The Sounds of Luxury

James Wojcik

For connoisseurs, fine design is perceived by all five senses—including the ears.

Soundprints are stored on several computers at the workshop of Vacheron Constantin in Geneva, Switzerland. White-coated lab workers care­fully handle the company’s new Calibre 1731 minute-repeater watches, passing each one under a sensitive microphone that records the exact harmonic profile when it chimes. These files act like digital DNA. “The unique sound of each chime is recorded and kept as a soundprint,” explains artistic director Christian Selmoni. “If the watch returns for service, that means we can restore it to the exact original chiming tone.”

Sound is central to Vacheron Constantin’s newest masterpiece. Its technical team worked to create the purest chime possible, developing a silent speed regulator to minimize background noise. It uses tiny screws and rotors in its governor in place of the traditional lever-type system to eliminate even the faintest whir. So complex is this movement, called the flying strike governor, that only four Vacheron Constantin watchmakers are qualified to build it, each with at least 15 years’ experience in horology. To watch aficionados, this a $409,900 chime, but to the uninitiated, it’s just a pleasant peal.

Proving that status-conscious sounds are not just about price, the trademark ping of Line 2 lighters by S.T. Dupont, which retail from $920, is so embraced by customers that two full-time staffers spend their days inspect­ing each briquet to ensure the distinctive metallic sound rings true. “If they say it’s not good,” notes marketing and product development director Boaz Unger, “we rework the lighter until it gets the right sound—or we scrap it.”

Think of one of the other senses and the luxurious experiences that go with it: the feel of sheared mink, a glimpse of untouched African veld, the taste?of Iranian beluga, even the smell of Chanel No 5. Sound, however, is a more elusive channel, subjective even. One woman’s pleated Krizia metallic dress is another’s crinkly post-marathon Mylar wrap; stiletto heels machine-gunning across marble might titillate some but irk others. Is the ding of Baccarat crystal smoother and rounder than the tinny tinkle of glass? Certainly—at least to some refined ears.

Subtle sonic signatures strike a deeper chord than ever in an era of the universal mute button. “So much of luxury now is about the sound of silence,” notes Jonah Disend of the brand-development company Redscout, based in San Francisco and New York, citing cellphone-free retreats and noise-canceling headphones. “And yet there are some evocative sounds that still really resonate with people for some reason.”

Every luxury car, for example, has its own distinctive soundscape, a siren’s call to would-be buyers from the moment they open a door in a hushed, plushly carpeted showroom. As long as the click is substantial, it’s the sound of a sale. When Bentley upgraded to a motorized lock with a reassuringly firm closure, according to design director Luc Donckerwolke, it not only negated the need to slam doors but was also more pleasant to the ear. The company’s engineers also introduced a clicking sound, intended to ape the bezel of a chronograph watch, on the controls on the center console. Veneered interiors were backed with wooden blocks partly for acoustic rather than aesthetic reasons. “You’re on the phone, nervously tapping your fingers on the materials you have around you,” Donckerwolke says. “If you do that on the wood in the rear compartment of the Mulsanne, it will not sound hollow but always full.”

For Donckerwolke and his fellow car designers, then, the sound of luxury may be somewhat consistent. Others, though, see it as a more complex sensory challenge, one that goes beyond the ear alone. Take chef Heston Blu­menthal, who, at The Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, Berkshire, England, serves up a pile of seafood with an iPod to be listened to while eating the dish, aptly named the Sound of the Sea, waves crashing with every mouthful. Blumenthal’s mad-scientist-like approach to cooking has included experiments at the University of Oxford; the Sound of the Sea is a byproduct of his gastronomic research. The experience isn’t just synthetic but also synesthetic. “We ate an oyster while listening to the sea,” Blumenthal told Square Meal magazine, “and it tasted stronger and saltier than when we ate it while listening to barnyard noises, for example.”

Trevor Cox is the author of The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World (W.W. Norton & Company) and conducts similar acoustic experiments as a professor of engineering at the University of Salford in England. He has looked at the relationship between sound and perceived quality; in cars, for example, Cox says that Japanese consumers associate top-tier performance with a low hum, while Western buyers seek a guttural roar. There is one quality that remains a sonic constant everywhere, to everyone, however: We find even, rich noises most pleasing. “Think of when an orchestra strikes up, or someone drags their fingernail down a blackboard, how the hairs on the back of your neck stand up,” Cox says. “We have a very fast fight-or-flight mechanism based on sound.”

Thanks to evolution, sound has powerful but subtle impacts on our behavior—including how we shop, at least according to a study by the University of Leicester, in the UK. In a supermarket study, researchers played a soundtrack that switched on alternate days between French accordion music and a Bierkeller-ready oompah band. Whenever the music had a certain je ne sais quoi, 77 percent of wine sold was French; if the brass band played, a similar proportion sold was German. No wonder Harrods hired an outside firm, the Surrey, UK–based Sound Agency, to construct abstract soundscapes to attract customers to glassware rooms and other areas like the toy department. The same thinking, of course, powered Vacheron Constantin’s investment in its minute repeater. At a time when opulence is expected to whisper huskily rather than scream, more Marilyn than Donatella, discreet sound cues like these are even more fitting.

Beyond the potential power of custom soundscapes like Harrods’, stores are exploring new ways that sound can make people buy. Paul Fulberg, founder of Sonicbrand, a London firm that ties music with brands, says several high-end retailers are experimenting with directional speakers that can geolocate and respond to a particular customer, to create what’s described as a personalized audio experience. Imagine stroll­ing past a premium jewelry store as its sensors detect the Vacheron Con­stantin app on your smartphone and trigger speakers to play that bell-clear chime. “It’s an ambient sound message just for you,” he says. “The aim is to give you the ultimate service. It’s like someone coming to talk to you and asking how you’re doing—they are just trying to replicate it using sound technology.”