Try Accounting For Taste

I am useless at making money but I like to think i know a thing or two about spending it, and there was a time when I considered opening a school to teach the rich how to be rich. Such a noble act would avert suffering, most importantly my own: it pained me to see so many of the new rich settle for a vulgar parody of what is popularly known as the "jet-set lifestyle." I believe that people who have amassed wealth need not fritter it away on obvious branded tat.

Above all they should avoid embarrassing themselves. I once saw a picture of a man standing proudly in front of an executive jet, but my eyes were drawn to the sleeve of his suit—in particular the cuff buttons; it was obvious that the buttonholes were machine-made rather than hand-sewn. Here was someone who plainly reveled in the better things money could buy, undone by a cheap suit.

Even after the credit crunch, the property-market slowdown and the subprime fiasco, there is a lot of money about, much of it made with blinding speed. In the past fortunes accrued more gradually, over generations, ensuring that by the time a dynasty reached its third generation it had got the hang of how to spend its wealth with that nebulous and subjective quality: taste.

I suppose the last time the world saw so much money made in such a hurry was during America's Gilded Age when men like Rockefeller, Carnegie, Frick and Morgan generated vast fortunes, the traces of which are still evident today in such things as libraries, galleries and charitable foundations. They took their luxury seriously, treating it almost as an academic discipline: when Morgan, the Napoleon of Wall Street, bought the Marfels collection of historic timepieces, he hired his own horological expert—a man called George C. Williamson—to catalogue it. Morgan was shrewd enough to realize that while he had spent his life making money, he had not really had the time to cultivate anything as unprofitable as the sensibilities of an esthete, so he got a man to cover that side of things for him.

Today's rich person has the opportunity to command the world's most skilled craftsmen to create unique possessions of life-enhancing beauty. But so far this explosion of wealth has been accompanied, largely, by the rise of megabrands, peddling totems that at times do little more than communicate to other brand-literate people how much money you have.

This system succeeds because the rich allow it to. However, the great thing about rich people, especially the ones who make their own money, is that they tend to be clever, quick-witted and adaptable. The caricature of the gaudily dressed Russian oligarch is becoming a thing of the past: a friend of mine who sells multimillion-euro properties in the Spanish resort of Marbella has noticed a return of Russians, and this time they are more understated. They know that the obvious expenditure hitherto associated with their countrymen is in some way undesirable; on a fashion level this translates into favoring a stealth wealth brand like Loro Piana over logo-heavy labels.

I wonder, though, whether this shift is founded on intelligent mimicry, or on something more substantial. If you are clever enough to make a fortune counted in hundreds of millions, you can learn quickly that savoring Cheval Blanc 1982 in your cellar is an altogether more interesting way of ingesting alcohol than sitting in the VIP area of a nightclub guzzling rehoboams of champagne. But knowing this and understanding it are two very different things. Could the newly converted Cheval Blanc drinker discern between a 1982 and say a 1985 once the wine has been decanted and served with dinner?

One can play the game of snobbery and countersnobbery ad infinitum, like some expensive version of scissors-paper-stone. For instance, cloths such as guanaco and vicuna may be among the most precious fabrics around, but from my point of view a sports jacket made from a traditional Shetland can be more chic. Or better still: Loro Piana's Coarse Hair cashmere, which is milled to behave and handle like an older-style, more hirsute fabric—a truly chic kind of cashmere.

This is why I would be a terrible teacher and why the modern rich in search of enlightenment would be far better off reading Socrates. Socrates developed a model of inquiry called the elenchus, a relentless cross-examination to attain real knowledge, which I would like to see the new rich practice on themselves. If they inquire more deeply into what they want from luxury goods—hopefully more than just showing off how rich they are—they might come to a greater understanding of what went into their creation. With that knowledge they would be better placed to savor the pleasure of, say, buying not just precious stones but beautifully set jewelry. If the rich are little more demanding of themselves, then the engrossing world of true luxury will flourish, rather than risk sinking into banality.

It could even be a force for lasting good. Some years ago a few rich Italians decided that they would go all out to have the very best that life could offer. Being Italians, they made such a stylish job of things that historians of future generations looked back on the period of their spending and gave it a name. They called it the Renaissance.

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