You can see them pacing the marbled floors of sports-car dealerships or perusing the dusty vaults of wine merchants. You can spot them at the tables of Michelin-starred restaurants or on the flight paths of crowded skies.
There is a growing force in London. To the private finance professionals, they are called high net worth individuals or - if they have a more substantial £15m - ultra high net worth individuals. But you and I know them simply as the rich.
England's crowded capital has always been home to the rich, quietly leading a life that is far removed from the hurly-burly of the masses. What has changed is the number. Buoyed by the strength of the City - which some say is becoming the powerhouse of world finance - and an influx of foreign tycoons reassured by the safety of British life, the ranks of the super-wealthy are swelling.
Below them gather the wealthy and below them, the mass affluent - people with very good jobs and a lot of cash. These prosperous individuals are having a profound impact on the commercial life of London. They are buying up vast country estates and palatial homes in the finest postcodes of the city.
They are travelling by private jet, ordering top-of-the-range cars and yachts, pushing up prices in the most expensive restaurants, and lavishing truly staggering sums on almost every type of consumer good. In the process they are providing money and jobs but they may also be diminishing whatever glue sticks together the city's social fabric . They live behind elaborate security systems and move about the streets in chaffeured cars and four-wheel drives.
The rise of the moneyed elite over the past few years is quite astonishing. A fortune of £60m would have granted entry to the top 100 of the Sunday Times Rich List in 1989. Now it takes £605m. "Britain's super-rich have seen their wealth soar in recent years," summarises the list's compiler, Philip Beresford.
Almost half - 2,269 - of the people on the list (which includes the Republic of Ireland) reside in London or the South-east. Some are famous names like Chelsea FC's Russian owner Roman Abramovich and the Indian steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal. Many of them, however, could pass down the street unnoticed. Would you recognise the features of the former metal trader Oleg Deripaska, for example? Yet he is one of the country's fabulously wealth oligarchs, who nowadays resides in Belgrave Square. He has a fortune estimated at £4.3bn, putting him seventh on the rich list. And there are countless other examples.
According to Merrill Lynch's world wealth report, the number of high net worth individuals in the UK totaled 448,000 last year - an annual rise of 7 per cent compared with average European growth of 4 per cent. Such a high net worth person has $1m (£550,000) as well as their home and goods. The number of filthy rich - ultra high net worth individuals with at least £15m - rose worldwide by 10 per cent. According to Merrill Lynch's Nick Tucker, head of UK private banking, London is home to so many of these tycoons because of three factors: the rise of the City, its cosmopolitan atmosphere and the favourable tax regime.
The presence of what might be termed the "loaded" is being felt in almost every commercial area of the capital - at the top end. Ian Stewart, a veteran estate agent who heads the London region for Savills, describes the arrival of the foreign rich in recent years as "phenomenal."
"They feel very secure and safe with the history of the UK and the general lifestyle," he commented. He can list the attributes the very rich require in a London home - among them is an indoor swimming pool, a mews house and garaging for at least four cars.
Over at the wine merchants, the new wealthy are causing an extraordinary, runaway boom. One leading company, Berry Bros and Rudd, can barely keep up, quoting a recent sale of a case (12 bottles) of a 1959 Richebourg grand cru burgundy - at £10,000 a bottle - to a City gent.
"We can't buy enough wine to meet the demand. People are coming in with multi-million pound orders. Most of the prices have gone up by 50 per cent in the past year," said Simon Staples, director of fine wine.
Fancy a bite to eat? Try an £85 sandwich. Selfridges' gourmet McDonald sandwich - named after the department store's chef, Scott McDonald, not the fast-food chain - is filled with wagyu beef, lobe foie gras and black truffle mayonnaise. Launched in April, Selfridges has already sold 200, with one City institution requesting a dozen for lunch. Meanwhile, those with time to eat out can choose from a three-course meal with house wine at the Lecture Room at Sketch, one of the capital's most expensive restaurants. It will set you back £133 - for one. A starter of spider crab, milk-fed veal and caviar costs £70. But then, the man behind it is Mourad Mouraz, who marked the opening of fashionable restaurant Momo with a launch party thrown by Madonna.
This has been an extraordinary month for London's salerooms. An estimated £260m was spent in three days of frenzied bidding on works of art at Sotheby's and Christie's in London last week, setting new records. David Hockney's The Splash went for £2.9m while Modigliani's Jeanne Hébuterne (above) sold for £16.3m. The Hockney sale at Sotheby's beat the world record price for the artist's work set in New York in May. London's auctioneers and galleries are experiencing strong sales generally, despite the weak dollar. This is being driven partly by interest among Russian and Indian moguls for art from their own country.
Vast malls, opulent hotels and long sandy beaches are drawing increasing numbers of rich Londoners to Dubai. They won't be going for a week's sun and sand, though. In today's cash-rich, time-poor society, your average tycoon doesn't have time to lie on the beach and is probably merely popping over to the desert kingdom for a few days' tax-free shopping. Virgin Atlantic started flights to Dubai in March and says demand is strong. Rich passengers travel Virgin Upper Class, which includes a private onboard bar, bed, massages, and limousines.
While in Dubai, the tycoon on a mini-break will probably be accommodated at the Burj Al Arab (above), a seven-star hotel which boasts a butler for every suite, Hermès toiletries in the bathrooms and a starting price of around £500 per person per night.
The rise of long-haul weekend breaks is also being promoted by online bucket shops like lastminute.com, which offers the affluent a three-night break in Hong Kong.
