A Gift and a Taste of Where It’s From

New York Times, November 18, 2013

NEW YORK — The 2013 Christmas Book from Neiman Marcus does not include the most expensive gift that the Dallas-based luxury retailer has ever offered — that would be the $35 million Boeing jet advertised in 1999 — nor does it boast the most unusual: A pair of his and her mummy cases presented in 1971 for $6,000 may qualify for that honor.

Still, for buyers prepared to spend $1.85 million on a gift-with-purchase offer, the item on page 43 of the catalog merits attention. It is a 25-carat rough diamond that comes with a trip to Africa thrown in.

As one of eight “fantasy gifts” in the 87th edition of the Neiman Marcus holiday catalog, “The Forevermark Ultimate Diamond Experience” is emblematic of a new breed of luxury experience that combines a tangible good with a firsthand opportunity to trace its provenance. The trip is named after the brand of loose diamonds from the De Beers group of companies that designed the itinerary.

The idea that consumers are looking beyond products and customer service to experiential offerings is not new. “Future Shock,” Alvin Toffler’s 1970 polemic about the pace of change in our “super-industrial society,” devoted an entire chapter to “The Experience Makers.” And 14 years ago, the authors B. Joseph Pine and James H. Gilmore published its corollary, “The Experience Economy: Work Is Theater & Every Business a Stage,” in which they argued that memories themselves were the products that consumers most desired.

“When the book first came out in 1999, we talked about it being a nascent experience economy, a shift toward the experience economy,” Mr. Pine said. “When we wrote the update to the edition in 2011, we said, ‘Hey, it’s here.’ You can see it everywhere.”

From restaurants that charge admission, such as the Los Angeles hotspot Trois Mec or Grant Achatz’s trendsetting Chicago eatery Next, to companies like Lime & Tonic, which from its base in London creates personalized itineraries for 16 cities around the world — including Capetown, New York and Rio de Janeiro — the experience economy already embodies Mr. Toffler’s prescient vision. Now, however, luxury providers are upping the ante.

Hence the advice that Ginger Reeder, of Neiman Marcus, says she gave Forevermark when she approached that company about creating a gift for this season’s catalog: “I said, Go away and come back with a fantasy that would appeal to your clients,” Ms. Reeder said. “I told them not to edit themselves. Go over the top.”

The Forevermark team obliged — quite literally. The trip begins with a first-class flight to London, where the buyer and one guest will be escorted by helicopter to De Beers’ legendary headquarters at 17 Charterhouse Street.

“There, you will meet with a master diamond craftsman to discuss how he will unleash the hidden brilliance in your Forevermark diamond, which will result in a polished gem of approximately 11-13 carats, with near perfect color and clarity,” according to the 11-day itinerary. “You will learn about the unique number to be invisibly inscribed on your diamond, and select the name that it will carry forever.”

In keeping with the trip’s jewelry theme, the second day includes dinner at the Tower of London, home to the British crown jewels. Hosted by the De Beers chief executive, Philippe Mellier, and the Forevermark chief executive, Stephen Lussier, it will be served in the Queen’s House, where Anne Boleyn is said to have spent her last night before King Henry VIII had her executed.

The journey carries on to South Africa and a tour of Kimberley, where diamonds were first discovered in Africa in the mid-19th century, before touching down in Oranjemund (“Mouth of Orange”), a Namibian town on the northern bank of the Orange River that exists, almost entirely, to service the diamond industry.

From there, the buyer and his or her guest will tour the Debmar Atlantic, the ship that mines the offshore deposit where the 25-carat rough diamond was found. Next, they will follow the path of the stone to De Beers’ diamond sorting facility in the capital of Windhoek. The day winds down at a local children’s education nonprofit, where Forevermark’s commitment to “responsible sourcing” is the chief takeaway.

And so to New York, for a private consultation with the designer Maria Canale, who will create a piece of jewelry to order, using the polished diamond as a focal point.

The experience is “so unique — you almost can’t put a price tag on it,” said Adelaide Polk-Bauman, a Forevermark spokeswoman. She suggested that it could suit someone planning to pop the question, or a couple celebrating a wedding anniversary or honeymoon.

In a similar vein, the celebrity jeweler Martin Katz joined this year with the new owners of the New York Palace Hotel to design a three-story, 5,000-square-foot Jewel Suite that adds some extra glitter to merely lavish living.

“Martin is putting $1 million to $2 million of jewelry in the suite,” said David Chase, the hotel’s general manager, who described the suite as the cherry on top of its $140 million renovation. “Every time I say it, it sounds crazy.”

In addition to a permanent installation of Martin Katz couture jewels in the foyer, the suite, which costs $25,000 a night, offers a sprawling parlor with its own grand piano; a custom-designed, 10-seat mahogany dining table; and china, artwork and design elements that include a three-foot-wide Swarovski crystal replica of the jeweler’s diamond bow pin.

“When you’re there, you’re truly living in a gilded jewel box,” Mr. Katz said by telephone from Los Angeles.

The jewels on display may be under lock and key, but guests won’t leave the hotel empty-handed: Among the amenities is a Martin Katz Diamond Microband ring, valued at $2,500.

“It seemed fitting to include a jewel in the Jewel Suite,” Mr. Katz said.

Asked to speculate on whether guests would be given access to his more exclusive creations, Mr. Katz was carefully noncommittal.

“Anything’s possible,” he said. “But it would kind of depend.”

“Are they staying for a week or one night? I imagine the level of indulgence in the suite would merit different indulgences on the jewel side.”