Purple Dye, The Fall Of Rome, And A Theory Of Luxury

Partly prompted by a recent visit to Italy, and a decades-delayed re-reading of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, I decided to read, for the first time, Edward Gibbon’s A History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire. The work was published between 1776 and 1789, in seven volumes, and it covers the period from 98 to 1590, sometime after the fall of Constantinople (the last remnant of Imperial Rome) to the Ottoman Empire in 1453.

Both as a factual description of the collapse of the Roman Empire and the birth of (to Gibbon) modern Europe, and from the standpoint of interpretation of the cause of these events, Gibbon’s work has been somewhat superseded by subsequent developments in both scholarship and archaeology. Yet it remains a relevant, extremely readable and entertaining description of one of the most important events in the evolution of human society, and this is largely thanks to Gibbons’ very approachable and extremely engaging style. He has a wonderful knack for quotable aphorisms and as with the Meditations, once you start underlining things in Gibbon it is hard to stop:

“History … is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.”

“The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.”

There was however, one remark fairly early on that caught my attention, thanks to the world in which I spend my professional life, which is that of so-called luxury, and especially luxury watches. It was this:

“Such refinements, under the odious name of luxury, have been severely arraigned by the moralists of every age; and it might perhaps be more conducive to the virtue, as well as happiness, of mankind, if all possessed the necessaries, and none the superfluities, of life. But in the present imperfect condition of society, luxury, though it may proceed from vice or folly, seems to be the only means that can correct the unequal distribution of property. The diligent mechanic, and the skilfull artist, who have obtained no share in the division of the earth, receive a voluntary tax from the possessors of land; and the latter are prompted, by a sense of interest, to improve those estates, with whose produce they may purchase additional pleasures.”

This is a pretty terrific idea, and the closest I’ve seen anyone come to actually producing a definition of luxury that seems to some degree morally defensible. At a panel discussion earlier this month in London I happened to ask one of the panelists (Stephen Forsey, one of the founders of the ultra-high end watchmaking company Greubel Forsey, who make less than a hundred watches a year and whose prices start in the low six figures and rise sharply from there) if he had a theory of luxury, and he deftly turned the question back to me, inquiring if I happened to have one, since I was making so bold as to ask someone else.

I suppose that I do, at least in a general sense, but the evolution of modern mass-market luxury has called into question the notion of value return to “those estates, with whose produce they may purchase additional pleasures,” as Gibbon puts it, as well as what I think is a very important notion that travels along with this: that in nurturing both craft and the arts, the luxury world contributes to the development of human culture.

The simplest and most original notion of luxury that I can think of, can probably be articulated by the expression that something is luxury, which takes as long as it takes to make, and costs as much as it costs. In all of the places in which luxury originated, whether in Europe or the cradles of civilization in the near and far East, luxury goods were more or less anything that was rare and costly for one of two reasons, and often both: inherent rarity of materials, and inherent difficulty of craft.

I suppose that one of the best examples of a luxury product that the ancient world offers, is the dye known as Tyrian purple.

Tyrian purple dye produced fabrics with an extremely deep, rich color, ranging from a lighter reddish purple to almost black (the best was likened to the color of clotted blood) and was invented by the Phoenicians, who probably were using it as early as 1500 BC. The dye was not only visually striking but also supposedly had the property of actually deepening in intensity over time, rather than fading, as most dyes are apt to do. In Rome, wearing purple was a major status symbol. Sumptuary laws originally restricted its use: top-ranking magistrates could wear a toga edged with purple; generals celebrating a triumph could wear a full purple toga with a golden stripe. The latter was called the toga picta, which was also worn by the emperors; the color became so identified with them that “purple” became a metonym for the rank of emperor itself – a child of a reigning emperor was said to be phorphyrogenetis, or “born in the purple.”

Tyrian purple was not only inherently costly, but also very troublesome to make. You start with sea snails, of the dye murex family – one of the most used for making Tyrian purple was Bolinus brandaris, which is a predatory sea snail whose shell can reach almost ten centimeters in length. The snails have a gland called the hypobranchial gland, which secretes a mucus from which the pigment is extracted; the ink sacs found in cuttlefish, octopuses, and squid are modified hypobranchial glands. There is even a myth that the dye was discovered by Hercules, who noticed that his dog’s mouth was stained purple by eating the snails by the seashore; the story was the subject of a painting by Rubens.

