Of high-priced streetwear, de Matteis remarks: “It’s expensive. But where is the quality? Our customers, who don’t want the brand label on the outside, who don’t want everyone to know they’re wearing a Kiton suit—they would never buy that sort of product. They would never wear it. It’s like in the 1980s, remember when everyone was crazy about those plastic watches, and they were buying and selling them all over the world for thousands of dollars? The price came entirely from the rarity of some of those watches and from there the surge in demand. But now, there’s no demand. And because the value was not grounded in quality, those watches are virtually worthless.”
It’s not just plastic timekeeping trinkets that are at the mercy of fluctuations in supply and demand. Things with supposedly intrinsic value can also suffer. Take the example of pearls. These rare natural marvels were once more prized and, in many cases, more valuable than gemstones. The unfortunate story of Morton Plank illustrates how quickly that changed. In 1917, this wealthy New York financier swapped his vast Fifth Avenue mansion for a million-dollar Cartier pearl necklace, a gift for his young wife. Before long though, Mikimoto’s invention of cultured pearls saw supply rise and prices plummet. Following Mrs Plank’s death in 1956, the necklace was sold for just 15 percent of its original price, while the former Plank mansion, which remains Cartier’s New York flagship, is today worth hundreds of millions. (Proof positive of property’s perennial value as the ultimate rare commodity. “Buy land,” as Mark Twain’s aphorism goes. “They’re not making it any more.”)
The pearl’s fate could soon befall diamonds. Often cited as the prime example of artificial scarcity, diamonds aren’t nearly as rare as gem marketeers would have us believe. Diamond prices were first inflated by the De Beers company, which cornered the market in the 1880s, hoarded huge stockpiles of the shiny rocks and released them in sufficiently stingy quantities to assure the world of their scarcity— while simultaneously embarking on an aggressive marketing campaign that convinced men they needed to buy their fiancée a ring costing two months’ salary.
Spending that sum on a Birkin would probably be a better investment, as a diamond’s resale price drops by more than a third the moment it leaves the store. The stones’ dwindling value may be compounded by the increasing sophistication and acceptance of laboratory-grown diamonds. These can be created in unlimited quantities using scientific processes mimicking the highpressure conditions ‘real’ diamonds develop under. They’re virtually indistinguishable from naturally formed gems, and they’re free of the ethical and environmental concerns that plague their mined twins.
Prominent gallerist Pearl Lam likens art valuations to those of diamonds— it’s a matter of perception and market acceptance. “We give the value to a painting ( just as) we give the value to a diamond. What makes a diamond, each carat, worth that price? Someone set that price, but we support it by agreeing to that price, by paying that price… A diamond is just a rock. If no one buys it, it’s worth nothing. But if everybody is buying, then the price consumers will pay, that’s its value,” she suggests.
“With a painting, it’s the same thing. The painting is a perception. We summon the perception of the value of the painting and people support that by buying it,” Lam says. If she prices a work in her gallery at a certain amount and a collector agrees to that sum, the dollar appraisal is legitimised. “For art, and for many other things, we give the value by believing in the value. What is important today in art? If you have the curators, the museums, the big collectors endorsing it, then the artwork, the artist, becomes the next big thing. You know, it’s all about marketing. It’s like everything and anything. You sell the perception of success.”
Using successful sportsmen as ambassadors, sneakers used to be sold by giving consumers the perception—or perhaps, the vague hope—that the shoes would improve their athleticism. While many of the most collectible sneakers