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There are two shockingly expensive forms of written communication in the contemporary world. There is the bar mitzvah invitation. I have seen those in Plexiglas, with their own power sources; and there was the wonderfully insane instance of David H. Brooks, the onetime defense-company CEO who spent $40,000 on his son’s leather-bound bar mitzvah invitations. (Brooks is now in prison for fraud.)
The other is the Billionaire’s Christmas card.
This story first appeared in the November 26, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
I’ll posit from here, basing my estimates on the many hundreds of holiday cards my husband and I have received from billionaires over the years.
This is how it goes:
In June, the Billionaire’s wife prepares him for the Photo. He should have a light tan and a haircut. His eyebrows have been trimmed, his nose hairs waxed, and his children outfitted in polo shirts and dresses that coordinate mellifluously—not matching, which is a bit too Awkward Family Photos, but merely harmoniously echoing one another. And the Billionaire smiles into the camera, a look of benign sovereignty fixed on his face, his hand (wedding ring showing) resting on his wife’s honeyed shoulder. Everyone has been professionally dusted and primped. Obviously, a name photographer shoots the images. (Including hair and makeup, photographer and assistants, and stylist, the shoot requires: six people.)
The photographs are retouched. Billionaire’s wrinkles are digitally relaxed, Billy’s pimple expunged. In September, Wife’s personal assistant presents her with the array of options. Saleswoman from the stationer arrives in a taxi with card options. (Photoshop technician, stationer, cabdriver: three people.)
Wife chooses an accordion-fold card able to accommodate several photographs, featuring blind stamping and watermarks in the forty-pound vellum—no logos. Oh, it’s sad when the regular people send off their holiday greetings and on the back one reads the words MINTED or TINY PRINTS or SHUTTERFLY. The wealthier you are, the less advertising you do for other people’s products.
The card will obviously feature several engraved areas, words of joyful holiday cheer engraved into the paper with hand-chiseled dies. The more colors that are featured close together—it’s called close registration, and it requires several separate dies—the more expensive. If you see a house portrait or a family crest in three or four colors engraved into a card, know that the dies alone for the image cost about $5,000.
The edge stain will be gold leaf, applied by hand. If there are any watercolor elements, add in the fee for the work, which is also done by hand. (Printers, die etcher, gold-leaf artist, watercolor artist: ten people.)
The envelope will be custom silk moiré. Everyone is loving the custom silk moiré these days. One of my favorite Billionaire wedding invitations last summer came from a Billionaire marrying his third or fourth wife; the invitation came in a long box covered in pink silk into which his and her initials had been woven.
For the holiday card, a family crest will be woven into the fabric.
The personal assistant will order custom stamps for the postage, which will be, due to the size and heft of the envelope, $3. (Stamp manufacturer, fabric designer, fabric manufacturer: three people.)
After the cards have been printed, they are delivered to the Wife, who takes one and examines it. It will be a thing of perfection. It will feel expensive, but the average person will have no idea how much it cost to fabricate this card. (Easily $100 apiece.) Once she has seen and acknowledged their perfection and felt their power, the personal assistant takes them to the calligrapher. A copy editor has gone over the List of those who will receive the card. (There are 700 cards to be sent.) The calligrapher is a former artist who now makes her living writing people’s names and addresses, every day, onto envelopes and place cards. She dreams of the day when she can make art, but for now she listens to National Public Radio and inscribes the names of wealthy people onto pieces of paper, over and over again, addressed to the same people so many times she can rattle off their addresses and ZIP codes and arrondissements by heart. So-and-so? Down and out at 720 Park Avenue. Whoosie-whats? They’re in Knightsbridge. Those guys? El Vedado Road, Palm Bitch. She notes deaths and divorces by what names she is now writing. She doesn’t ever meet any of them. (Messenger, editor, calligrapher, Terry Gross: four people.)
When they are addressed, they are returned to the Wife. She likes to see the finished product. She shows a sample to her husband, the Billionaire. He reflects upon this miniature masterpiece for thirty seconds, then places it on his mantel. Wife will give them to her assistant, who will give them, in their bundles tied with satin ribbon, to the worker behind the desk at the post office, with special instructions not to “bruise” them. (Total staff: 50 people. Total hours of labor: 500. Cost per piece, including fabrication and calligraphy: $125 each. Total cost: $87,500.)
And they are delivered, one by one, spreading out over the planet, handed over desks and fed through hand-polished brass door slots and placed inside wrought-iron boxes and received by uniformed ladies and gentlemen. They are passed into the piles of cards waiting for another man and his wife to look through on a holiday night, glasses of wine in hand, ready to pronounce whose kids are good-looking and whose are fat, whose new wife is the bomb, whose new beachfront house is obscene.
Another Billionaire will look at the pictures, and touch the edge of the vellum, and note the gold leaf, and feel a bit small and deflated for about four seconds, and then drop it into the pile of cards that have been read and will never be looked at again.