Pliny the Elder described the laborious process of making the dye:

“The most favourable season for taking these (shellfish) is after the rising of the Dog-star, or else before spring; for when they have once discharged their waxy secretion, their juices have no consistency: this, however, is a fact unknown in the dyers' workshops, although it is a point of primary importance. After it is taken, the vein (the hypobranchial gland) is extracted, which we have previously spoken of, to which it is requisite to add salt, a sextarius (about 20 fl. oz.) about to every hundred pounds of juice. It is sufficient to leave them to steep for a period of three days, and no more, for the fresher they are, the greater virtue there is in the liquor. It is then set to boil in vessels of tin or lead, and every hundred amphoræ ought to be boiled down to five hundred pounds of dye, by the application of a moderate heat; for which purpose the vessel is placed at the end of a long funnel, which communicates with the furnace; while thus boiling, the liquor is skimmed from time to time, and with it the flesh, which necessarily adheres to the veins. About the tenth day, generally, the whole contents of the cauldron are in a liquefied state, upon which a fleece, from which the grease has been cleansed, is plunged into it by way of making trial; but until such time as the color is found to satisfy the wishes of those preparing it, the liquor is still kept on the boil. The tint that inclines to red is looked upon as inferior to that which is of a blackish hue. The wool is left to lie in soak for five hours, and then, after carding it, it is thrown in again, until it has fully imbibed the color.”

What Pliny doesn’t mention, though other writers do, is that the process was accompanied by an incredible stench. Apparently you have to start out by putting thousands of snails in vats and basically leaving them to rot, and even the final garments were said to have a faint, fishy smell. The odor was so bad that there is actually a dispensation in the Talmud, granting the right of divorce to any woman whose husband becomes a dyer after marriage. And it took a lot of snails to make a very small amount of dye – according to one researcher, 12,000 snails produce a mere 1.4 grams of dye, which is only enough to edge a single garment with one stripe of the coveted purple.

Now of course, this is absolutely a paradigm for what luxury is, in the traditional sense. Tyrian purple was very difficult to produce (to this day, the color has proven, at least thus far, impossible to duplicate; some critical manufacturing secret or secrets seem to have been lost) and while the raw materials don’t seem to have been especially scarce, the sheer amount of time and human resources needed to make the dye seems to have produced much the same result, in terms of rarity – and of course while the snails themselves had to exist in their hundreds of thousands or millions for the Tyrian dye industry to exist, the final product was exceedingly rare.

We see the same basic combination of rarity of materials and difficulty of craft as a defining feature of luxury right up until the last few decades of the 20th century, when a combination of mass media and mass production, coupled with the acquisition of luxury brands by publicly traded international groups like LVMH, transformed luxury from the very fine, made for the very few, to disposable products made in very large numbers for the very many. The whole transformation has been ably chronicled by Dana Thomas in her book, Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster. The arch-villain in her narrative is Bernard Arnault, who established the LVMH brands via mass advertising campaigns as aspirational for the general public. Caroline Weber, who reviewed her book in the New York Times, wrote:

“Insofar as luxury has gone corporate, relentlessly focused on the bottom line, quality has disappeared. In order to keep margins high (in 2005, LVMH recorded more than $17 billion in sales and a net profit of almost $1.8 billion), Arnault and his competitors have cut costs wherever and whenever possible. The most obvious strategies involve using cheaper materials, replacing skilled artisans with computers and machines and outsourcing labor to less expensive markets like China. Sneakier tactics include ‘cutting sleeves a half an inch shorter’ (“when you get to 1,000, you see the savings,” one employee told the author), replacing finished seams with raw edges and eliminating linings on the grounds that ‘women don’t really need’ them. A grouchy aside: my aforementioned sundress is (a) an LVMH brand and (b) unlined. It is also (c) white, which means that a lining would sure have come in handy. But if Arnault can amass a personal fortune of more than $21 billion by forcing me to display my underwear, then who am I to complain?”

This is the basic problem for consumers when confronted with modern luxury: the transition to producing goods as markers of status rather than embodiments of craft, for as little cost as possible. Of course, we can’t just blame status-seeking for the present state of affairs. The pursuit of luxury as a way of displaying social status is part and parcel of the whole history of luxury; interviewed in 1957, a few months before his death, Christian Dior said:

“I’m no philosopher, but it seems to me that women – and men too – instinctively yearn to exhibit themselves. In this machine age, which esteems convention and uniformity, fashion is the ultimate refuge of the human, the personal, and the inimitable. Even the most outrageous innovations should be welcomed, if only because they shield us against the shabby and the humdrum. Of course fashion is a transient, egotistical indulgence, yet in an era as somber as ours, luxury must be defended centimeter by centimeter.”

