Luxury: Evaluating Values

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By Aaron Britt
Luxury, a term that once conjured images from Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, is now just as often used to aggrandize personal organizers, iPod cases, and websites. So we turned to Augustin Scott de Martinville, who heads the master’s program in luxury and design at the University of Art and Design in Lausanne, Switzerland, to talk some sense about the future of this ever-shifting concept.

What’s the most important idea for luxury designers to grasp?

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The first thing has to be value for money—–a notion that is not always relevant in the world of luxury. But this notion must become very important.

And the luxury goods of the future?

It’s a real cliché, but in the developed countries, people are saturated with food, products, and information. The constant solicitation to buy makes simple things like sleep, time, and relationships the real luxuries.

Marketers like to talk about accessible luxury. Does that make sense to you, or is it just branding?

The ultimate luxury is to have Swiss cheese and bread for lunch after a morning walk in the Alps. But it could also be a short sampan ride during a Hong Kong sunset. It’s all about the right time and place, not the price. A $15 bottle of wine can be a luxury.e.

What about the ethical ramifications of luxury, when the financial disparity between the producer and user can be preposterously large? 

I actually think that luxury, when synonymous with very high quality, is the most ethical field in which to work. Making luxury goods is the only way to preserve certain skills, techniques, and sometimes whole communities, in both developed and Third World countries. Skilled craftspeople can be found everywhere, from the French saddle maker to the village woman weaving raw silk in Cambodia. The challenge is to develop this potential.

Is there a certain product that is pointing the way forward? 

A product that represents intelligent anticipation of future luxury is the Milgauss watch series by Rolex. The engineers at Rolex developed a new material called Parachrom, which is resistant to magnetic fields [which harm mechanical watches], and integrated it into their Milgauss series, which was made for people working in research labs and power plants. Rolex could just live off its reputation and make gold versions of the watches it already came up with. But here you have true technical innovation.