The following is adapted from Jackpot: How the Super-Rich Really Live—and How Their Wealth Harms Us All, copyright 2021 by Michael Mechanic. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster.
The Centurion Card, better known as “the black card,” began as a myth before American Express decided to make it a reality. “There had been rumors going around that we had this ultra-exclusive black card for elite customers,” Amex executive Doug Smith told the fact-checking website Snopes. “It wasn’t true, but we decided to capitalize on the idea anyway.”
The no-limit black card, issued by invitation only, instantly identifies its holder as what’s known in the trade as a “whale”—someone with vast resources. Amex won’t say what it takes to get an invite, but word on the street is that you must have been a Platinum cardholder for at least a year, ringing up a minimum of $350,000 in annual charges.
The Platinum designation was created in 1984. Platinum cardholders are offered—or were, until the pandemic came along—a rotating selection of “By Invitation Only” packages: a prime Wimbledon experience, VIP access to the Venice Biennale and the Monaco Grand Prix, a gastronomic tour of Tokyo with PBS Lucky Chow host Danielle Change, etc. Sprinkled throughout the descriptions are words like “insider,” “unique,” “exclusive,” “private,” “prestigious,” “premier,” and, of course, “luxury.” But on a more fundamental level, Platinum membership gets you 24/7 access to Amex concierges, who will do their best to fulfill customers’ every desire.
The advent of the Centurion Card in 1999 relegated Platinum cardholders to the petit bourgeoisie. If invited, you pay an initiation fee of $10,000 and an annual fee of $5,000. In exchange, you get, in effect, the billionaire express pass.
Credit card guru Brian Kelly—better known as The Points Guy—has the business version of the card. He wrote on his popular website about the time he lost a $2,800 jacket and Amex replaced it, no questions asked. When he checked into a Las Vegas hotel, he was automatically upgraded to an executive suite. He got VIP tickets to Stevie Wonder and early access to Hamilton tickets for his employees. Amex even sent him a Tiffany crystal decanter and glasses as a holiday gift.
But the biggest benefit, he wrote, was Ray, his dedicated concierge. Kelly, who travels extensively, estimates that the services of Ray and his colleagues alone are worth $20,000 a year. They were able, in one case, to get him out of Bali in a hurry after a volcanic eruption closed the airport and left thousands of travelers scrambling for alternatives.
According to Snopes, one Centurion cardholder requested a handful of authentic Dead Sea Sand for a child’s school project. Amex dispatched an agent via motorcycle to obtain the sand and courier it to London. Another black card holder had Amex plan their entire wedding. A third wanted to purchase the actual horse Kevin Costner rode in the film Dances with Wolves—the animal was tracked down in Mexico and delivered to the client in Europe. The sky’s the limit.
In November 2015, when Chinese billionaire Liu Yiquian bought a Modigliani reclining nude at auction for $170 million, he said he intended to put it on his black card. The year before, he’d reportedly used the card to purchase a $36 million Ming dynasty teacup. (Amex won’t comment on private transactions.) The travel points from the Modigliani purchase alone would ensure Yiquian’s family free first-class travel and accommodations for life—not that they needed them.
Concierge services are a $3.4 billion industry in the United States, with 127,000 providers and growing at 3 to 4 percent annually, according to the research firm IBISWorld. The broader industry targets households earning $100,000 and up. Centurion cardholders are situated at the market’s high end, but Amex is not without rivals for these customers. A newer entrant is Quintessentially Group, a members-only concierge network with offices in fifty-six countries. Quintessentially promises incredible access for its global clientele, which includes, its founders have claimed, hundreds of billionaires and thousands of hundred-millionaires. (Virgin Atlantic’s Richard Branson, rapper P. Diddy, Madonna, and author J.K. Rowling have reportedly been among its clients.)
