The Definition of Luxury With A Side Of History

The term ‘Luxury’ easily conjures up images of opulence and exclusivity. But when asked to define it, experts and influencers can’t seem to come to a consensus of what the official narrative is supposed to be. The dictionary definitions tend to lean more towards the notion that it’s a qualitative prospective that is an unnecessary pleasure:

Oxford: A state of great comfort or elegance, especially when involving great expense.

Collins: Something expensive which is not necessary, but which gives you pleasure.

Cambridge: Expensive things, such as jewellery and make-up, that are pleasant to have but are not necessary. But to simply categorize luxury as a non-necessary and superfluous product would be providing the whole picture. Because, whilst it may be an extravagant expenditure, it still satisfies a human need and desire.

Patek Philippe’s Henry Graves Supercomplication fetches US$24 million at Sotheby’s Geneva sale .


A paper published by Dr. Klaus Heine – who is a consultant specializing in high-end brand-building – suggests that we view luxury through three major understandings. The first is in a Philosophical-Sociological manner, which is a broad understanding ‘comprising all resources which are desirable and exceed what is necessary and ordinary.’ It takes into consideration the evolution of attitudes towards luxury, its appearances and the preferences. This encompasses everything from time to musical talent. Next is the middle scope known as the Micro-economic understanding. This takes the unnecessary and extraordinary but adds the element of market exchangeability; such as golfing equipment.  Lastly, the smallest scope of luxury understanding is Managerial which doesn’t look at an entire product category as a whole. Rather, it chooses to focus on the best products of that category. For example, instead of any golf clubs, it’ll only focus on Honma Golf’s Five Star Set which Forbes says can start at $5,400 each.

Honma golf clubs 5 star [Image: Wall Street Journal]

Now, these understandings are shaped by different types of relativity (which you can further read on here) that create a general perspective of the luxury definition. Once you take into consideration the regional, cultural, economic, temporal and situational relativity, Dr Heine further defines luxury as ‘anything that is desirable, and which exceeds necessity and ordinariness. As a rule, this is defined from a global perspective, for the present and for normal conditions. While the exclusivity of resources is evaluated by the entire society, the desirability of resources and the appearance of luxury are determined by the upper class.’

[Image: Courtesy of Hermes]

If we jump back to ancient Egypt, it’s clear to see that luxury has been a part of human civilization since the beginning. Thanks to excavation of long-lost tombs, we’ve been able to see that luxuries were reserved for some chosen few. Limited production of precious jewellery, perfumes and power symbols was reserved for the gods, the Pharaoh, the High Priest and those around them.  While we’re sure that majority of Egyptians wished to be given the same honour of being buried with such wealth, they knew it would be forever out of their reach. Let’s face it, if they were in reach of every citizen, the findings in the pharaohs tombs wouldn’t be as impressive as we consider them today. In fact, you could say that luxury being something that other people possess is a tradition in many ancient civilizations.

Since millenials became the target market, the definition of luxury has started to shift towards creating an emotional response and experience for the consumer.

The Romans started out a little sceptical about the flashiness of luxury and even created laws to limit just how gratuitous anyone could be. Eventually, they were able to shake of the notion that it was a disruptive power of desire after they started to conquer places known for their luxury – such as Greece. Hence, the Roman society becoming one of the most refined and self-indulgent people of that time.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection. A jeweled gold pocket watch believed to belong to Louis XIV, containing a hand-painted portrait of the young king.


King of France (1643 – 1715), Louis XIV, took luxury to a whole new level by creating court culture that came with a strict dress code. Evidently, if you didn’t look like luxury you basically had now power (that, and you were never invited to any of the decadent events). According to Luxury: A Rich History by Peter McNeil and Giorgio Riello, Louis XIV would make his courtiers bow to his “ship-like vessel that contained the king’s knife, fork, and napkin”. This flamboyant behaviour, as well as his demands for lavish furnishings and fashion, is said to have been the foundation for the French Luxury sector that we know today.

[Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art]

While Louis XIV managed to sell the idea that the pinnacle of luxury was in fact the European aristocrat’s lifestyle, Marie Antoinette (last Queen of France before the French Revolution) wasn’t so lucky. Life before the guillotine was extravagant, what with a $3.6 million annual clothing budget that afforded the queen diamond-encrusted gowns, yard-high hairdos and masquerade balls.

[Image: Manolo Blahnik]

Fast forward to the 20th century and we start to see more people gaining access to the world of luxury. Some of the drivers of change include female emancipation, globalisation, the increase in spending-power, and the democratization of the luxury industry. However, since millennials became the target market, the definition of luxury has started to shift towards creating an emotional response and experience for the consumer. Defining what luxury means isn’t an easy task. However, once we break down its characteristics in the next post, you should be able to better understand what luxury is and how you can adjust your brand/expectations to be in-line with those principles.


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