A busy Washington executive walked into the Cartier jewelry store in Chevy Chase two weeks ago clutching a page out of Town and Country magazine. Pointing to the heavy 18-karat gold necklace featured there, the man explained to manager Sally Ogden that he had little time to spend Christmas shopping and wanted to buy it and have it wrapped right away.
Acquiring the limited edition, handmade piece turned out to be problematic. The Chevy Chase store didn't have it in stock, and neither did any of Cartier's other U.S. outlets. Finally, Ogden tracked one down in Paris, and the customer was so pleased that he immediately selected two more items, a gold bracelet and a pearl necklace. By the time he picked up his purchases Tuesday, he had spent more than $100,000 on the three gifts for his wife and daughter, Ogden said.
While the majority of area residents spent this holiday season watching their credit limits and yet another Isotoner gloves commercial, braving the sale tables and dodging trigger-happy cologne clerks at Woodies and Hecht's, there were those whose giving was limited only by their imaginations.
Consider, for example, the Bethesda man who is said to have purchased a black Rolls-Royce Silver Spur this month for an employe. The man, "a political figure from a foreign country," paid for the automobile and took delivery of it, complete with red ribbon, all in the same day, according to Bruce Hamilton, the EuroMotorcars salesman who says he made the sale.
"He gave us a check for well into six figures and the whole thing was over in less than 45 minutes," Hamilton said. "It's a great feeling. It makes you a lot more bullish on the economy."
Local Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz dealers report that they, too, have sold one or two luxury cars specifically for Christmas.
The Houston-based department store Neiman-Marcus did not produce a miniature motorized car for children this year, but those looking for something equally extravagant for their kids found $1,000 stuffed toy giraffes from Kensington Zoo and a $700 rocking horse from Tree Top Toys.
Harold Nelson, vice president and general manager of Neiman-Marcus department store on Wisconsin Avenue, said he thinks that when money is no object, finding the right present becomes even more difficult.
"They become the most difficult clients because they are looking for that one item that is unique, special and geared to a particular person, and that's not necessarily furs or jewelry. By and large, our customers already have those things," Nelson said.
In desperation, they may settle for silk gown and robe sets that go for $1,500, a stack of four cashmere sweaters for $1,000, or handmade pillboxes for $500. Sometimes, they turn to outfitting their pets.
Becky Pugh, owner of Bone Jour Cafe, a Georgetown boutique for pets, says her most popular items this year were mock fur coats for dogs. The garments, which come in mink, leopard, zebra and cheetah, retail for $65 to $200, depending on the pet's size.
Pugh added that she ordered 24 Burberry, Louis Vuitton and Gucci carrying cases that sell for $125 and has almost sold out. One Bone Jour customer spent more than $200 to buy her dog a porcelain place mat to match its porcelain feeding dish -- the same set that First Dog Rex Reagan uses, Pugh said.
When it comes to Christmas, the sky can be the limit -- literally. Susan Hinson, of Hinson Airways, says she has never sold a private plane as a Christmas gift during 40 years of business. Mike Drew, operations manager at Freeway Airport Inc., said he has sold gift certificates for flying time in a rental, but never a plane for a gift. Hinson said a used Cessna could be purchased for as little as $18,000.
Local travel agents say that few people try to surprise their loved ones with vacation trips, perhaps because of the logistical difficulty involved. A few notable exceptions are the couple who took their four children and four grandchildren for nine days on a Caribbean island at a cost of $12,000.
And, providing perhaps the ultimate for the food aficionado, a lawyer gave a friend a week of cooking classes at an 11th century abbey outside Florence. Price tag: $3,500.
"I don't think most men are that original," said Pam Seitz, manager of Waters Travel Service in downtown Washington. "I think women are the ones who would think, 'Let's go to a chateau in the south of France,' but they are not going to give it to their husbands."
Other affluent customers converted their wealth into liquid assets, such as the $500-a-bottle of red wine from the cellar of Bruce Bassin's liquor store on MacArthur Boulevard. The '61 Chateau Lafite went to a woman from Northwest who was searching for "the ultimate" gift for her husband, a physician and avid wine collector.
"It's one of the all time of all time great wines, very rare, and absolutely incredible," said Bassin.
Other memorable sales included $7,000 worth of wine to fill an 11-case rack and $15,000 worth of champagne. Another customer spent $12,000 building her husband a wine cellar with inlaid wood racks.
Guarisco Gallery Ltd. had a run on oil paintings of kittens and puppies that range from $3,500 to $35,000 after it placed an advertisement in several high-brow magazines.
"An oil painting is a very unique gift and a very personal gift. It's not like giving a pair of gloves or a sweater," said Jane Studabaker, managing director of the gallery. "There's a lot of thought that goes into it and often a lot of agony."
None of this is to say, however, that it is always the richest who spend the most on Christmas gifts, or that persons of lesser means may not find that sentiment justified almost any expenditure.
A clergyman wishing to surprise his wife paid $9,500 for a small lithograph by Chagall, according to Royce Burton, a dealer at Georgetown's Galerie Lareuse.
It depicted the view from the artist's studio in Nice, where 40 years ago, the couple had honeymooned.
"Rich people don't spend a lot of money at Christmastime, at least they don't spend a lot of money on art," Burton observed. "We don't like to see them coming in the door because they like to get a bargain. Proportionately, they don't spend as much of their income as upper-middle-class people."