The making of things precious

Economic anthropology of luxury products

The thesis deals with the quality and qualification of luxury products from a sociological and anthropological perspective, with a focus on perfume and wine, adopting a qualitative, partly ethnographic approach consisting in following products throughout their production process. Anne-Sophie Trébuchet-Breitwiller got her PhD from MINES ParisTech in December 2011

Reporting on quality perfumes and wines in the making

The research examines six empirical cases, three on perfume and three on wine making: the development of a branded perfume in a large marketing-based firm; a niche perfume designer and manufacturer (“Editions de Parfum Frédéric Malle”); natural raw materials processing for fine fragrance at a supplier in Grasse (“Laboratoire Monique Rémy”); quality improvement by a Burgundy winemaker; wine and vine care in a great estate (“Domaine Leflaive”); the history and the contemporary success of a reputable estate (“Domaine de la Romanée-Conti”).

                                             Clos des Chevaliers in Puligny-Montrachet

Through comprehensive description and comparison, the research brings to light some interesting developments that currently occur in high-quality wine and perfume markets. We observe actors uncommonly interested in objects, that is, actors who distinguish by putting the objects themselves (their materiality) at the heart of their economic and marketing strategy. Regarding fine fragrance for example, the thesis analyzes the emergence a "perfume for perfume's sake" tendency, that is, perfumes that are created and sold without advertising or "it girl" or alluring bottle, luxury perfumes whose qualification and valuation largely relies on olfactory qualities alone. This modernism, or this sort of "baroque" movement (a return to objects made pure and legible), is equally observed in wine. The great Burgundy estates observed turn their interest and attention towards vine care and grape growing. Here they practice organic and biodynamic farming. Grape itself is being restored as the primary site where quality shall be made, or better, where quality shall express itself.

        Weed control organic (left) or chemical (right) in the Chevalier-Montrachet vineyard (2004)
The valuation mechanism of the "precious"

The renewal of the "terroir" as key factor in the qualification and valuation of great wines appears to be both a strong example and a strong metaphor of the original mechanisms studied in this thesis. This very mechanism, namely the making of the "precious", shall be distinguished from what is more commonly called "luxury". One important result of the research is indeed to isolate the valuation mechanism of the precious as one specific form that can govern the qualification and valuation process of a product (cases of niche perfumery or of the Burgundy estates studied); but which can also be itself strictly framed, when it is ruled by another qualification and valuation strategy of the product (cases of the branded perfume or of the winemaker studied).

This discovery emphasizes a close link that exists between luxury, quality, and high prices, all aspects that the notion of "precious" is holding together. But this discovery makes also clear how and why this link is certainly not automatic. The ambiguity maintained by the looser notion of "luxury" falls indeed, the thesis shows, with the clearer notion of "precious".

What is remarkable in these markets for precious things is the visible continuity of the qualification and valuation processes. As a consequence of the crucial place given to the object itself, these markets come out with a tremendous valuing of both things and persons, be they consumers or producers. In this respect, the replacement of the traditional "consumer" by a new and supposed competent "connoisseur" or "lover", that is an essential feature of these sorts of markets, is both defining and significant.

                                 Biodynamic preparation stirring (Domaine Leflaive, 2004)
Converting work experience into an exciting socio-economic research

After graduate studies in literature and a then ten-years professional experience in the industry as a market researcher, Anne-Sophie Trébuchet-Breitwiller chose to devote to academic research. She turned to the anthropology of markets and to the approaches developed at the Centre de Sociologie de l'Innovation (CSI), in order to scrutinize from an anthropological angle what she first experienced as a professional: the building of markets, and especially of luxury markets. There she completed her doctoral research under the supervision of Pr. Antoine Hennion.

                             Pr. Antoine Hennion
with Anne-Sophie Trébuchet-Breitwiller

Anne-Sophie Trébuchet-Breitwiller is currently a Professor at the Institut Français de la Mode (IFM), in Paris. She continues her research and academic collaborations on quality products and the anthropology of the precious.

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