Swiss watch manufacturer Girard-Perregaux can trace its origins back 231 years, a fact meaningful enough that the watchmaker emblazons “1791” on the minute track of its Neo Bridges model. Other than that mark of history – written quixotically in a serif typeface that wouldn’t seem out of place on a coin or a bell – the timepiece reads as much like a spaceship as a “wristwatch.”
In fact, if you understand what you’re looking at, the elements under the watch’s immaculately domed sapphire crystal are all reasonably conventional. The balance wheel affixed to the lower of the two eponymous “bridges” may seem animated as if by sorcery, but it’s actually just a lovelier version of the simple machine that regulates the timekeeping for millions of mechanical watches the world over. Same for the eye-catchingly blue micro rotor (which winds the mainspring) and barrel (which houses the mainspring): their functions don’t differ much from a workaday watch, but their executions, precision, and finishing are a world apart.
Aston Martin may only be able to claim 109 years of automaking provenance, but in those decades the brand has turned out exceptionally pretty and fast sports cars and grand tourers, exclusively. The DBX, pretty though it may be, is emphatically not a sports car, but instead shares the same layout and core competencies as the millions of SUVs that are sold each year. A nice big box, high riding, with room for your kids and your stuff.
Only, also not that. A hand-built, 542-horsepower, twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V8 stands at the ready under the DBX’ high-rise hood – a far cry from the punchy-yet-anonymous two-liter-turbo convention of the mass market. Even the exhaust note at idle sounds tremendously expensive. The interior is impeccable. The paint is without peer.
What Is Luxury?
For the bulk of its two centuries of existence, Girard-Perregaux didn’t have to go toe-to-toe with the Apple Watch. Creating something beautiful and accurate was enough. The idea of luxury could remain in the background, really. The cost associated with the craftsmanship and manufacture alone were enough to separate products of haute horology (or bespoke automaking) from a thing produced en masse.
And in pre-digital days, technology often came at a premium, as well. In the 1960s, Aston’s DB5 was fitted with an all-aluminum, straight-six engine, fed by three precisely tuned SU carbs and connected to a five-speed ZF gearbox. The attendant improvements in performance and reduction in weight were the meaningful fruits of technological innovation, but as in the watch world, you’d have to pay through the nose to park them in your garage.
Today it’s different. The aforementioned smartwatch is not only more accurate than even the most arduously assembled tourbillon GP sells, but it’ll measure your heart rate and tell you when your dry cleaning needs to be picked up. Apple’s impeccably rendered display would’ve looked like the face of God back in the 18th Century, and the fact that its circuitry could be built, assembled, packed, and shipped to global customers at a price that many millions can afford, would have made all of Geneva quake with fear.
Consumers of durable goods have never gotten more for less. Digital democratization. And that begs the question, why pay more for anything?
What We Crave
I have a lot of interesting friends who rarely agree on critical matters of style, cars, or booze. We don’t even touch politics or religion anymore.
The point of polite differentiation was hammered home recently when I asked folks on Twitter dot com to name pieces of technology they use that they also consider luxurious.
Answers were about as far from one another as are the technologies that power a mechanical watch and an Aston Martin SUV. Alpaca wool socks, German-made studio headphones, a garage heater (specific technology not disclosed), a sleekly paired countertop espresso maker and burr grinder, quilted toilet paper, and what can only be described as the world’s most perfect toaster for people with an extreme tolerance for fussiness.
High-speed home Internet coupled with a global pandemic stretching over two years have turned Earth and its Earthlings into a strange place and strange people. When an ever-larger swathe of the population never has to leave home for anything, the things that we desire get closer and more intimate. From slipping on socks to buttering bread, we’re willing to spend on things that offer exceptional experiences, even on the smallest of scales.
It’s a shift in perspective that’s causing luxury good makers of all kinds to rethink their product lines, and in many cases expand their portfolios.
Buying The Seller
I drove the DBX you see in these photos earlier this spring, and it provided me with a few important proof points. The first, of course, is that it stands up to the 109-year expectation of how an Aston should drive.
It’s relatively easy to stick a big motor in a utility vehicle, make it reasonably quick in a straight line, and call it a day. The DBX isn’t that.
The vehicle moves rapidly from corner to corner without even a fraction of the roll through the suspension that you’d expect in something up high. The Aston seems to hunker closer to the ground as you press on a good road, exhibiting a fluidity and balance that are utterly out of sync with its stature as an SUV. All while the snarling exhaust note implores you to dig a little deeper on the next complex of corners (assuming the kids aren’t in the back seats).
In other words: perfectly on-brand for Aston Martin, despite a form factor that’s anything but.
GP is pulling off a similar magic act from my wrist, as I wrestle this stretch of river road into submission. The legacy of fine watchmaking is evident to anyone who knows a chronograph from a chronometer. But wild, skeletonized dial, shock of color (on this Earth to Sky limited edition), and perpetual, mesmerizing motion make it seem as though a small UFO has landed on my left arm. A slick trick for a company about as old as the steam engine.
The questions of branding, technology, and luxury were on my mind when I had a few minutes to sit and talk with Lamborghini President and CEO Stephan Winkelmann. Our paths overlapped at a little race in Florida (he was in the area to open a new dealership, I’d dropped by to drive a cool Acura).
We talked a little bit about how supercharged the market has been for luxury, and ultra-luxury goods for the last two years, and about the need for companies like Lamborghini (and Aston) to have real and longstanding relationships with their customers.
But on the impact of the democratization of tech in his business, Herr Winkelmann was insightful, “It’s clear that technology plays a role in the luxury business or the super sport business. But it is really about the fulfillment of dreams. Performance is paramount, otherwise you are just an empty box.”
Our supercars may be morphing into SUVs. Our watches into high-tech tours de force. But the true differentiator between the average and the grand lies in that idea: the fulfillment of dreams.
Gallery: Miersma: Luxury, Whatever That Means
Photo Credit: Logan Zillmer