What Is Luxury? Not Necessarily What You Think

It’s been a minute since I last blogged. Between spending 10 days in Europe in August (I was invited to attend the inauguration of German watchmaker A. Lange & Söhne’s new factory in the Saxon town of Glashütte and decided to wrap a vacation to Berlin and London around it) and taking time off on Labor Day, my “Off the Chain” posts went dark for three Mondays in a row.

Now that I’m back, I’m brimming with ideas to share. The first one is the result of a serendipitous stop at my favorite London institution, the Victoria & Albert Museum, where I was thrilled to catch an exhibition entitled “What is Luxury?” before it closes on Sept. 27.

If you Google the word luxury, the first entry provides this definition: “the state of great comfort and extravagant living.”

Sure, that’s one way to look at it. But if you consider what luxury might mean in a future where resources are limited and materials like plastic (a by-product of petroleum) assume the quality of preciousness, today’s definition no longer applies. It’s all so philosophical—and so fascinating, especially for jewelers, who make their living selling items that, by virtue of their utter lack of necessity, qualify as luxuries of the highest order.

Courtesy V&A

“The Rise of the Plasticsmith” by Gangjian Cui imagines a future in which the depletion of global petroleum reserves has rendered plastic a rare and precious material.

The exhibition does a fantastic job of “investigating the social, political, and economic conditions and networks that determine how value is created, under what circumstances it is appreciated, and how it can change,” as curators Jana Scholze and Leanne Wierzba write in “Defining Luxury,” an article about the exhibition in the July–August 2015 issue of Crafts magazine.

They’ve structured the exhibit around two sets of terms. The first set is associated with popular notions of luxury in the past and present:

Passion. Exclusivity. Innovation. Extraordinary. Nonessential. Precision. Investment. Pleasure. Preciousness. Expertise. Opulence.

Courtesy V&A

A luxury skimming stone with belt pouch by Dominic Wilcox “explores ideas of value and luxury associated with a humble pleasure,” according to the curators of “What is Luxury?”.

The second set of terms, the curators surmise, will connote luxury in the future:

Skill. Memory. Authenticity. Resource. Legacy. Journey. Privacy. Access.

“The exhibition suggests that everybody has a relationship to luxury and that, through its connection to time and space, luxury can be seen as a fundamental part of life,” write Scholze and Wierzba. “As concepts of luxury are constantly changing and hence need to be negotiated, definitions of luxury will necessarily have to be complex and flexible.”

While we value luxury goods today, tomorrow we may well consider immaterial things such as time and space as luxuries in their own right. “In this understanding, luxury moves away from the impressive and extravagant, to something rather intangible and often emotional,” the curators write. “The question of luxury becomes an inherently personal one. Enjoying or affording luxury is not only a question of budget but of individual conditions, contexts, and preferences.”

For jewelers, who trade in a very iconic and ancient form of luxury, understanding the ways in which notions of luxury are changing is critical. If, as the exhibition predicts, time and space will trump preciousness and precision in the eyes of luxury consumers of the future, then the ways in which jewelers sell will have to accommodate changing mores. For example, if you know that your clients value time as a luxury, then make sure your business helps them make efficient use of it (omnichannel retailing, anyone?).

Here’s a reason to smile: If Scholze and Wierzba are right and future luxury becomes “something rather intangible and often emotional,” I can think of no luxury industry better prepared to meet the future than jewelry, the emotional resonance of which outshines its physical presence every time.