In ancient Greece, purple-dyed robes and daily meals of fresh fish were signs of wealth and luxury. In the days of the Egyptian pharaohs, the rich spent their wealth on ostrich eggs and perfumes made from saffron, cinnamon and other exotic spices. In medieval times, prosperous Londoners spent lavishly on pepper, velvet garments and lemons. In the 1920s, affluent New Yorkers showed off fur coats, convertibles and pearl bracelets.
In Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, author and journalist Dana Thomas writes that all those products cost a fortune at the time and could only be afforded by the likes of kings, religious elites, landed aristocracy, industry magnates, oil barons, arms dealers or bootleggers during Prohibition-era America.
When was luxury democratized? Some contrarians say it never was. Dana Thomas believes that true luxury will always be “the preserve of an exclusive and exquisite minority.” The luxuries available to people with ordinary wealth, what elite New Yorkers in the Roaring Twenties used to call “the hordes of new money,” are nothing more than trivial and vulgar substitutes – luxury without luster. Says who? Read on.
Three days in Singapore
Let’s look at an example of real luxury in the autumn of 2022, at a splurge that only a very few can afford. It would be the rough equivalent of what it cost 3,000 years ago for a caravan of Bedouins to bring a vial of sandalwood perfume to your palace in Luxor.
How much can one spend for a weekend in Singapore, one of the most expensive cities on the planet? It depends on the time of year. Let’s look back at the Singapore Grand Prix weekend, an annual rendezvous in early October and exemplar of cosmopolitan opulence.
A spendthrift racing fan could have stayed in the exclusive 32nd floor suite of the Ritz Hotel for about $13,000 a night. Unlimited access to the racecourse, box seats, VIP areas, and a racing team’s paddock? Of course – Red Bull offered all that for $10,800. Table for two to enjoy local and international delicacies at Zen, a Michelin three-star restaurant, the most expensive in town? About $1,600 with extra treats and wine pairings. How about a romantic dinner with music by an international DJ at one of Marina Bay’s floating nightclubs? That will be $1,200 per person. Or a private group table at a Grand Prix afterparty with trays of fresh oysters, premium caviar, and an open bar of Perrier-Jouët champagne, Belvedere vodka and aged tequila? That costs $45,000 in Amber Lounge, a favorite party place frequented by drivers Nico Rosberg and Fernando Alonso. If that seems too stingy, you can book Noir Suite, a private room at Le Noir restaurant, for $70,000.
While you’re there, why not see a concert by big-name stars like Green Day, the Black Eyed Peas, Swedish House Mafia, Westlife or Marshmello? A ticket cost $500-$5,000, plus the chartered limousine or yacht to take you to the concert in style and generous tips, of course.
Add in the round-trip flights, some extras like a private nighttime safari at the Singapore Zoo or Mandai Wildlife Reserve, and shopping sprees at the Paragon department store, Ion Orchard art gallery, and Marina Bay Sands... we’re now getting up to around $500,000 for this weekend in Singapore, where the fine for littering will cost you another $700.
Who and where are the very rich?
Who can afford such a weekend? According to Business Insider’s Hillary Hoffower, only billionaires and old-money heirs, an aristocracy of big spenders who routinely lay out $50-$80 million a year for their lavish lifestyles. Ordinary multimillionaires (or Formula 1 diehards) might occasionally indulge in such extravagant consumption, but they’ll tighten their belts for the rest of the year.
The billionaires of today are latter-day pharaohs who rule the business world with near omnipotence. They number only 3,311 people worldwide according to the Wealth-X extreme wealth index compiled annually by the Altrata consulting firm. These billionaires account for 13.9% of the world’s GDP, a historically unprecedented concentration of wealth.
The geographic distribution of the world’s richest people has changed in recent years. They no longer reside almost exclusively in the United States and Western Europe, areas that still have plenty of billionaires: 138 in New York; 85 in San Francisco; 59 in Los Angeles; 77 in London; and 33 in Paris. But Hong Kong now has 114 billionaires and there are other up-and-coming other cities like Moscow (77); Beijing (63); Shenzhen (44); Dubai (38); Sao Paulo (33); Mumbai (40); and even Singapore (50).
