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The Boston Phoenix Platinum for the People

Meet the new and improved luxury. It's about understatement. It's about connoisseurship. It's about value. It's about half again more expensive than the old luxury.

By Tom Scocca

AUGUST 24, 1998:  The day the Dow drops 300 points, I am at the wheel of a $346,000 Bentley Azure convertible, cruising down Route 9 in Natick. Actually, it's 299.43 points, and the car is $346,345. But the driver's seat of a Bentley is no place for niggling. The car, silver with a red leather interior, weighs three tons; it floats serenely, filling its lane, immune to the bumps and jolts of the road. From the passenger side, Paul Downey, the Rolls-Royce and Bentley sales manager at Foreign Motors West, urges me to give it some gas. Don't worry, he says -- it's well insured.

I mash down on the accelerator, which is huge and rectangular like the pedal on a church organ. The Bentley heaves ahead, all 6000 pounds of it, with a surge that goes -- this is a factual description -- right down to my loins. When I let up on the gas, it's going an effortless 60. It could go plenty faster.

I'm not used to this. My car, back on the customer lot at Foreign Motors West, is an '84 Honda Civic, lightweight and peppy. The Azure weighs as much as three Civics put together, but with an engine four times more powerful. It goes far beyond pep. It feels hungry underfoot. It's more than a matter of improved amenities (power steering, meat-locker-grade air conditioning) -- this is a completely different kind of vehicle, like an ocean liner or a 747.

The Azure is the most expensive car in Downey's stock of expensive cars. It is also his best-selling two-door this year. "The most expensive cars," he says, "are the ones that keep selling."

This is not just a quirk of the British-car business in Natick. The retail market right now is strong all over, but it's strongest at the top. Sales of luxury goods -- generally defined as the highest-priced items in a category -- are growing five or six times faster than the average for retail, according to Greg Furman, head of the New York-based Luxury Marketing Council. Scotty Dupree, editor of the luxury-marketing magazine Luxe, says that the majority of new automobile models have appeared at the high end, including new top-of-the-line Porsches, Jaguars, and Mercedeses. The same pattern of demand holds for a range of other big-ticket items: first-class airline seats are suddenly hard to come by; $150-a-night hotel suites in Miami Beach go empty while $600 ones are booked months in advance. At the Hermès store on Arlington Street in Boston, customers are spending more per purchase than ever before, and there's a six-month waiting list for Birken handbags, which run from $4000 to $8000.

"The luxury market has never been bigger or better," says Gary Walther, editor of Departures, a nine-year-old high-end lifestyle magazine published by American Express.

The key word here is better. The growth at the top of the top of the market is driven by what Furman calls a "concern with true value." After the wild spending of the '80s -- fueled, Furman says, by "raw wealth" -- high-end consumers are now interested in buying things that are not merely expensive, but tasteful, well-made, and crafted from precious materials.

This emphasis on quality has a way of getting right around the questions about inequality and hubris that have always shadowed ultraluxury spending. Since the end of this decade's recession, embarrassment about ostentation has been giving way to a pride in spending well. More Bentleys are moving off the lot now than in the wicked, go-go '80s, but this time around people are buying the Bentley not to show off, but because it's so massive and gorgeous and well-crafted. There's no ethical dimension to the decision at all. It's somehow sensible to buy one.

You can see this new vision of luxury on the magazine rack. The boom has its own popular press: alongside traditional upper-class lifestyle magazines such as Town and Country, there are even more upper-upper-class ones, which presuppose pretty much limitless spending power on the readers' part. The preeminent journal of the ultrarich, the Robb Report, is published in Acton. From its start in the late '70s as a Rolls-Royce sales flier, the Robb Report grew into a full-scale glossy magazine through the high times of the '80s, then lasted out this decade's recession into prosperity again. The magazine is a monument to the ingenious ways people have found to spend money: gourmet tequila, catamaran power yachts, an eco-conscious African hunting resort, suborbital space-plane rides.

The Robb Report has company. There's Millionaire, which first launched in 1987 and promptly sank into bankruptcy, only to bounce back during this decade. It has also revived its special edition, Billionaire -- which seems to be pitching itself a little below its ostensible audience. The most recent issue stooped to put mere deca- and hectomillionaires, including Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, on the cover. Then there's Departures, an ad-dense travel and leisure magazine that you can't even subscribe to -- it circulates only to American Express platinum-card holders.

As of last fall, there's even a magazine for people who sell things to the very rich: Luxe, introduced by Adweek to focus on the burgeoning luxury-marketing business.

There's so much to read on the subject of luxury right now because marketers have so much to tell. The magazines, with their detailed coverage of Rolls-Royce model debuts and bespoke tailors, reflect a new emphasis on making sure the high-end consumer is well informed about the quality, scarcity, and history that separate that high end from the mere middle.

"Luxury marketers realize that they have to be able to offer new and improved luxury," Luxe's Dupree says. The watchword of today is connoisseurship. People are looking, Greg Furman explains, for "the inherent craft and beauty or function of the thing that they're buying."

