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Style and Travel

Brown is the new black

Nick Foulkes on the lure of credit cards

12 March 2008

12:00 AM

12 March 2008

12:00 AM

We read that Britain is a nation in debt; indeed debt is one of our cherished national characteristics — nothing like slapping down the plastic and getting that shot of instant gratification. I am not sure that there is a word that does for credit cards what philately does for stamps, but there should be because I collect them and have just added what must be the equivalent of some sort of rare first-printing Penny Black. At least I hope that I have, as I have only just filled in the paperwork, and the card is not black, but brown.

Credit and charge cards are indicators of everything from your financial health to your self-image. Like it or not, a card sends a message. Whether Coutts or Co-op, a card says something. Remember the time that black Amex Centurion cards came out? I can, and I can also remember the envy I felt when I was not invited to become a holder of this card — I felt like a political donor denied a peerage. I had loyally spent my way through thousands of pounds brandishing my American Express card everywhere from Cartier to the forecourt of my local Jet station and as a long-standing platinum cardholder I felt entitled to a nice black card.

It is all rather silly in retrospect and I even toyed with the idea of busting myself back to a green card, which I fondly envisaged proferring with the throwaway lie, ‘You know I was offered a black card, but when I looked at what it cost I was so shocked I went back to green.’ But in the end force of habit and laziness kept me on the platinum. I couldn’t tell you what it costs a year now, but I am used to it, even though the benefits, airline lounges and travel insurance, do not amount to much.

In fact I thought that, at 43, I had grown out of my credit-card envy, and that was when I received a silk matte package that stank of modern plutocracy. I tore it open and out tumbled some documentation, on which the Harrods lettering glowed in gold.

I was being invited to become a holder of the Harrods American Express card. Forget the mere Centurion card, offered to any old high-net-worth individual; this was a card among cards. My hands trembling, I flicked through the literature and read it so quickly that at first it seemed as though I was being told that Oscar Wilde had held this card.

On careful reading I discovered that actually dear old Oscar had nothing to do with it, he had just been a Harrods account holder during the 1880s. But I have to say that I think the evocation of Oscar was apposite — he would have been tickled Tyrian Pink at being asked to carry a brown card (although he would probably only have used it in the country).

I was being asked to enter the world of the Harrods Amex holder and what a world it promised to be; a world of limited edition Philippe Starck for Baccarat chandeliers so big that they would reach from the ceiling to the carpet of my sitting-room; a world where people drank Krug Clos du Mesnil 1996; a world of gem-set Cartier watches that I could only afford to put around the wrist of Mrs Foulkes were I to sell the house in which I had just installed said Philippe Starck for Baccarat chandelier.

But there was more, much more. If I spent £5,000 (not just in one afternoon you understand but in one 12-month period), I would be awarded a night at the Ritz. At Christmas I would be invited to special shopping evenings, with fellow aesthetes and card-holders, where I would get VIP access to Santa’s Grotto and quadruple Harrods points every time I made a purchase — I don’t know what these points are, but I know I want them very, very much.

Moreover my spending would be analysed by a team of skilled demographers who would ascertain what sort of experience I would like to have. If I spent tens of thousands of pounds at Billionaire Couture on python-skin knickknacks and flamboyant eveningwear, I might be invited to have dinner with Flavio Briatore; then again, if I took a fancy to a white leather Valextra suitcase and purchased a suite of such luggage, I might be whisked to the Valextra factory to see the cult leather goods being made. Based on my shopping it is likely that I will get offered a tour of a supermarket ready-meal production plant. Then there were the special products that only Harrods Brown Amex customers were allowed to buy, videlicet an alligator briefcase from Valextra, special brown china and, sadly, not brown champagne but champagne in brown packaging. Best of all, I would be offered 10 per cent off Harrods aviation the next time I hired an aeroplane — that was the clincher.

I was smitten, my pen was soon dancing across the application document weaving a merry tale of high-net worth, financial stability and all the other polite fictions and formalities that are required. I made sure that I had dispatched the documentation to the relevant authorities before I told my wife that we were about to become to Harrods Brown Amex holders.

‘Just how often do you hire a jet darling?’ she asked rather uncharitably.

‘OK, OK,’ I answered. ‘But we will save money, because as soon as I get my brown card I’m resigning my Platinum Amex.’

She was not remotely impressed by my frugality. ‘You know the children and I find the lounge access rather handy and we will probably be flying scheduled rather more frequently than Harrods Aviation.’

It looks like we are about to become a two Amex household.

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