August 13, 2019
By Kate Hubley
Many industry professionals regard Montréal as a vibrant fashion and design mecca. The city is host to several famed international events, including the Montréal Fashion & Design Festival, which offers a multitude of opportunities to experience luxury.
During last year’s Fashion & Design Festival, I attended an afternoon conference called “The Place of Luxury in Montréal,” which featured many esteemed panellists, including Jean-Christophe Bédos, president and CEO of Birks Group, and couture fashion designer Marie Saint Pierre of Maison Marie Saint Pierre. Attendees explored a number of interesting questions: what is luxury? Is the term relevant in North America or is it laden with Old World connotations of opulence and ornamentation? Moreover, how do we redefine ‘luxury’ within the context of today’s shifting consumer landscape?
The conversation surrounding the semantics of the ubiquitous term was somewhat philosophical and, as a linguist as well as a goldsmith, I found it fascinating.
Call it happenstance (or suddenly being more attuned to the world around me), but I started noticing more and more luxury offerings at every turn, ranging from luxury sightseeing, to bathroom fixtures, to retirement—and, for the very first time, I took notice of the Lamborghini showroom off of the highway I take three times a week.
Once I was home, I decided to take a few minutes to catch up on social media. Low and behold, popping up everywhere were ads for ‘luxury jewellery’ brands. As I was in the mindset, I took the bait and clicked, expecting to see something special. Instead, I found myself staring, squinting, and blinking at the unremarkable, poorly crafted pieces.
“Is this what passes as ‘luxury’ these days?” I asked myself. “Why is this ‘luxury’? Who’s classifying it as such?”
Thus began my investigation! I decided to reach out to industry experts in search of a definition.
‘Luxury’ is a subjective, evasive expression that begs defining, yet continues to shapeshift, depending on to whom you are speaking.
Historically, ‘luxury’ conjures up lavishness, indulgence, and wealth—even exclusivity and ostentation. All of these attributes are cast with a shade of judgement and envy.
Upon further post-conference reflection, however, I realized the notion of luxury is far more layered, especially these days. So, I pulled out my 1971 Oxford English Dictionary, complete with magnifying glass, to get an idea of how the term has evolved over the years:
Abundant, sumptuous enjoyment . . . The habitual use of, or indulgence in, what is choice or costly, whether food, dress, furniture, or appliance of any kind . . . Refined and intense enjoyment . . . Something which conduces to enjoyment or comfort in addition to what are accounted the necessities of life. Hence, in recent use, something which is desirable but not indispensable.
The formal definition of the word, especially the notion of ‘desirable but not indispensable,’ led me to think of some of the social media comments I often read in regards to products—remarks such as, “Oh my gosh! I love it so much! I need it!”
What these users actually mean to say is, “I really love this and would like to own it.” In days gone by, a consumer might have expressed this sentiment by saying things like, “That’s beautiful. Can you imagine owning it—or even trying it on?” or “A girl can dream….”
The term ‘luxury’ has certainly evolved, largely due to the prevalence and ease of access to democratized media. With platforms such as Instagram providing users with a constant stream of brand images, influencer sponsorships, and product placements, our understanding of luxury and our perceived ability to experience it have changed.
Ben Smithee of the Smithee Group, a New York City-based marketing and consulting firm that specializes in the jewellery industry, classifies this evolution as the ‘Instagram Effect,’ commenting that the social media network has “given us greater visual access to celebrity and traditionally defined luxury”—so much so that things that were once seen as impressive have now become commonplace.
Smithee offers a 3-carat VVS1 diamond as an example. In the not-so-distant past, such an item would have solicited many an ‘ooh’ and ‘aah.’ These days, the same gemstone receives a mere double-tap or cursory view on someone’s social media feed.
“That 3-carat diamond is now the norm,” he explains. “The bar has been raised and we have a greater appetite for luxury.”
“Further, millennial consumers have been raised in a culture of aspiration and attainment, creating a dream around achieving a more elevated lifestyle than their own, but one that is not exclusively related to wealth,” Smithee says.
Adding to Smithee’s theory, luxury continues to include the ownership of high-end goods, status, and conspicuous consumption; however, in today’s climate, the notion appears to also be associated with the necessities of a fulfilled life. This desire to achieve one’s aspirations has an impact on mindset and is shaping the concept of the ‘luxury lifestyle.’
This expectation persists despite the reality that a true luxury purchase—what may be referred to as ‘premium luxury’—continues to remain economically unattainable for a broad swath of consumers, despite their desire to own or experience it.
In their panel discussion, Bédos and Saint Pierre explored the proliferation of products that fall into the category of ‘affordable’ or ‘accessible’ luxury and how this popularity is, in part, explained by their ability to satiate this appetite. Stamping a prestigious logo on an item manufactured relatively simply and with modest materials is a business strategy that seeks to include the middle-class consumer by allowing them to experience a premium luxury brand while improving the long-term viability of the label.
Putting derivative nomenclature aside, we turn to designers, goldsmiths, and jewellers and ask, what classifies a piece as true luxury? The first answers that spring to mind likely fall into one of three categories: price, quality of materials, and brand name.
However, Michelle Orman, the owner of Last Word Communications, which spearheads public relations for Emerald Expositions’ jewellery group, including the Las Vegas Couture Show and Premier among others, adds more nuance to the definition of luxury.
“Indeed, using the noblest of materials is a top criterion, but luxury is much more than the monetary value of its components,” she explains. “Luxury is also artistry and craftsmanship.”
The luxury jewellery designer is an artist who happens to use precious metals and fine gemstones as a medium to expresses a unique perspective. One consideration that distinguishes a luxury designer from a fine jeweller is the ownership of a particular artistic process.
