Money

Here's What Billionaires Actually Give Each Other As Gifts

The fashionable 1 percent isn't interested in luxury goods, but they are really afraid of death.

by Harry Cheadle
Dec 20 2019, 11:00am

This holiday season, spare a thought for those among us who have more than they can ever possibly spend. Imagine a stereotypical member of the 1 percent class who has closets full of luxury fashion, a house equipped with the latest in high-end entertainment technology, a driveway overflowing with cars. Sounds nice, but that kind of lifestyle presents a problem at Christmas: What gifts can you get someone who literally has everything?

Rich people, like unhappy families, are all different. Members of the working class may be consumed by mundane concerns like making sure their kids can go to college and their cars can get them to their jobs, but the wealthier you are, the more resources you can devote to your personal interests and esoteric hobbies, whether that means getting really into Scotch, exotic pets, or toppling governments. Tailoring a gift to a rich person's idiosyncratic desires is therefore paramount.

"There are different stages of development in the high net worth world," said Winston Chesterfield, the founder of Barton Consulting, a firm that advises companies marketing luxury items to the wealthy. Those who are new to wealth tend to flaunt it, he said: "Whether you're in the U.S.A. or Ukraine you want to express it, you want to show that you have wealth to your family members, to people who are friends of your family, to yourself. You want to prove it." That means watches and jewelry for your spouse, new cars for your kids, Travis Scott giving Kylie Jenner an over-the-top diamond necklace made to look like her company's logo.

But people who have had money for longer—either because they've grown up rich or because they've had years to enjoy their money—tend to lose that urge to flash. "They feel that actually it's a risk to spend money," said Chesterfield. "They get a little bit more cynical and they get a little more focused on value for money." This type of rich person might be generous in giving to charity, they might buy something for a family member whenever asked, but they aren't buying ribbon-adorned Range Rovers for their kids to wake up to on Christmas morning. "People worth hundreds of millions don't really just gift wall-to-wall Louis Vuitton and Chanel boxes," said Chesterfield. "That's not really what they want to do."

In other words, you could blow your entire paycheck on a handbag for your fashionable over-privileged friend and it would only confirm how out of step you are. As chronicled in a 2018 article about gift-giving in the notoriously posh British magazine Tatler, among many rich people it really is the thought that counts—you want to lavish attention and time on your friends, not just money, though you will naturally spend a lot of money on gifts too:

Nothing is more piously time-consuming than an experience gift: something that you can do together, such as a transatlantic cruise on the Queen Mary 2 for a cherished friend who’s scared of flying, or a course with their favourite personal trainer at the Lanesborough. You might even, for a friend’s 50th birthday, give her 50 different experiences in the 50 days running up to the big day. And then, when your birthday came around, she would remember you once told her that, as a teenager, you really fancied a chef from Ready Steady Cook, then hire him for the night to rustle up a meal at the Connaught with six of your best friends.

(Don't worry if you don't know what the Lanesborough or the Connaught are; you can't afford to stay in those hotels anyway.)

So it's no surprise that this year's gift guide from Robb Report, a luxury publication that contains a lot of coverage of private jets, skews heavily toward the experiential. The list includes horseriding lessons from famed show jumper Jessica Springsteen, a trip to France to make your own Cognac blend, and a meal subscription service that provides truffles, caviar, suckling pigs, and live fish and shellfish—at $49,000 a year for quarterly deliveries meant to feed 15 to 20 people, it promises to be "less Blue Apron and more Marie Antoinette."

That's the kind of gift swapped among the .01 percent. Down a few class pegs, denizens of merely 1 percent level might consider buying a friend a "closet edit" from Bree Jacoby, a luxury personal shopping and stylist service that will dispatch an expert to your home to go through your wardrobe for the low price of just $1,000. "Everybody needs a closet edit and everyone hates doing it for themselves," said Jacoby, who said that her clients spend at least $10,000 a year on clothes. "The experience is invaluable. You're not buying clothes, they're really getting honest advice on what you have, what you need. We're getting rid of things, clearing out for the new year."

But the real appeal of experiential gifts is that they give the recipient something rewarding to do with their time, the one thing that money still can't buy. "They're very conscious of time running out," said Chesterfield of the wealthy. "They're very conscious of the fact that they don't have limitless time left on earth."

It's not just fear of death, it's fear of decline, Chesterfield noted. Some rich people may have eaten, drank, and drugged to excess in their youth and are worried about the long-term consequences. Maybe they've spent long hours tanning on the deck of a yacht, and are now thinking about skin cancer. Others may worry about dementia setting in. Like the rest of us, rich people are obsessed with wellness—they might drop thousands at Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop Summit or run up immense tabs at spa resorts like Thailand's Soneva Kiri or Switzerland's Alpina Gstaad. According to Chesterfield, international travelers spend about $21 billion on wellness activities outside their hotels, and $9.6 billion of that is spent by high net worth people. "This is what they care about," he said. "They take part in all these activities, they go on these yoga retreats, they will spend the money to do these things because they believe it's worth it for them." Health is wealth, as the saying goes, though it is possible to convert the latter into the former.

OK, but what if you can't afford high-end anti-aging skin creams, or jewelry, or closet edits, but you still have a 1 percenter friend you need to buy something for? Chesterfield had a simple suggestion: a book.

"There's one thing that the wealthy will never have everything of, and that's knowledge," he said. "They will never be able to predict everything. They will never be able to win everything." More than most people, they have time to read, and time to consider ideas in politics, science, and philosophy. "As long as that book is not attacking them and their way of life, they would value that gift and they would see that gift for an intelligent gift," said Chesterfield. "They're going to say, I really appreciate you buying that as a very thoughtful gift. I really, really enjoyed reading it."

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Tagged:
Fashion
gift guide
wellness
billionaires