How to spend your money when you have a lot to spare
One would think that the lifestyles and consumption habits of the obscenely rich are the best measure of contemporary opulence. But Hoffower says this is not necessarily true. “People with large fortunes can indeed be ostentatious. But those with immense fortunes rarely are, or at least don’t buy the most expensive things just to show that they can afford them.”
For example, Elon Musk has enough money to buy Twitter and is a leader in private space tourism, but says he doesn’t own a home and sleeps on friends’ couches. It’s the other anonymous super-rich with only a fraction of Musk’s wealth who buy islands and private jets with platinum fuselages, binge on white truffles from the Italian Piedmont or Serbian Pule cheese that costs $1,000 a pound. They are the ones who regularly dine in the world’s most expensive restaurants, whether it’s Ultraviolet in Shanghai, Masa or Per Se in New York, or Sublimotion in Ibiza. The latter is chef Paco Roncero’s haute-cuisine Mediterranean restaurant, which has a 20-course menu (and three Michelin stars, of course) that will set you back $1,500 per person.
What’s the most expensive thing in the world? That would be antimatter, which costs an estimated $62.5 trillion per gram. But no one seems willing to pay that price even if they could overcome major logistical issues to get their hands on some. But it would be an extremely profitable venture since the price back in 2008 was a paltry $23 billion per gram. In other words, the price of antimatter has almost tripled in 13 years as its manufacturing process has become more common. Antimatter is made by colliding hydrogen particles or using antiproton decelerators in highly specialized laboratories.
As far as we know, no one is buying micro-doses of antimatter. But the ultra-rich are definitely buying rare goods like the $30 million Rolls-Royce Boat Tail, the $50 million Graff Diamonds Hallucination wristwatch, and gold-plated yachts like the Yacht History Supreme, bought by an anonymous Malaysian billionaire for $4.8 billion. Others prefer more modest trinkets like the $48 million Falcon iPhone 6 Supernova with a large pink diamond on the back, or a $6.5 million Baldacchino Supreme bed designed by Stuart Hughes and embellished with ash, cherry, chestnut, diamonds, sapphires and 24-carat gold.
As far as expensive hotels go, none costs more than Lovers Deep Luxury Submarine Hotel. For $292,000 a night, you can book a room in this five-star underwater hotel that cruises around the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. Not far behind is the Empathy Suite at The Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas. These two new bastions of luxury have knocked the penthouse at New York’s Mark Hotel and the royal suite at Geneva’s Hotel President Wilson off the top of the list, both of which cost about $70,000 a night.
Not without my lanternfish gland
Have you had enough? If not, then how about a plate of blue gnocchi at New York’s Golden Gates restaurant for $4,400? Splurging on this pasta dish might be justified because the blue in the dough comes from the lanternfish gland, a very rare and expensive ingredient. Not to be outdone are the crocodile leather umbrellas that sell for more than $50,000 at Billionaire Couture, the London store established by Formula 1 racing tycoon Flavio Briatore and designer Angelo Galasso. Who buys these umbrellas? People like David Beckham and Paul McCartney. Yes, you can also buy a platinum bicycle for $400,000, vacuum cleaners tiled with Swarovski crystals for $20,000, suitcases made of ebony, leather and horsehair for $10,000, diamond-encrusted silicone pacifiers for $17,000, and the list goes on. There’s a whole world of extravagant luxury goods out there.
By the way, compared to many of the grotesque excesses described above, buying an island isn’t really that expensive. People in the know say that you can buy Orivaru, a beautiful unspoiled islet in the Maldives archipelago for a mere $11 million. Even cheaper is a tiny, 0.2-acre private island near Ruskin, Florida that sold not long ago for the bargain-basement price of $5 million.