“He or she will spend untold time—years in fact—honing and developing a proprietary technique that becomes their trademark and signature,” says Orman. “This research and development (R&D) is a creative and technical exploration, driven by the desire to create something singular with elements that are proper to the specific designer’s work.”
This proprietary process could be anything from an innovative technique at the bench, the use of a particular cut of gemstone, the creative marrying of materials, the revival and perfection of an ancient process, or simply something no one else is doing.
“This does not happen overnight; it takes years of research and discipline,” adds Orman.
Saint Pierre agrees, adding the industry typically places an expectation of three decades on a designer before it can earn the title of a luxury label.
True luxury cannot be mass produced—it has to be made by hand.
“It is layered, created piece by piece,” Orman explains.
Indeed, this notion is reinforced by award-winning Parisian ex-pat Laurence Ravon, who is a recipient of the coveted Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France. She recently opened her atelier in Montréal after working for more than 25 years hand-finishing couture pieces for Dior, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Cartier—including the celebrated Cartier Panthère.
“The work must be meticulously executed at every stage of the process,” she says. “Before assembly can begin, every last surface and crevice of each component of a piece of luxury jewellery is hand-finished and polished to perfection, with thrumbing an integral part of the process—even where we think no one will see.”
Of course, as we all know, the true jewellery aficionado will examine and loupe a piece, and, if we want our jewellery to be considered luxury, we have to stand behind it (and be prepared to defend it).
The dedication to creating a luxury product is exemplified in Alexandre Beauregard’s Dahlia watches, as each component of these pieces, including the hand-cut petals, is a work of art unto itself. A relative newcomer to the watch world, Beauregard dedicated years to thinking out and engineering every detail, both esthetically and mechanically, and defines this pursuit as the luxury to create and reinvest in your vision. It is neither a passion nor obsession, but rather the foundation of his creative process.
Once a luxury piece is widely admired or popularized, less-prestigious manufacturers will inevitably attempt to duplicate the article—but, in most cases, the lack of craftsmanship is apparent.
“You know when you are holding an authentic piece of luxury jewellery in your hands,” says Ravon. “You can see it, feel it.”
“There is an expertise and savoir-faire involved in creating luxury jewellery,” she adds. “I cannot tell you how many fake ‘Panthères’ I have seen. Although the Cartier prototypes for the latest incarnations of this series were created in computer-aided design (CAD), they are constructed architecturally. That level of artistry is not easily duplicated.”
Indeed, this inimitable skill is perhaps the modern definition exclusivity.
Similar to Beauregard, Gigi Ferranti, an award-winning designer based in New York City, is clear on her vision of building a luxury brand—and she is unwavering on her principles of noble materials, fine gemstones, and superior craftsmanship. Ferranti, however, adds yet another dimension to the notion of luxury: longevity, and the act of purposely designing jewellery with lasting esthetic appeal. Her one-of-a kind rings and, more specifically, her lockets are a testament to this desire for timelessness.
“When I design, I always think about how the piece can be handed down through the generations,” Ferranti says.
Awarded for her excellence in craftsmanship and contemporary design, Anne Sportun, whose fine jewellery brand is among the most iconic collections in Canada, insists on using high-karat gold, fine gemstones, and nothing less than VS G-colour diamonds. Beyond the quality of materials, however, her work is known for what she describes as the ‘intangible’—immersive, experiential, and sensorial.
Anne Sportun’s signature statement (“Precious. Everyday.”) alludes to luxury, and serves as a core philosophy imbued in every experience the consumer has with the brand. The notion is reflected in the styling of her photos, her tone and manner, her product’s packaging, and in her overall attention to detail. Indeed, the signature is reflective of the way her brand ‘lives’ in the world.
Catering to collectors, Noel Guyomarc’h of the internationally renowned Galerie Noel Guyomarc’h, a fine art jewellery gallery located in Montréal, curates work that counters some of the traditional definitions of luxury. Many of the artists he exhibits in his modern space use alternative materials that many critics would say are anything but noble, such as rubber, wood, and even Velcro.
The argument can be made, however, that the best of this wearable art does, in fact, align with the widely understood definition of ‘luxury’ criteria: one-of-a-kind, researched pieces, created with technical rigour, which often borrows from the visual arts arsenal versus bench jewellery.
“Art jewellery has the power to appeal on an emotional level,” says Guyomarc’h. “I am seeing a new generation of purchasers that gravitate not to a label or status symbol, but to a work that speaks to them through the artist’s visual language.”
The ability to stop, appreciate, and contemplate in this fast-based world may indeed be a luxury to some—a notion also alluded to by Smithee.
To create a luxury jewellery brand is also to create notoriety and desire for your work, and this takes time. As Orman muses, “Manola Blahnik was not built in a day.”
It is a very expensive medium, and the road is long and winding; it may take a while to hit all the milestones and achieve the criteria needed for the world to embrace your brand as luxury.
At the Montréal conference I attended, Saint Pierre discussed how designers often take their early adopters on a journey as they propel their brand toward a luxury destination; improving and elevating the choice of materials, craftsmanship, and, most importantly, the proprietary process. Upon arrival, the designer can proudly seize the title and celebrate with their following of fans, consumers, editors, influencers, and retailers who wholeheartedly support the vision—all of those supporters who deem the brand as desirable and absolutely indispensable.
Kate Hubley is the owner of Montréal design house K8 Jewelry Concepts Bijoux. She is also a Fellow of the Gemmological Association of Great Britain (FGA), a 2015 Saul Bell Award recipient, and a 2018 Saul Bell Award finalist. Hubley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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