As with so many things worth contemplating, there's a delicious irony to luxury - a concept which has wide appeal, but which is out of the reach of the majority.
Rarefied as it may seem, luxury is traceable to a basic human need; a way of winning something back against life's little cruelties. Many luxury brands have a story, involving a hero who has struggled against great adversity. They rise nobly to the challenge, and the brand's success is the ultimate realization of their dream.
We might think of luxury as superfluous. Yet the type of luxury which offers the most lasting emotional reward could not possibly be described as such. Moreover, although luxury might be substitutable - after all, no one needs a luxury car to get to work - it is emphatically not redundant.
Luxury has always been somewhat ethereal and difficult to pin down.
Take the world of cars. Luxury is not leather seats and a plank of wood on the dashboard - else Britain's Rover brand would, ten years ago, not have died so ignominious a death.
Around that time, Volkswagen learned that enviable engineering and impeccable build quality are not sufficient to connote luxury, either. The VW Phaeton failed against its more established Stuttgart, Munich, and Ingolstadt competition. Luxury is not about being roughly as good as your target, for a little less money - or Infiniti would by now, fifteen years on, have managed to translate the pleasing performance of its G35 to credible parity with BMW. Luxury, also, is not just a brand name - else Cadillac, formerly the Standard of the World, would not have so difficult a time regaining the ground it lost in the Eighties.
"Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten," said Aldo Gucci in 1938. Both quality and luxury were easier to define back then. Both were primarily related to product.
One could speak of sculptural design elements, of rare materials, and of the skill and dichotomy of working with soft and hard surfaces. The patient skills of the artisan offered a reassuring alternative to all that was flashy, insubstantial, and evanescent.
It was implied that if one drove - for instance - a Mercedes-Benz, one appreciated the finer things in life and the heritage of knowhow and superlative effort that went into making such things.
Things haven't been quite so simple for some time. Many a luxury item is more a reflection of its price than its craftsmanship. The success of the same Mercedes driver is unquestioned, but their taste may yet be in dispute. Perhaps the pace of life is such that it is unrealistic to expect every luxury buyer to be a connoisseur.
Has the Mercedes itself changed? In some ways, yes. Even as manufacturing techniques have improved, enthusiasts could make the case that older Mercedes cars, more expensive in their day, were engineered and built with more time and care.
It also bears noting that Mercedes no longer sells just exclusive cars in the United States. With prices starting at under $33,000, it would be unrealistic for the cheapest Mercedes to be built to the same standards, or to offer the same experience, as the most expensive. If some of us subconsciously - optimistically - subscribe to those expectations, then deep down we must know that they cannot be met.
Democratizing luxury, whose very foundation is the unique and the rare, is bound to end in compromise. However, neither this nor Mercedes' line extensions may matter. The product is less important than it once was.
Almost twenty years ago, Lexus successfully challenged Mercedes. The Japanese proved the importance of a superior customer service experience. Today, this dialogue with the customer is an essential component of luxury; perhaps more so than the product itself.
It's probably fair to say that our expectations regarding a luxury product have changed. We might debate whether this is for the better or worse. The hand-wrought curves and peerless pedigree of yesteryear's Jaguar or Maserati are all for naught in 2017 when the car won't start.
Our expectations of the luxury experience, however, are definitely higher. Whereas dialogue with the customer might once have been the measuring and fitting for an exclusive pair of bespoke shoes, it is now part and parcel of every detail a luxury brand must consider; from the voice and attitude of the receptionist to the scent of the reception area.
To be sure, the product and its purveyor's history are by no means irrelevant. Luxury intertwines with the desire to surround oneself with products of a certain ilk. Those who have taken the trouble to develop an authentic product with an identifiable soul - which cannot easily be stolen - benefit from this. Apple, for example, is alone in its sector in owning both the hardware and the software of its products. This enables the company to more closely control the customer experience, and many customers would suggest that the experience is superior.
Today, however, it is surprising how often a modern luxury brand's know-how and credibility are more likely to pay dividends when applied to customer care and to activities which enhance the brand's aura, than to product engineering.
As consumers, we're either looking for love in all the wrong places, or simply too busy to stop and be impressed.