Italian leather, German engineering, French champagne, South African platinum – these are ultimate markers of rarity, exclusivity and luxury. But, how are some items and objects seen as über luxe, while others are merely disposable? Here, we speak to luxury industry insiders and commentators to discover how we've come to define opulence and decadence.
Buyisa Sutton, Gemmologist and Diamond Grader
In jewellery, luxury takes many forms. The metals are expensive, gems aren't created equally and they all have different grades – everything from fair, good to excellent. Luxury would be the highest forms of those types - the most exclusive metals and the best gems. Crafmanship also comes into play and you find artisanal jewellers who create pieces as an art form
A jewellery piece is thought of as luxury when every aspect of how it's made and marketed is a considered choice: which metals have been used, which gems and diamonds have been used and where have all the materials been sourced?
I've been around big, rare diamonds and antique jewels and a lot of it comes down to historical context. Is it rare? Who has worn it? Who's owned it? Who made it?
Over the years, we have seen a change in buying trends. People are getting married later, women are buying jewellery for themselves, and millenials aren't necessarily buying classic pieces, they want unique items. We are seeing a rise in affordable luxury in jewellery. Middle class people can aspire to acquire more rare pieces and can walk into stores in the mall to find something of good quality. Artificial diamonds are also flipping the idea of rarity on its head. They're large, beautiful stones that have the same crystal and chemical composition as real diamonds, but are created in a lab. The hunger for diamonds hasn't ended, though and we're seeing speculation of increased demand.
Steven Saunders, Senior Reserve Brand Ambassador
Luxury and exclusivity in whisky is linked to the rarity of the whisky itself and the ingredients. Cost is directly related to rarity and luxury – a rare, exclusive whisky costs more to make.
There are whiskies you can buy all year round, but there are also limited, special releases that distilleries release once a year. They could be 8 000 – 9 000 bottles of whisky released worldwide, then we only bring a few hundred, or as few as 20 into South Africa. Connoisseurs and collectors clamour to get their hands on them.
You'll also find that there are distilleries that have shut down, but they still have whisky in casks and they can be bottled and released every year. That means they're truly rare. A whisky from Port Ellen distillery, which has closed, can fetch up to R47 000 a bottle. Some people buy a bottle of rare whisky, hold onto it for five years and sell it at auction for three times more. This really only works if you know that the whisky you've bought has a high demand.
But you don't have to spend thousands to enjoy quality whisky. There are good quality single malts available between R1 000 – R1 200. Special releases, when we bring in a few hundred bottles to South Africa, can retail at R1 600.
The market for good quality, rare whiskies keeps growing in South Africa. As people mature, they have greater sophistication around liquor and they're looking for better quality. Just the other day I visited someone's cellar – he's spent R2.8 million on whisky this year alone.
Dorothy Amuah, Strategic Luxury Consultant
I think Coco Chanel sums up my sentiments around luxury: 'Luxury lies not in richness and ornateness, but in the absence of vulgarity'. Luxury is a non-intrusive approach to the finer things in life, across all spectrums – from brands, to the service industry, to retail. Luxury brands also guarantee quality.
Two years ago, exclusivity would have been the number one attribute in defining luxury, now there has been a significant rise in consumers that value quality over exclusivity.
Social media has brought luxury brands to new, young consumers in a truly interesting and international way. But true luxury isn't about being accessible – it's always about inaccessibility. Instead, brands now create 'aspirational' products and services that are a little bit more accessible, but still retain exclusivity and rarity. Take, for example, designer brands creating more affordable sub-brands, or even investing in accessory brands like mobile cases, wallets and handbags.
The luxury market is facing profound uncertainty, which is a blessing and a curse. Luxury brands that used to thrive on being discreet and unknown now have to fall in line and make themselves more available so that consumers can interact with them. Luxury travel, beauty and experiences will be at the forefront of this new luxe shift.
Hemali Joshi, Anthropologist and PhD in Economic Anthropology Candidate
From an anthropological point of view, luxury is about the meaning we attach to different things. Items don't necessarily have an innate value, but we attach value and the idea of luxury to them. Almost all sneakers are made in China, from generally the same raw materials, but add a check mark to the side and suddenly they become more exclusive and pricier. The creation of the market value and the understanding of how something is valuable are rooted in class. Culture, class and context all play a role in how we understand the idea of luxury and exclusivity.
In South Africa, how we see luxury is linked to our socio-political history. Access to goods and services is very recent and our consumer spending is one of the ways we express our freedom. We're expressing what it means to be free through money – our thinking is: 'Money proves that I have access to all spaces'. This is why we have a huge emphasis on status in our society.
We're also creating a class structure in South Africa, and we're 'performing' the idea of class through the jewellery we buy, the furniture we have, where we live, what we drive. How we see luxury also boils down to rarity. If not many of a certain item exists, then it's thought of as more valuable. But, experiences are also becoming luxury items and, in experiences, exclusivity is boundless.
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