Decadence. It is a term not uncommonly—and always critically—applied by the uninitiated to our collective efforts here, and doubly so to this annual tome, Best of the Best, the principal goal of which appears to such individuals to be an unabashed seduction of the hapless reader (however financially equipped for the ordeal) into reckless excess. Whenever I am asked by a disdainful inquisitor, “How can you spend all of your time writing and reporting on things that are so—well, superficial?” I endeavor to imagine the tableaux of depravity that haunt my interlocutor’s conscience. While it is conceivable that he envisions our innocent reader fatally entrapped by the sinuous and deadly coils of a conspicuous consumption that, like a narcotic, foments addiction and moral dissolution, it is more likely that he pictures an individual akin to the 19th-century Decadent—obsessed with the exotic, with pushing the limits of sensual dissipation: a sort of latter-day Duke Jean Floressas des Esseintes, if you will.
Although hardly admirable, this baroquely named protagonist of J.-K. Huysmans’ novel, À rebours (Against Nature), has at least one trait to recommend him: his taste for the unusual, the original. Granted, these affinities are of an odd sort, even by the most cynical standards. His passion for the strange inspires him to host, in a funeral-parlor setting, a dinner party at which is served, on black china, an ebony-hued menu consisting of ripe olives, black rye bread, caviar, black cherries, black puddings with licorice sauce, and black ale. Because he reveres the artificial above all else—the simulated and synthetic being, to his manner of thinking, less common than the productions of nature—he seals up the windows of his château, devising lamps to emit a false sunlight at night into his rooms, whose walls he covers in gilded Moroccan leather, like rare volumes, and on whose floors are strewn the most intricately arabesque Turkish carpets. When these prove insufficiently garish, M. des Esseintes commissions his jeweler to dip the shell of his pet tortoise (he has a fondness for reptiles, as well as for carnivorous plants) in molten gold and stud its dome with precious gems, such that, in contrast with the poor creature, his rugs seem dull. Still, the most useful of his extravagances is his “mouth organ,” which resembles its pipe counterpart, except that each button, rather than emitting a note of music, releases instead a liquor or wine corresponding in taste to the tone of the chosen key, enabling des Esseintes to compose symphonies with gin, whiskey, and Benedictine.
The fictional aristocrat’s debauchery (which, he being French, naturally extends to his libido as well) outraged and shocked the reading public upon the book’s debut in 1884, in part because of its subject matter, but more so on account of the tireless detail with which its author depicts the experiments of its hero. Arthur Symons, the British poet, went so far as to praise the volume as “the breviary of the Decadence.”
My dour critic might, if not for the demands of courtesy, wish to apply this label to our own publication—and not in praise. Though the phrase does not make a bad tag line (I’ve often considered that we need to update ours), I would, obviously, have to disagree. An appreciation of luxury does not equate with materialism: While the latter connotes a complete neglect of life’s intellectual and spiritual goals, the former actually requires that we first attain them. The true connoisseur understands that the enjoyment of quality is less a lapse of discipline than the exercise of it. To take pleasure, for instance, in the beauty of Patek Philippe’s 10-Day Tourbillon is to discern the simple elegance of its casing, the ingenious subtlety of its design, rather than its overt display value. Likewise, those readers of Robb Report whom I have met embrace the Lamborghini Gallardo as much for its restraint as a “daily driver” as for its law-defying performance and its 192-mph top speed.
Of course, our readers share with Huysmans’ character a love of the one-of-a-kind; yet the appeal of Cartier’s creations has more to do with their artistry than with the weight of their stones. I do not know whether the venerable Paris house has received requests for gold-dipped reptiles, but inquiries will not have come from our audience. I cannot necessarily say the same, however, for des Esseintes’ mouth organ—particularly if it comes supplied with the spirits listed on page 260.
Senior Vice President, editorial