What does ‘luxury’ mean in the modern world?

We seem to have quite a laissez-faire attitude to luxury these days, writes James Fossdyke.

I’m not talking about luxury yachts, luxury cars and luxury hotels – those concepts are older than a dinosaur’s fossil collection – but the sudden arrival of luxury magazines, luxury dogs and even luxury influencers. Yes, apparently they’re all real. Who knew an Instagram account or an animal could be luxurious?

And therein lies my point. The words ‘luxury’ and ‘premium’ seem to have transcended their original meaning and become aspirational buzzwords. So in this modern world of easy fame and even easier finance, what really constitutes luxury?

pen case

Well, Google’s dictionary tells me it’s simply a question of “comfort or elegance… involving great expense”, but don’t believe everything you read on the internet. You can’t instantly transform a product simply by boasting a four- or five-figure price tag, even if it is comfortable or elegant. On the rare occasion there isn’t a sale on, furniture companies still have sofas available that fit the bill. But are they luxury products? No. Simple expense is too blunt an instrument to define something so nuanced.

So if it’s not about the money, maybe it’s about technology. All these high-tech German kitchens with their touch-screen dimmer switches, TV screens rising from worktops and gesture-controlled dustbins (yes, they exist) – surely they’re luxurious? Well perhaps, but that’s not because of the electronics.

Lexus Design

I’ve seen plenty of things that are jam-packed with technology yet deliver all the luxury of a Soviet prison cell. That’s not to say high-tech things can’t be luxurious, but a PlayStation is not exactly a Rolls-Royce, even if it is the closest most of us will ever get to driving one. And although you might reasonably call a MacBook Air a premium product, the electronics inside don’t differ much from those inside a HP or a Dell. But the final nail in the coffin for the technology theory is that luxury doesn’t have to be modern. The Ritz is old, but it’s still a luxury hotel.

Perhaps, then, the secret lies in longevity; in reliability and craftsmanship and quality. The sense that something isn’t about to break every time you so much as look at it. If it isn’t the technology that makes a MacBook so desirable, it must be the way the case feels like one solid lump of metal, or the way the Apple logo is softly backlit. Well maybe, but Faberge eggs can be pretty delicate. And I wouldn’t want to drop the crown jewels.


Flippance aside, I suspect all these things can contribute to luxury in one way or another, but they certainly don’t define it. In fact, I reckon the most important facet of luxury is pretty much impossible to quantify.

That’s because it’s not defined by what something is, but what it is to you. It’s about the way it makes you feel. Think of it like Desert Island Discs, where the luxuries are not things you need, but things you want.

Let’s face it, premium products usually come with a premium price tag, and we have to justify that outlay not to others – they can think what they want – but to ourselves. The meaning of luxury, therefore, changes from one person to another. And that’s fine, because although nobody can agree on a definition, that doesn’t make it any less real. You just have to find it for yourself.

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