An eye for quality and an aptitude for taste are not the same thing. The person who can recognize at a glance the perfections or flaws in a diamond, its precise color and grade, is not necessarily the same individual who can choose the style of setting that will show that stone to its best advantage. The art restorer who can, with the unremitting exactitude of a geologist sorting core samples, distinguish 17th- from 19th-century oil-paints—or who can discuss with assurance the drawbacks of rabbitskin glue as a canvas sizing—is not necessarily able to articulate the delicacies of chiaroscuro, the shadings of white, or balance of composition that transform the figure in Rembrandt’s Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer from a prosaic costume portrait into a visual metaphor of the human quest for knowledge. And the sorry soul who chooses his art and furnishings in accordance with the scholar’s regimented ideals of period and place frequently finds himself living in the dull, impersonal discomfort of a museum.
The pursuit of quality is an admirable one, and for many of us, a lifelong passion. Once the need for it takes hold, the condition is permanent—not to mention cumulative. One may contendedly, in one’s youth, cruise the neighborhood in a late-model Corvette convertible—until one discovers the mysteries of the Mercedes-Benz SL. And once that threshold has been crossed, one will naturally want to press the experiment to its ordained conclusion, in which vehicles such as the Ferrari 575 Maranello or the Aston Martin Vanquish inevitably figure. From these, one can never turn back—as their owners will attest.
The same can be said of clothes. One can dress with blissful ignorance from off the rack; but once after sampling the sartorial splendors of custom-tailored suits, one’s entire perspective shifts. The lesser garments suddenly scratch and cling, and one feels one’s movement constrained by ill-fitting seams in comparison to the form-fitting perfection of an ensemble from Oxxford, whose careful hand-stitching and lightweight Super 200 wool make one feel as though one hardly wears anything at all—and the freedom of movement one enjoys while thus clad approaches revelation.
This gradual and relentless addiction to quality assumes countless forms, and discoveries in one sphere influence and inspire further discoveries in another. Still, quality for quality’s sake is a monotonous exercise without the organizing faculty of taste. The superiority of an Oxxford suit, however comfortable, does not ensure that its wearer will pair it with an appropriate shirt and tie. The owner of the most beautifully designed and technologically advanced automobile will do himself paltry credit if he orders the vehicle painted a hot pink and upholstered in zebra skin. Nor will the reckless host who pours Château Haut-Brion 1989 beside a plate of chili dogs enhance his guests’ appreciation of either wine or food. Taste, quite distinct from appraisals of quality, is not a personal preference, but a principle of selection that guides our choices in order to accentuate the intrinsic value of an object, as well as its harmonious relation to other objects with which it is associated.
If these cautions smack of snobbery, then the preceding paragraphs have failed in their aim. Their intention has been to convey that neither quality nor taste is relative—that objects of high quality have an internal logic that governs the ways in which they correspond to people and to each other. Taste is merely a matter of perceiving and respecting this logic, such that our pleasure in and understanding of these objects transcends the sum of their parts.
Given the colossal amount of work involved in compiling this annual issue, brimming as it is with the world’s loot—the most intricate, the most advanced, the fastest, the most rare—it seems fitting to contemplate for a moment how each of us decides which of these items speaks to him personally and why. It seems more fitting still to reflect on how the appeal of, say, a house designed by Richard Neutra might, following the principles of good taste, inspire one to choose for one’s next watch an Audemars Piguet Concept over, say, a more traditional Rolex. The finer points of such instincts are, after all, what quality—and experiencing the Best of the Best—is really about.