Want a last-minute table at Noma in Copenhagen on a Saturday night? No problem. A private performance by Elton John? Done that. A safe driver to pick up your kids from boarding school in a clutch and deliver them to your vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard? Say the word. Polo lessons from an actual pro? Ask Catherine Mills, head of equestrian services, whose duties have ranged from sourcing a top-notch steed for an international competition to showing up at a children’s garden party in central London with a bunch of ponies “and walking them through the front door.” As one does.
Back in 2017, the luxury marketing data firm Wealth-X noted a shift in the consumption habits of ultrawealthy Americans and Canadians toward “experiential luxury.” Families were seeking “transformative travel” ranging from “socially engaged trips” to space flights, memorable dining excursions, exclusive entertainment and beauty services, and “in-home indulgences linked to high-quality design, architecture, and fine art”—although this did not preclude acquisition of “a desirable luxury asset, such as a super yacht or private jet.”
The good life is more than fun and games, however. Quintessentially offers “bespoke” tutoring and placement services that deploy “insider knowledge” and “deep analysis of every student’s past studies and future aspirations” to place your kids where they belong, be it a top-notch kindergarten or an elite university. The company can source nannies and dog-walkers, get you a callback form a world-renowned cancer specialist, identify the best criminal defense lawyer for a wayward sibling, stock your Menorca compound with top-shelf liquor, schedule your workouts. “No request is too small or big. It just can’t be illegal or immoral,” said Jacob Zucker, who at the time of our interview was the company’s marketing manager for North America.
Quintessentially came to the United States in 2003. It was founded in London three years earlier by Aaron Simpson, Paul Drummond, and Ben Elliot, a nephew of Duchess Camilla Parker Bowles and self-described “relentless, bossy fucker.” Friends were always hitting up the well-connected trio for help getting into this or that event, and they realized there was money to be made helping cash-rich, time-poor families enjoy their leisure. There are three levels of service—Dedicated, Elite, and Quintessence—dictated by the experience level of your assigned “lifestyle manager” and the amount of personal attention a member demands. The most popular tier is Elite, which costs American members $20,000 per year.
One of the company’s past slogans was “from the elite to the impossible,” so I asked marketing manager Zucker to describe some of the “impossible” requests. He told me about the time Quintessentially negotiated with Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities to secure one of the pyramids for a Saudi client’s engagement bash—the party cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and the bride-to-be arrived in a horse-drawn carriage. “You would think, ‘Oh, the pyramids are sacred, no one should be allowed,’” Zucker said. “We were able to make that happen.”
For just under $10,000, another couple was spirited by helicopter to the base of an iceberg off the coast of Chile, where a chef prepared them a romantic meal. Then there was the guy who wanted Quintessentially to find him an uninhabited island in international waters where he might then establish a “micronation.” And a Dubai member who didn’t want to shower in tap water. “She wanted to shower in bottled water, so we made that happen,” Zucker said.
But the most astonishing perks of which the superrich avail themselves are the ones that come free of charge. “I had Kenny G come over and serenade my wife for her birthday—at no cost,” explained Erwin Raphael, then vice president and chief operating officer of Genesis, Hyundai’s luxury brand. (He recently jumped over to Amazon.) Raphael, who grew up dirt-poor in the Caribbean, is struck by how rarely he needs to spend the wealth he has since accumulated. “If I want to be on a boat tomorrow to Catalina with five friends, I can do that, because I’ve got friends with assets who would be happy to let me utilize their boat, their resort in Hawaii, their resort in Bimini,” he said. Every year he and his wife would get great Super Bowl seats for free because his company sponsored the league. His family takes posh vacations using his work-travel points.
“Yesterday I played golf at Riviera Country Club and I hosted three of my friends. I’m not a member. It’s $300,000 up front and probably four grand a month on top of that. And not only did I play, I didn’t have to pay greens fees,” Raphael told me. “A poor person couldn’t have access to it, much less play it.” And because he needn’t spend a dime on such excursions, “I’m able to take my cash and invest it.”
Maybe it’s true what they say: The best things in life are free. But at least some of them you’re unlikely ever to get unless you’re really, really rich.