However, status as a result of quality and rarity is one thing; status as a result of marketing, branding, and chronic consumer insecurity, and whose traveling companions are shoddiness and planned disposability, is another.

Luxury, as Gibbon mentions, is an odious term; the acquisition of luxury is often associated with individuals, and with elements of human society, which are not necessarily noted for their tendency to place the common good first, or indeed to consider it at all. However, this is merely to note that the rich are susceptible to the same moral failings as the poor, and I honestly don’t have it in me to consider that wealth necessarily makes for vicious sensualism and corruption of the spirit, any more than it’s possible to believe that there is something inherently ennobling about poverty (one of my children was watching a kid’s cartoon many years ago and I was startled to hear one of the characters – a father, who worked as a garbage man, and whose daughter found his occupation humiliating – say, “You know, sweetheart, all I can tell you is that there are some perfectly nice people who are rich, and some perfectly nice people who aren’t.”) I don’t think luxury necessarily needs to be odious, however – in addition to acting as, as Gibbon remarks, a kind of “voluntary tax,” the support of luxuries includes the support of traditional crafts, and even the fine arts, without which our collective spiritual life would probably be much poorer. Lorenzo de’ Medici, called The Magnificent, was not, history tells us, anything like an especially nice person, but it’s hard to imagine Da Vinci without him; the two – great art, and its patrons – seem to go hand in hand.

The issue nowadays, though, is that while there are still some isolated oases of genuine craft, as well as some of genuinely interesting art, luxury by and large has become something different: a means for extracting the maximum amount of money, from as many individuals as possible, while delivering little in the way of what traditionally distinguished luxury, and instead offering at most, an ability to display some degree of social status, which is by design intended to be as transient as possible so that the next set of goods can be sold. This means that luxury, rather than being the voluntary tax of which Gibbon spoke, is now essentially a socially sanctioned means of defrauding its clients; the only good thing we can say about this situation, is that it is democratic, in that it happens to rich and poor alike. The difference, of course, is that the rich can afford to be defrauded better than the poor. This situation was recently deplored (in 2014) by the New York Times, in a story on Michael Kors bags:

“The irony, of course, is that the kind of woman the (Michael Kors handbag) ads depict is not the kind of woman who is going to buy a $300 bag, because she has a closet full of $5,000 ones at home. There is a perverse logic to the emergence of Michael Kors as the ultimate aspirational brand during the country’s most dramatic period of social inequality. In New York, census figures released this week indicated an ever more expansive divide between rich and poor. One of fashion’s cruelest means of trickery, one of its prevailing intoxicants, is to offer the illusion of wealth when the reality is too distant to inhabit.”

Probably the single best analysis of the decline and fall of luxury is still Dana Thomas’ book, which I think ought to be required reading for anyone interested in, and especially anyone working in, the luxury industry; it makes grim but necessary points that need to be grasped, if you want to understand why one can’t spend very much time in the luxury world, whether on the brand side or the consumer side, without beginning to wonder to what extent you’re purveying or getting shoddy goods. Mass production coupled with mass media, wedded lately to social media as a means to pursue, as well as create standards for, social validation, have bequeathed to us a very toxic brew, in which brands produce goods designed from the first to be disposable both qualitatively and symbolically, and consumers consume at a breakneck pace in order to stay just one breathless step ahead of the ravening wolves of social irrelevance; it’s an ugly business all around. Certainly there are still, here and there, places where quality for its own sake is still being pursued, and mass production needn’t necessarily mean low quality but the odds are very much against quality holding out when the pressure to reduce it, in the name of protecting the share value of a luxury conglomerate, is so high.

Still, as a person who has been more or less hopelessly in love with beauty for its own sake for as long as I can remember, I do hope that people making decisions at luxury brands realize that sooner or later, constantly raising prices while reducing quality turns the whole business of luxury into a zero-sum game with the consumer in which nobody wins. Beyond a certain point, even the largest and most powerful brands will tend to see their clients begin to abandon them (this has already happened in the luxury watch industry, to some extent, though I wonder if the current salutary realization watch brands are having, that they risk serious declines in interest in their work if they continue to try to offer less for more, will stick – for an industry that beats the drum of tradition so much, the watch industry nowadays has a very short memory). Consumers looking for value will increasingly, I think, tend to look elsewhere if luxury at any level continues to be more concerned with the results of quarterly earnings calls, than with honoring a centuries-old tradition of enriching human culture and providing a measure of return of value to society as a whole.

“Because it’s inherently rare and hard to make, and beautiful to boot,” is a very good reason for something to be expensive; “because we need to keep the share prices up and show bigger profits every quarter,” is not.

Jack Forster6 Comments