanks for sharing!

  • Have you ever considered writing an e-book or guest authoring on other blogs?
    I have a blog based on the same subjects you discuss and would really like to have you share some stories/information.
    I know my visitors would value your work. If you’re even remotely interested, feel free to shoot me an e-mail.

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