The '90s luxury consumer, in other words, is looking for something not just flashy, but distinguished. "The taste level is a lot higher today," says Departures' Walther. Shoppers prize the cachet of obscure or esoteric brands; they want, Dupree says, to be "educated about the product."

So an ad for a Breguet watch assures that "you will recognise [sic] it by the legendary 'Breguet' hands, the shimmering guilloché dial, and the finely fluted case band," and tells of how "by inventing the tourbillon device around 1795, Breguet eliminated the influence of gravity on the accuracy of the watch." An ad for shirtmaker Ascot Chang breaks the qualities of its $80-to-$400 shirts into 12 categories, including fabrics, buttons, collar styles, and stitching ("...special needles create an almost invisible 22 stitches per inch. Other makers are satisfied with 16"). A pair of $2750 binoculars is billed as being "built in Siberia to extremely rigorous military specs"; a jeweled globe, the copy boasts, took "1500 man hours" to build.

The emphasis on knowledge rather than on brute materialistic competition has in some ways helped draw in regular folks; the target market for luxury products, Dupree says, extends clear down to people making $25,000 a year. Swayed by the logic that quality justifies price, people even at that level are saving their money to get a few really nice top-brand items for themselves, a practice called "aspirational buying" in the trade. This is partly economic optimism: "They anticipate [an] increase in income," Dupree says, "and they are getting their tastes up to speed quickly." It amounts to an outreach project for the have-nots -- rather than being shut off from big-time spending, they get to be part (albeit a minor part) of the club, buying well-crafted items just like the millionaires do -- only fewer and smaller ones, creating "pockets of wealth in their lives," says Joseph Turow, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communication.

At Back Bay jeweler Shreve, Crump & Low, the average sale price of an engagement ring is up about 38 percent compared to five years ago -- not because diamond prices are up, but because young lovers are picking out bigger and better rocks than they used to. "We are seeing a tremendous element of trading up," says Richard Wycherley, the newly appointed company president.

And as the aspiring market moves up, the high-end market is being invited to follow its age-old imperative to move up, too. Since the new standard is taste and value, that next move is not to something simply bigger -- it's to a sort of supertaste and supervalue. Wycherley, a ruddy and sharp-eyed Englishman, offers an example of the change. In the '80s, he says, when he worked for Alfred Dunhill, among the clients for the company's watches were Middle Eastern potentates, who were in the habit of buying "the same merchandise in pairs" -- one piece in yellow gold, to show off around Europe, and another in platinum, to wear around the home country so as not to be ostentatious. That latter notion of subtlety, Wycherley says, is "beginning to percolate into our own society."

"Goods are symbols," Turow says. And some of the symbols of the '80s have needed to adapt to the changing times: when the luxury market of the '80s began to peter out, Turow says, BMW deliberately began making fewer red cars and more black ones, to suggest conservatism and high quality.

And plain silvery platinum, unprepossessing to the eye, is becoming the favorite precious metal of the age. Rolex has gone so far as to advertise that a solid-platinum watch has "the modesty of steel . . . so subtle it doesn't draw unwanted attention to itself."

But there's modesty, and then there's modesty. Platinum may look humbler than gold, but it costs about $100 more an ounce, and it's more labor-intensive to work with; a platinum watch costs about 30 percent more than the same watch in gold. This is why the luxury marketers are so cheerful lately. If in the '80s folks were on a spending spree, dropping huge wads of cash on the first glittering things that caught their eyes, customers today are shopping deliberately, researching the goods and weighing their options -- and then dropping even huger wads of cash.

In practice, though, the new tastefulness has a way of blurring into the old flash. Down at the jewelry counter of Shreve, Crump & Low, the store's head buyer, Michael Lebowitz, is showing me a platinum Rolex Super President. Eagerly, like someone about to tell a juicy secret, he holds the watch up for inspection, then lowers it into my hand with a little flourish, so I can feel the weight sink in. It is, like the watch in the ad, handsome and lustrous. Unlike the watch in the ad, it has sparkling little clots of diamonds at the corners -- handy reminders of the $39,350 price tag, in case the platinum should look too humble.

This past winter, the store began running a full-page ad for engagement rings, with the slogan "For better or worse, richer or poorer, twelve carats or ten." Twelve carats or ten. It was meant, executives say, to be tongue-in-cheek -- a bit of Brahmin exaggeration to draw in customers for regular-size diamonds. But that's not how people read it, says Shreve, Crump & Low vice president Kevin Jenness, who was company president at the time. "We got positive consumer interest," he says, "in the product advertised" -- that is, in multimillion-dollar stones the size of Concord grapes.

Even stones half that size -- five carats, about as big as plain M&M's -- are showstoppers. Lebowitz brings out a pair of them: one with slight imperfections, priced at $110,000, and a flawless one for $303,000. Balanced on the back of his fingers, as if in rings, they flash almost menacingly. "I know it kind of pushes the envelope of understatement," Lebowitz says blithely.

