Ever since returning from Baselworld last week, I’ve been scratching my head wondering if all the people I spoke to at the show were lying to themselves or to me when they talked about how their luxury customers were still buying mega-expensive watches and jewels, albeit more discreetly. In this souring economy? Really?
I had come to the show expecting vendors to be more candid about the state of their businesses than usual. If they were suffering, I had hoped they’d feel comfortable sharing some of those details with me—I’d hardly judge them in light of all that’s happened over the past year. If the financial titans of the universe didn’t see the meltdown coming, how could the luxury providers have predicted it?
Contrary to my expectations, what I found in Basel, and continue to find at press appointments this week, is that most luxury vendors have their story and they’re sticking to it. Albert Bensoussan, Louis Vuitton’s watch and fine jewelry director, whom I met this morning at a press preview of the newest timepieces in the iconic Tambour collection, made an especially persuasive case for the underlying health and longevity of the luxury market:
“There are still a lot of buyers and they’re still investing in the future,” he said. “Asia is going well, most of Europe is going well. There’s some volatility in the US and Japan but I don’t think long-term the luxury industry will be that affected. There will be changes in styles and designs but the strength of creation and artisan work will continue.”
As evidence, Bensoussan led me to a pillar showcasing three examples of the new Tambour Mystérieuse timepiece. The watch boasts a system of transparent sapphire discs that leave no trace of the movement visible, a feat of watchmaking that required two years of research and development. Even more impressive, however, is the timepiece’s bespoke twist: “Louis Vuitton provides a thousand and one ways to claim it as one’s very own,” according to the marketing literature. In other words, clients are invited to customize the Mystérieuse in every way imaginable.
The Mystérieuse will have a fixed price of around $250,000, whether a client chooses a version encrusted with diamonds or one that lacks bling entirely. That initially struck me as strange so Bensoussan explained the reasoning:
“When you’re free from price, the first thing you say is, let’s cover it in diamonds, but then people start to design it how they really want it to look,” Bensoussan said. “In the last few years, the trend has been towards very pure, lowkey, not bling bling design.”
So I stand corrected. Conspicuous consumption may, in fact, be passé, but luxury—and the affluent client base that demands it—goes on.