From luxury to excellence, passing by classicism

February 2003

Sometimes change can be very important, even though it does not come about in a rapid or sensational manner. This type of change is currently happening in the watch world, which has been in a period of reflection for some time, as have various other sectors such as fashion and even more generally the global social scene.

The watch segment, as we all know, is a rather conservative milieu and is extremely jealous of its own traditions. But, we also know that it is not insensitive to economic and social transformations. Today, we are observing that the concept of 'luxury', which for a long time has dominated the haut de gamme sector and its communication, is undergoing profound modification.

Some brands have realized that to remain too attached to the concept of 'luxury' signifies that they are not only remaining a prisoner of the debatable hedonistic climate of the 1980s and 1990s, but also, and even more serious, that they remain aloof from the reflections currently taking place in occidental societies. The watch industry cannot remain apart because, with its technological innovation, it represents one of the most advanced elements in our culture.

Current thought is focused on the state of our planet, for example, protection of the environment, crisis in consumerism, growing disparity not only in 'lifestyle' but in 'life survival' between the rich and the poor, substitution of the prefix 'fast' by the prefix 'slow', etc. As we have seen, the tragic events of 9/11 accelerated the need to review the idea itself of 'luxury'. Up to now, this word was considered as the only possible label to describe the fringe of extravagant spending, in which watchmaking was an active player, along with jewellery, art, antiques, haute couture, lavish vacations and various high-end hi-tech products.

Today, we are witnessing a sort of conceptual slide in the notion of luxury, from an image of 'superficial and ostentatious' to a more acceptable one of 'excellence'. This transformation is certainly not a revolution. More precisely, it represents simply a different point of view, one in tune with the times so to speak, but still on the same terrain. The main characteristics of these two notions are basically the same. What differentiates them, however, is a question of attitude towards the object.

With a watch, for example, a highly stylized object from a design and mechanical point of view, the notion of 'luxury' depends to a large extent on the price tag as well as on its unusual and ostentatious details. 'Excellence', on the other hand, tends to favour the quality of the piece's craftsmanship and the originality of its design. Its elevated price is seen as a logical result of the work, and design details are a reflection of the personality of the wearer. In fact, the product of 'luxury' and that of 'excellence' share the same criteria as far as the choice of materials and quality of workmanship. These notions diverge, however, when it comes to the manner of evaluating these same elements.

In Italy, we now find many articles and debates on this topic. Recently, Giuseppe Ardrizzo, Professor of Epistemology, led a round table discussion under the auspices of the Italian subsidiary of TAG Heuer. He supported the thesis that “the new concept of luxury is increasingly subjected to the idea of quality, becoming 'excellence' when one adds the notion of everlasting from a design point of view.” From this arises the new notion of 'classicism', a category that immediately evokes the notion of 'excellence'. While 'luxury' and 'excellence' have many points in common concerning the quality of the product, they clearly differ in their perception of this same product.

“The opposition of 'luxury' and 'excellence',” explains Professeur Ardrizzo, “seems radical. Luxury is always on the side of excess, while excellence is a moderating factor. For the final consumer, luxury comes from the exterior. It is something that shines from afar. The radiance of excellence, however, comes from within.”

Arriving at this observation, Ardrizzo states, “Brands that produce 'excellence' accept to take risks. Betting on excellence can be a hazardous wager in light of the fact that it is an intimate and personalized perception. On the contrary, luxury is something that is accepted as a matter of trust, but that comes from the outside. It is seen as coming from someone else who has made it for the wearer.” In other words, excellence is an attitude, while luxury is a quest for status.

Viewed from this angle, luxury is a value imposed from the exterior and which, at each epoch, has become more noticeable during periods of identity crisis, a crisis that is trying to resolve itself. 'Goodbye to luxury' is a strong signal that has been echoed lately by many in the forefront of society.

(See also the article by Paolo De Vecchi, 'Birth of a Watch', on page 54 )