The Wealth of the Past. Heritage and storytelling in the Swiss luxury industry

Catering to the rich is a key feature of any luxury industry. While the term “luxury” is notoriously difficult to define, Switzerland undoubtedly had many industries producing luxury goods or services. They range from gold watches made in Geneva to fine embroideries produced in St. Gall, from delicious chocolates from the shore of Lake Zurich to prestigious hotels in Lucerne, Montreux or St. Moritz. The luxuries on offer allowed the affluent classes to show off their wealth, often in conspicuous ways, and were thus a key way in which richness was put on display.

For several reasons, a panel on the history of the Swiss luxury industries fits in well within a conference dedicated to wealth. Considerable financial resources were necessary for the acquisition of luxury goods, their production involved highly specialised forms of knowledge and labour, and power was one of the main things made visible by means of their consumption. Werner Sombart was even convinced that luxury begot modern capitalism: “Und selbst wenn wir nur [die echten Luxusindustrien] ins Auge fassen, ist die Einflusssphäre des Luxus und seine Bedeutung für die Herausbildung des kapitalistischen Wirtschaftssystems ausserordentlich gross.”

While many companies linked today with luxury goods or services have a long history dating back to the 19th century or beyond, their marketing divisions adorn themselves with an apparently uninterrupted history of exquisiteness. It is the aim of this panel to look beyond this marketing façade and question the ways in which (invented) traditions are or can be used as resources in the Swiss luxury industry. This panel discusses how companies use their past (“heritage”) to re-position toward luxury or to boost the prestige of their brands. It will demonstrate that the storytelling that emerged from this social construction is often far from the actual history of these producers.

The proposed panel will place particular emphasis on the concept of “heritage” in luxury industries, i.e. the wealth of written, visual and above all material sources related to luxury companies. The analysis of the latter is particularly important for often brand identity in this industry is based on identifying seminal prototypes which shaped the corporation’s history (called the “DNA of a brand” by managers). The contemporary uses made of this great variety of evidence shall be problematised in order to differentiate between marketing-driven storytelling and archive-based historical research. This shall allow for a critical assessment of the uses made of this wealth of the past.

Contributions to this panel are invited from all fields of the Swiss luxury industry producing goods or services destined for the consumption of those who could afford them.

Verantwortung