I am irritated, nay overwhelmed, by encountering the word “Luxury” everywhere I look in the printed media, whether it be for real-estate, hotels, restaurants, cars, watches, clothes, furniture or any holiday escape from reality! But what does “Luxury” really mean today? And where is it headed? Is it beginning to be identified, as it formerly used to be, as something decadent? In effect, “Luxury” is assisted by the fact that its definitions range as broadly as a rainbow: It can encompass grandeur, opulence, preciousness, sumptuousness, lavishness, magnificence, and almost anything that is non-essential! The word has been so marketed that “Luxury” as a concept has almost vanished from both shopping malls and supermarkets. But then suntans in February, around-the-clock music, oranges at Christmas and asparagus for Thanksgiving, are no longer considered luxurious.
Luxury today is that which is regarded as rare, difficult to obtain, so expensive it is out of our reach, extraordinarily elusive, exclusive, as well as utterly, nearly and impossibly desirable. The perceptions of luxury and how this has varied over the millennia has been the subject of an exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Walking through this show with its more than one hundred items ranging from fine, modern Swiss watches to an 18th Century gold crown studded with emeralds, diamonds and rubies, I felt uneasy at the gap between my own perspective and the approach of the curators. My preferences and decisions are not based on brands, popularity or mass appeal but on my own particular preferences and desires. When I think of luxury, I conjure a sunny day in my garden, wandering about aimlessly in Paris’ left bank, or spending a quiet evening at home without any ringing or electronic buzz. It seems ironic that the slow-moving time which I cherish is rapidly vanishing in a capitalist dominated world of constant communications, 24/7 pressures and distractions.
Quite rightly the digital revolution is transforming the popular understanding of the value of luxury objects, just as the industrial revolution did when exceptional craftsmanship began to be displaced by assembly line production. It is difficult for us to accept that before then, and starting with ancient Rome, luxury had been both despised and denigrated at various stages. In 2015 BC, Senator Marcus Porcius Cato denounced luxuria as a vice which would not only ruin individuals but could even bring down civilization. Luxuria was seen by the elite of Rome as a form of social denigration by the populace and their decadence was to be controlled by a range of complex sumptuary laws. However, this did not prevent indulgent excesses to prevail in the Empire for hundreds of years!1
The decline that followed the fall of Rome and the invasion of the barbarians effectively destroyed the wealth necessary for luxurious feasts. However, early Christianity clearly opposed excesses of consumption. By the Middle Ages, however, the Catholic Church in Rome gradually accepted different notions of “magnificence,” while its preachers linked ornamentation and fancy clothing by some worshipers to the enjoyment of lustful desires. Such sinful practices were also ascribed to the influence of women.
In the late Middle Ages, new groups of textile workers, tanners, artisanal craftsmen and merchant traders slowly began to emerge in Europe and, with the growth of personal wealth, began to give access to goods which had been previously reserved for the few. The powerful elite unsurprisingly denounced such developments as being decadent, immoral, and even illegal. It was only with the beginnings of the Renaissance in Italy that a shift began to be observed. The celebrated twin weddings of the Sforza and Este families in 1491, orchestrated by no less of a cultural figure than Leonardo da Vinci, were of a lavishness that had not previously been seen but which no one dared to question. Such luxury by the elite was not to be confused with the aspirational, but condemned desires of the population.
During the Italian renaissance, while the Church established the standards of magnificence in architecture, the Medici were to commission on a grand scale what was to be considered luxurious in terms of rare jewelry, sculptures, paintings, and furniture. They also focused on such rarities as the magic of the blue colors of lapis lazuli. However, the luxury of sumptuous banquets by private citizens and the display of jewels and dress by rich (but untitled) women was denounced by prominent figures. Italians were the first to alter the ancient concept of luxury with a new word, “lusso,” which was meant to denigrate the aspirational expressions of the newly rich and in particular to the vices linked to women. The word was coined by the Florentine priest and poet, Leonardo Dati (1408-1472) who wrote in 1441:
By my thought defeated, fails
because foolish pomp, bursting with pride,
together with revolting lusso,
were there inside.
