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The quarrel of excellence and luxury, the paradox of...
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The quarrel of excellence and luxury, the paradox of perfection

Thursday, 01 August 2019
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Franco Cologni
President of the FHH Cultural Council

“Talent demands effort, dedication and hours spent perfecting a gesture which, day by day, becomes a gift.”

An entrepreneur at heart, though a man of letters, Franco Cologni was quick to embark on a business career that would lead him to key roles within the Richemont Group.

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4 min read

You may have noticed how, at regular intervals, newspapers like to resurrect a debate not unlike another, much older dispute (from the time of the Sun King to be exact), in which the Ancients and the Moderns clashed, each convinced of a supremacy not easily quantified; a divergence of opinion whose modern equivalent we could call, to paraphrase the exegete Germaine de Staël, the quarrel of excellence and luxury.

Inevitably, luxury marketing professionals have joined the fray and now nobody understands a thing. Everyone insists on adding their two cents to the debate, including some dubious (to say the least) definitions of the subject.

To offer some much-needed clarification, an encyclopaedia definition of luxury, luxus in Latin, would be “an excess intended to satisfy personal ambition and vanity, and demonstrate social standing”. Whether we like it or not, luxury, as Jacques de la Palice might say, inhabits a socially distinct world, accessible to those we once called the “happy few” who – despite criticism fired at them throughout the ages and across the globe – have always existed and are unlikely to disappear. This social category now extends to countless millionaires on whom not only fortune but also progress and well-being shine. Happy, but not so few!

One thing we can categorically say does not exist is “democratic luxury” and its subspecies, the all-inclusive “popular luxury”. They are the latest inventions, not to say fantasy, of the luxury marketeers previously mentioned.

Luxury for all is a contradiction in terms, designed to give the consumer the impression that he or she belongs to a chosen elite, one that is ideally cultivated and sophisticated, while charging them over the odds for services, objects, experiences and stories that have little, if anything, to do with luxury.

What’s more, we frequently pair luxury with an erroneous synonym; a generic attribute that we call “excellence” – the excellentia by which the Latins designated the highest level of perfection for both people and things. But remember: excellentia refers to a competency, not a privilege. As the sociologist Francesco Morace notes, it defines a merit, the ability to do better: an artisan, an industry, a business are said to be excellent when they produce something better than anyone else.

We find this savoir-faire, this excellence, in watchmaking. Better still, fine watchmaking, a world of specialist knowledge and applied arts. Despite global crisis, this sector of the economy has seen demand increase, considerably so, thanks in particular to its professionalism, and to the codes and values adhered to by the brands that are part of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie and which identify with its guiding principles of identity, authenticity, originality, legitimacy and ethics.

Fine watchmaking is a complex system of tradition and innovation, science and technique, creation and the transmission of values, as well as ethics and culture. This chain of values comes together in the unspoken pact that forms between the brand and the end customer. A pact through which the company pledges to follow, repair and restore the watch throughout its entire lifetime.

This system of excellence combines with the perfection of the products. In Antiquity, “perfection” referred to a physical object. In book five of his Metaphysics, Aristotle distinguishes between three meanings – or rather shades of meaning – of the term: is perfect, hence excellent, that which is complete and contains all requisite parts. Is perfect that which is so good, nothing of the same kind could be better. Is perfect that which has attained its purpose.

And if – forgive us, Aristotle! – this paradigm can be associated with fine watches, we should add that perfection as our philosopher saw it did not include perfecting, i.e. subsequent additions and improvements.

But as we and another Ancient philosopher, Empedocles, know, nothing stays the same and everything can be perfected. In other words, “if the world were perfect, it could not improve and so would lack ‘true perfection’ which depends on progress”.

Consequently, the paradox of perfection (“the greatest perfection is imperfection”) also concerns the modern technology we apply to our beloved watches which, little by little, progress will make ever more “imperfectly perfect”.

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