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With its Apple Watch event, Apple redefines itself as a luxury brand

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Is owning an Apple Watch a privilege?

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Tim Cook and other members of the Apple team used the word privilege a handful of times during today's Apple Event. The word usually signified graciousness, like "It's a privilege to be here" or "It's a privilege to present this new product." Privilege describes what Apple showed on the stage in Cupertino. In the MacBook and Apple Watch, we see items designed for those who don't desire functionality so much as fashion. It would be a privilege to own them.

In a single press conference, we saw an exclusive launch partnership with HBO that temporarily limits potential customers for a service that, briefly, looked like it would make the popular cable service easier to access for anyone without a cable subscription or looking to cut the cord. We saw a MacBook with fewer ports and less battery life than its closest predecessor, but it's a bit thinner and comes in gold. And we saw a smartwatch that does some of things smartphones already do, but it does them on your wrist and costs between $350 and $17,000.

It's a privilege to own an Apple Watch

In a well-intentioned, but surreal moment, we watched model and health advocate Christy Turlington Burns run a half-marathon in Tanzania. She spoke of how the watch helped her complete the run, an advantage not afforded the dozens of Tanzanians running alongside her, though they appeared to handle the race just fine.

Apple

Apple has sought to establish itself as a luxury company for years. It has. This is what a luxury company looks like, a gold-encrusted, ultra-elegant, ritzy-priced cross-stitch of fame and rare earth materials. In Apple products, everything is better. Steel isn't just steel, it's Apple Steel, multiples better than the other junk. A table isn't a table, it's a custom Apple Watch showcase display.

Apple's purchase of Beats is more telling by the day

I don't begrudge anyone who wants an Apple Watch or a MacBook or any piece of fashion that factors the cost of materials and craft along with the intangible value of social cache into an estimated retail price. I'm drinking Blue Bottle coffee and wearing a J. Crew flannel shirt, just like every other reporter on this beat. I like nice things, or things that aren't nice but make me feel good for whatever unmined existential reason. What's so compelling about this event, though, was how Apple thoroughly moved away from "tech company" to "luxury brand."

Apple's purchase of Beats is more telling by the day. As dozens of better reports have said before me, the acquisition wasn't about the headphones. Beats had an unparalleled ability to sell competent hardware, beautifully designed, at exceptional markups. Beats was the first ground-shaking fashion-tech hybrid. Apple is applying that know-how to its galactic scale. Will it work?

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Will it work?

That's the trite question that gets at a larger idea: did the Apple event convince us to buy the Apple Watch? If you came into today's Apple Watch even with plans to pre-order an Apple Watch, Apple did a fine job reciting the same talking points established in last fall's announcement. And if you came with a fleck of skepticism, Apple's crescendo of marketing — HBO! MACBOOK GOLD! STEEL! — did an effortless job parleying positive feelings from those early announcements into the grand finale, peaking with the words "from ten thousand dollars" that should have inspired laughter in any other setting. Now, some of us are sincerely locked on Apple.com asking, "So, do I go Watch or Watch Sport?"

And for the disinterested and cynical amongst us? We're left to wait, because if you're remotely into technology or being connected to your family, friends, and employers, this goes one of two ways: the Watch somehow fails, or five years from now we have no option but buying in.

Now is the new era of tech

The latter future isn't quite like what the smartphones ushered in. Now is a new era of tech, where we don't simply talk specs, but fabrics and fits. Now's the time of "stylish bands," "durable bands," and "exquisitely crafted bands," all with their own price points and statements of where you are "at" in the world. It brings me intense pleasure knowing conversations about technology and its cultural value will no longer be limited to encyclopedic techfiends. That to really understand the Apple Watch — or any of the future Apple fashion, because this is just the beginning — I'll need to visit Racked.com as often, if not more often than the site I work for. I love that.

Apple

Then my stomach contorts, because I consider the hundreds more dollars I'll spend every couple years to keep up. And it is a process, this keeping up. Apple's share holders have been disappointed with lack of second- or third- or fourth-time buyers of the iPad. That it's not the money factory the iPhone has been. Don't count on the company making a similar mistake with the Apple Watch. If there's one thing Apple's mastered, its enticing us to purchase of a prettier, smaller, faster version of the thing we already own and that is doing pretty well. The grand ambition of Google, and Facebook, and the countless apps of Silicon Valley is to win over everyone. Apple's largely done that; its potential customers have become its customers.

There was nothing egalitarian about today's event. This is the next stage. As The Wall Street Journal reported in February, Apple now ranks as China's most desirable luxury brand. In this event, Apple's fulfilling the the past two years of media prophecies and definitively establishing itself as a luxury brand for the rest of the world. Eventually, as the iPhone did, the Apple Watch will get cheaper and will be available for the middle class to wear, but that's the old, proven Apple model. Today we saw, for the first time, a new, secondary Apple model, one that is moving on the opposite end of the wealth spectrum. Ten thousand dollars, that's a starting point. Wearing the finest Apple Watches of the future will be a privilege indeed.

Verge Video: Hands-on with the Apple Watch