While luxury only began to lose its pejorative implications in 17th century Europe, it continued to be viewed negatively by western philosophers for another two hundred years when discourses shifted from the moral to the economic realm. William Morris, who was strongest of 19th century promoters of craftsmanship, argued that mechanization was both a moral and aesthetic problem and that the “utilitarian ugliness” resulting from machine production was to be seen as a symptom of the “sickness of modern civilization.” A hundred years earlier Voltaire already had observed with incisive humor:
“People have declaimed against luxury for 2000 years, in verse and in prose, and people have always delighted in it.”2
The notion of luxury as it has developed in Western Europe and the United States has never been static. Luxury has been subject to constant change as the desires and attendant beliefs of the middle class grew and then expanded before being dropped as “luxury” because the goods had become so available.3
I think that the tenuous relations between luxury and values may best be examined by looking at the shift which occurred from pocket watches to wrist watches.4 Symbolically, we had pocket watches in the old days when we had more time to enjoy the luxury of grandfather clocks which graced households with their chimes and the tick-tock set a calming pace. Time was under control. The ease of that era is now — with the envy of hindsight — regarded as luxurious. Today speed is the backbone of a competitive economic system where time is money. So watching time has become universal and, ironically, speed has become a great enemy of genuine luxury.
The wristwatch is a technologically driven mechanism which has simultaneously developed as a status symbol, a fashion statement, and the functional purveyor of such desirables as accuracy, precision, durability and robustness. In the 19th century those who were expected to be punctual had a pocket watch. Using such a watch was incompatible with hard labor and signified one’s professional identity and association with managerial duties. However, once in the field, British army officers began to feel uncomfortable trying to use a pocket watch while also holding a horse’s reigns or drawing a sword. The practical response was to sew a pocket watch onto a leather strap which then could be wrapped around the wrist. By the start of WWI all officers in the British army wore wrist watches, which also had become a direct and implicit mark of elevated social status. As a consequence of of this terrible conflict, the wrist watch also became associated with bravery, courage, daring and masculinity. Luxury was only to come much later.
The electronic watch brought about a revolution for the Swiss watch industry as US manufacturers in the 1970s started mass producing $10 electronic watches which had the accuracy of the best of the handcrafted classics. Faced with a crisis, the Swiss started to market their output in terms of luxury. They restricted their advertising to key price points: the lowest price for a luxury watch was set at about $2,500 (or £1,600). In the subsequent tournament of value, price and prestige were intertwined with appreciation by a discerning, highly-select and wealthy elite. Watch-makers Philip Patek boast: “You never own a Philip Patek, you merely look after it for the next generation.”
In part, this intense marketing campaign was successful because a luxury watch is just about the only thing rich males can purchase just by and for themselves. From a psychological perspective, so important in understanding the power of luxury, this boosts their egos, establishes their social status and shows their economic power. In a way the luxury watch has become a symbol of the truly important things men don’t have and can rarely get, such as the time to enjoy life, The successful executive doesn’t have to ask anyone if he can buy a $100,000 watch. In his own mind the watch demonstrates his success, his independence and his position. That is why the advertisements for these luxury watches focus so intensely on HIM.
The challenge facing luxury watch manufacturers is that their products have become promotionally desirable but functionally irrelevant. Their branding as prestige luxuries leaves them open to sudden social rejection, much like the collapse of the luxury fur market or that of ivory. Luxury is fickle. Today we tend to decide for ourselves what our most desired luxury might be. Tomorrow those wearing $100,000 watches might suddenly be subject to pangs of conscience (perhaps sparked by internet exposure) which would convince them to donate socially offensive luxuries to charities of their choice. Not only could this help adrift Syrian refugees, Save the Children, or Oxfam, but it might even uplift the social consciences of the donors.
“Luxury” today overwhelms the striving and aspirational forces of the world. Luxury goods have become one of the driving forces of global capitalism. The mass of humanity at the bottom feel so locked-out that they longer aspire to luxury. The ever growing consumption of goods is not the answer. Luxury today seems to be extending the sense of social inequality but it has yet to regain its formerly pejorative connotations.
The scarcity of both time and space are beginning to turn into luxuries which are increasingly valued in their own right. It’s time that we begin to recognize this just as we are beginning to recognize that fresh air and fresh water are on the way to becoming environmental luxuries. Alas, the song which celebrated that “The Best Things in Life Are Free” is becoming ever harder to appreciate in a world which continues embracing luxury.
1See: Catherine Kovesi, “What is Luxury?” Luxury, Volume 2, Issue 1, May 2015
2Voltaire, The Philosophical Dictionary (1764)
3See: C.J Berry, The Idea of Luxury: A Conceptual and Historical Investigation, (1994) Duties of a Christian, XIV).
4Peter Oakley, “Ticking Boxes: (Re)Constructing the Wristwatch as a Luxury Object,” in Luxury Vol.2, May 2015