Spot the really rich, if you can

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 February, 2006, 12:00am

ANYONE CAN BUY luxury these days. It seems almost everybody who has put in some hard work - or mortgaged their lives - can afford a Mercedes-Benz E-class, a VIP credit card or even a gold toilet before their 30th birthdays.

The really rich have understood that the ground has shifted and, therefore, have moved on.

They do not wear their riches like neon signs any more. Simplicity and discretion are the new definition of luxury. Of course, everyone expects the rich to have a lot of square footage and a decent ride, but that is not enough any more.

It is the subtle signs of wealth that count. If you were to open a rich man's wallet, you might find an American Express Centurion card, the phone number of a personal spiritual guide and a receipt for a donation to a society for the protection of abandoned sea birds.

For the newly wealthy, though, this poses a problem. As they romance the rich life, they want to wear it all and show it all. And when they do, the only message that blares out is nouveau riche.

So veteran wealth-watchers are working hard to find new ways of identifying the truly rich.

An executive of the luxury lifestyle magazine Noblesses explained how she spots the real rich. 'It's all in the walk,' she said.

Privacy is also important. Those leading a life of privilege do not always want others to know how they are spending it.

According to the general manager of Rolls-Royce in Hong Kong, Jason Broom, privacy features are the most frequently requested add-on options.

'Most people want curtains. They could be riding around with someone they do not want to be seen with,' he said.

Some businessmen measure their portfolios by the number of mistresses they keep, spending an average of $30,000 a month on entertaining and housing them. Privacy is so important, the mistresses live in private communities.

People among whom money is no issue are prone to having whatever they want whenever they want it - and vice versa. They marry, remarry and then marry again, rarely sticking around for the downs of matrimony.

It is the ceremony and status a wedding ring gives them that they love, according to one serial husband, the chief executive of an investment bank in Asia.

The really rich also spend more carefully. According to a manager at Jardine Travels, those who have the most spend the least. Yes, private islands with butler services are nice, but only if the price is right.

Most of Jardine's wealthy clients look for deals when they plan a getaway. Some choose oases of palms and olive trees in Marrakech while others opt for the jungles of Angkor Wat, but what they all want is a good deal on flight tickets. Splurging on hotels, restaurants and shopping is another matter, though.

The rich are not stingy about services either. Whether travelling or at home, concierge services such as those offered by American Express's Centurion are popular among the jet set. And no request is too outrageous.

They've heard it all, according to Catherine Lai, manager of public affairs and communications for American Express Hong Kong.

Unusual requests are made as breezily as asking for a second helping of dessert. One Centurion card customer asked for Italian lion dancers to perform at his wedding in Napoli, Italy, in August, when most Italians are on holiday. Despite several attempts, none could be found.

At Aman Resorts, where staff are used to all types of requests, managers go as far as they possibly can.

'Guests' requests are not over the top if they are possible,' said Avon Wong, public relations assistant at the company.

Even business hotels, such as the Westin chain, have started giving service a new meaning - every guest room has a phone with a 'whatever' button.

But beyond the white beaches or safari lodges, exotic travel may bring the rich face to face with poverty, desperation and third-world plumbing. That, it is said, can be heartbreaking, and can prompt a bout of upper-class guilt.

This is probably why the 1980s and 1990s style of self-absorbed wealth consumption is now being tempered by a certain friendliness towards ecology and the United Nations. Those with fat cheque books are holding fund-raisers to spotlight social issues such as poverty, illiteracy and a lack of schools.

Do-good-feel-good is what people with money now want to experience, since homes, yachts, jewels, breasts, access, embryos and even people can be bought. Love, nobleness and emotional experiences, it seems, are not as easy to buy - and, therefore, connote real luxury.