Real tastefulness, it seems, is honored mainly in the breach. For connoisseurs of watchmaking, the store has a $16,800 limited-edition Franck Muller self-winding Wall Street model, trim and elegantly curved, with a simple front and a back that reveals a glimmering beehive of gearwork. If you wanted to wear one watch, and money was no object, this would be a nice way to go. But the people who are buying fine watches don't want one -- they apparently want several. The Robb Report carries ads for leather-covered automatic watch agitators, storage boxes that hold one's multiple Swiss timepieces and jostle them to keep them from winding down while they go unworn.

Someone who keeps $200,000 in watches on the dresser, or a $300,000 car in the garage, is not thinking about "value" the way the rest of us might. When the sellers of the new luxury talk about value, they're talking about the reasons why an item is so expensive -- the rarity of the materials, the amount of skilled labor involved. What matters, Furman says, is that the product is "special." At the Hermès store on Arlington Street, the employees praise the skill of the French boutique workshops that turn out $4000 handbags. "We don't send these things to Third World countries [to be made]," says Lois Titherington, a veteran staffer at the store.

This outlook does have something to recommend it. It's basically admirable to spend extra money for goods made by well-paid and satisfied craftsmen. But what happens when "value" is just a fad? What if value is just about outspending the other guy? Then there's an aristocratic impulse papered over with a moral one.

To be elite in America is something of a challenge. By the standards of the world as a whole, the American masses are spectacularly rich -- surrounded by the luxuries of heat and running water and cheap groceries. Even the poor go shopping for recreation.

So the nature of modern luxury buying is to acquire distinction -- to set your things apart from all these piles of consumer goods. There is a deliberate archaism in the talk of hand stitching and engineered components, an assurance that many hands -- free, strong, talented hands, not sweatshop hands -- are working especially for you. The greatest luxury is to rise above the petty problems of modern industrial society, to keep one's own hands clean.

Inside a new Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph, on the showroom floor at Foreign Motors West, Paul Downey explains the details that go into making a car that costs as much as 30 years' rent. There's the burled oak woodwork, for one, meticulously cut and assembled for symmetry around the midline of the car so that the spots and whorls of the grain on the passenger side are mirror images of those on the driver's side. "You would be hard pressed to find a piece of furniture as nice as the wood in this car," he says. The hand-stitched leather interior, meanwhile, requires the hides of a full dozen cattle, raised without barbed wire so that they come out, like the red heifer which will redeem Israel, unblemished. "It takes 12 hours to make a Lexus, start to finish," Downey says. "It takes a day -- 24 hours -- to stitch that steering wheel."

Even so, the Rolls-Royce is a car. And the guts of it, the engine and transmission? Since the late '80s, those have been made in Germany, by BMW. As a limited-output car company, Downey explains, Rolls-Royce was unable to keep pace with technological improvements on its own. "At one point, they were probably the best automobile in the world," he says. "They probably lost that edge."

But the company's symbolic edge, its image as the premier automaker in the world, has remained intact, because the standing of the Rolls-Royce brand has almost nothing to do with what's under the hood. BMW certainly harbors no illusions about that -- after losing a bid to buy the company's manufacturing plants this spring, the company turned around and paid [[sterling]]40,000,000 for the rights to the Rolls-Royce name, the Parthenon-shaped grille, and the woman-bending-over hood ornament. In essence, the deal means that Rolls-Royce is nothing but a reputation; the engines, cowhides, and woodwork alike are merely an excuse to buy prestige. The Bentley's BMW drive train works majestically, to be sure, but that's not what causes the traffic to slow down and make room for it.

Hermès, which built its own reputation on leather goods and then on silks, has used that reputation to spread its range of products well beyond its known expertise -- to china, soap, perfume, and, starting this fall, women's ready-to-wear fashions. Customers are no longer trusting to a century's worth of leatherworking technique, but to an undifferentiated sense of fineness.

What people are shopping for is something more abstract than stitches per inch. "When you buy a suit, the investment relates to how people will think of you," Turow says.

For all the talk about function and value, the new luxury is still, in the end, about big spending and its power to draw social distinctions. Sure, scrimping and waiting for a $4000 handbag puts you in touch with "craftsmanship," but it doesn't really put you in the same class as a person who can buy a six-figure set of luggage. Behind the meritocratic talk of educated buying is the same old reckless materialism.

The idea that luxury buying is a real form of investment, Turow says, doesn't hold up under higher scrutiny. In the case of the diamond market, he points out, diamonds are only thought of as a valuable investment because the DeBeers cartel keeps the prices up. "There's a circularity to it," Turow says. "The notion of it being an investment is another rationalization for making the purchase."

The illusion at stake is that the nation is not on another spree, but is rationally and soberly spending the fruits of its wealth. So the market zooms upward: more quality gemstones, more first-class vacations, more sturdy and valuable platinum. The platinum, says Luxe's Scotty Dupree, is a "symbol of the best of times."

"When it was last popular," she says, with no detectable irony, "was in the 1920s."

Tom Scocca can be reached at tscocca@phx.com.

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