Bashing the Bashers

I recently read a book titled Living It Up: Our Love Affair With Luxury, by James B. Twitchell. I bought it anticipating groundbreaking new research into consumer buying habits—something we in the jewelry industry should be tracking on a constant basis.

Not so. The book was just another consumer-bashing tome by another would-be moralist pretending not to be.

To Twitchell’s credit, he admits that he finds the pursuit of luxury goods shallow and slightly repulsive, almost apologizing for his condescension even while he confesses he’s not entirely immune to it himself. He also makes a startling point: Things—not spirituality, justice, religion, ecology, or even happiness—have done more to unite the citizens of the world than any other force. It seems the one place on earth where black, white, Asian, European, Indian, American, Arab, and Jew might peacefully co-exist is in a duty-free shop. Hermès, Cartier, Tiffany, and Prada have the power to unite what governmental or religious ideologies divide.

What happened in Afghanistan as soon as the Taliban were routed? Afghans retrieved all the TVs, radios, lipsticks, and other pleasurable possessions they had hidden away during the years the fundamentalist regime was in power. They didn’t get rid of them, even though the government decreed it—they hid them until such time as the government changed its mind or the country changed its government.

Where was the first place many young Russians headed when the Soviet empire and its enforced equality crumbled? The USA, where presidents are elected but consumption is king. If you live in an area with an influx of Russian immigrants, you know that they are a discerning group of shoppers, as eager for luxury goods as anyone else.

Where does that leave the jewelry industry? We get our turn under Twitchell’s bat—in fact, he claims to have heard once that the entire jewelry industry was built on the male erection. Maybe in anthropological terms there’s a grain of truth there, but it’s not only about that. What about the lucky few families whose heirloom jewels paid the passage to flee Hitler’s Germany? Or the woman who lovingly remembers Grandma whenever she wears her pearls? Or the daughters who beam with pride as their parents fasten their first gold cross or Star of David around their necks?

Jewelry bashing isn’t new, but what’s most annoying is the insistence that jewelry—and diamonds in particular—have no inherent value. If so, then why are precious jewels and diamonds mentioned in the Bible, as early as the book of Genesis, in the description of the high priest’s breastplate?

N.W. Ayer may have coined the phrase “A Diamond is Forever” in 1946, but that just put into words what the buying public wanted. Long before then, popular romantic fiction often ended with girl-gets-boy—and a diamond engagement ring. And if people didn’t want to buy jewelry, a magazine called The Jewelers’ Circular and Horological Review would not have been founded in 1869.

People are acquisitive by nature. Whether it has to do with power (and ultimately procreation), having better stuff than the Joneses can probably be traced back to the first time man discovered his neighbor had a bigger cave and a warmer fire.

As musician/über-Everyman Bruce Springsteen sings:

“Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king, and a king ain’t satisfied till he rules everything.”

Perhaps instead of creating the United Nations in 1945, we should have just built a great big luxury shopping mall.

hschupak@reedbusiness.com