Examples of conspicuous consumption in the world of fine wine are easy to find. Wine merchants Berry Bros and Rudd report they are struggling to find enough burgundies to keep up with demand. A case of Chateau Lafite 1996 cost £1,850 in April last year. Now it is £3,600. The new Bordeaux vintage is proving to be a big draw for Russian and Chinese tycoons who have developed a new interest in the grape, but again, the problem is supply. Chateaux Ausone is selling en primeur (ie rough and not ready) for £6,000 a case. "We could buy 100 cases and sell out in 20 minutes," a Berry Bros spokesman said.
A limited supply of properties in central London and rising numbers of the international wealthy has put a smile on the faces of the poshest estate agents. In January, Savills sold a mansion at 100 Park Lane (left), overlooking Hyde Park, for almost £40m. "The very wealthy probably want 5,000- plus square feet and there is a limited amount of that. Demand is likely to power ahead of supply for many years to come," said Ian Stewart, head of London region for Savills.
Private jets. Why fly with the hoi polloi when you can buy your own Boeing 767 (above) like Roman Abramovich? Private jets have become de rigueur for any self-respecting squillionaire and the skies of southern England are abuzz with Gulfstreams and Learjets. Private jet flights from Farnborough Airport rose 12 per cent last month alone as private aviation roars towards the mainstream. The Omaha tycoon Warren Buffet has brought his NetJet private operation to Britain, selling "fractional jet ownership" - a kind of timeshare for the sky.
Car dealerships for the top marques are bucking the difficulties currently being experienced at the bottom of the market. Sales of Bentleys have increased from 1,000 in 2003 to 8,500 in 2005. A Bentley Arnage costs £150,000. Although the makers of one of Britain's stateliest cars ascribe their success to the introduction of the sporty Continental GT coupe, the money sloshing around London has helped. "It's clearly a factor," remarked Mark Tennant, Bentley marketing director. Meanwhile, Maserati's Quattroporte (above) has helped boost sales of the marque across Europe by 25 per cent in the past year.
Want to charter your own luxury yacht this summer? You may be too late. Sunseeker Charter says its fleet of luxury yachts - all 50 of them - are almost fully booked. Hiring one costs £55,000 a week, so perhaps it's hardly surprising that sales of top-end yachts are also buoyant. Alev Karagulle, marketing director for Nigel Burgess, which has offices in Pall Mall and Monaco and sells yachts for between £2m and £50m, said: "There are definitely more ultra-high net worth individuals out there. There are many more prepared to spend their money on super yachts than before. It's really quite phenomenal." Can't afford one? Never mind. Real sailors would probably deride it as a gin palace.
Just because you've made your multi-millions doesn't mean that every door is automatically open to you. Contributing to a charity event is the time-honoured method employed by the newly rich tycoon who wants to meet the old aristocratic order (and be photographed with them). Whether it's a polo event - attended by an A-list royal such as Prince William (above) or Prince Harry - or an auction attended by an A-list celebrity, charity offers the nouveaux riches the opportunity to be seen to be generous - and, indeed, just to be seen.
The demand for gems is up. A spokesman for London diamond specialists Wint and Kidd said: "Far more people are coming in and spending money on rarer and more expensive coloured diamonds." Earlier this month, jeweller Theo Fennell, whose clients include Liz Hurley, Elton John and the Beckhams, reported a seven-fold rise in pre-tax profits, fuelled by demand for signature pieces such as the St George's Cross heart, above. It is opening a store in Russia, which will join outlets in Dubai, Hong Kong and the Maldives. If you'd rather have a pen than a pendant, Harrods recently sold the La Modernista Diamonds for £144,612. It has an 18-carat gold point, and is set with 5,072 diamonds and 96 rubies.
So who are the big spenders?
* GREEKS Greek shipping tycoons are fond of London. The father of Spiro Latsis made his money from shipping but Mr Matsis is now more interested in aviation. He has an estimated fortune of £2.4bn - making him one of London's very richest. Among his interests is the private jet business PrivatAir, which ferries Middle Eastern families around the globe.
* INDIANS With a liking for the tax advantages, political stability and shared language, Indian tycoons are among the most prominent of the super-rich. The steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal (worth £14bn) is the richest person in the UK. The brothers Gopi and Sri Hinduja have made their money from a diverse business empire, which encompasses oil trading, banking, trucking and telecoms.
* ARABS Many Arabs make their home in the capital. With a fortune estimated at £1.2bn, the Geneva-born Aga Khan is a famous racecourse owner but also a hereditary Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims and a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohamed. He is a British citizen whose personal assets include three personal jets, homes on five continents and a "priceless collection" of jewels and antiques.
* CONTINENTALS There are plenty of families, both old and new money, living in the UK. Michel and Charlene de Carvalho derive their money from the Heineken brewing dynasty. Mrs de Carvalho, the only daughter of Freddy Heineken, inherited his fortune when he died in 2002. She lives in London with her banker husband. Swedish siblings Kirsten and Jorn Rausing are offspring of the late packaging billionaire Gad Rausing. Kirsten is a Newmarket-based racecourse breeder while her younger brother lives in London. They have a combined fortune estimated by the Sunday Times Rich List at £1.9bn.
* BRITONS The wealthiest Britons are the Duke of Westminster (£6.6bn), Sir Philip and Tina Green (£4.8bn), and Sir Richard Branson (£3bn). But they all spend lots of time outside London. The wealthiest Brit to live in London is the Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone, worth £2bn.Reuse content