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> 01CELLPHONE.html?tntemail0=&pagewanted=print&position=top
> The New York Times
> December 1, 2002
> The $19,450 Phone
> Although the Beverly Hills retail outlet of a newly christened company
> called Vertu is situated on a stretch of Rodeo Drive whose storefronts
> are
> occupied by Chanel, Cartier, Harry Winston, Bernini, Van Cleef &
> Arpels and
> Lladro, Vertu is, by design, concealed from the sights of
> window-shoppers.
> You can reach Vertu either through a rear alley or by walking straight
> through the Hugo Boss showroom, past the scrutinizing gaze of that
> store’s
> nattily dressed sales crew, to the back entrance of the building,
> which is
> marked by an austere gray banner bearing nothing more than the name of
> the
> company and a logo that looks like an abstract rendering of a raptor’s
> outstretched wings. Vertu is one flight up. It is generally open to the
> public by appointment only, and the hushed vacancy of its 3,500 square
> feet
> is broken only by the strains of ethereal New Age music. One corner of
> the
> room displays commissioned art from the British photographer
> Christopher
> Bucklow — ghostly silhouettes of human figures that resemble vividly
> tinted M.R.I.’s. The art is not for sale. It does, however, prepare the
> visitor for an encounter with Vertu’s specialized and highly
> self-conscious
> vocabulary of shopping. Initiates refer to the store as a ”client
> suite,”
> to the service that Vertu’s product delivers as ”the experience” and
> to
> the product itself — the world’s first custom-built luxury cellphone
> — as
> ”the instrument.”
> ”Sometimes even I slip up and call it a phone,” says Frank Nuovo,
> 41, a
> founder of Vertu and its creative director, after he greets me in the
> client suite. ”Yes, in its core functionality, it is a phone. But
> once you
> understand the experience, you’ll see that it is — well, obviously, an
> instrument.”
> Along one side of the room’s expanse of white wall are three mounted
> glass
> cases, vaguely reminiscent of panels in a religious altarpiece. At the
> center of each case is a black void, a little smaller than a shoebox,
> where, beneath fiber-optic spotlights and behind electromagnetic locks,
> lies the instrument, looking rather like the well-appointed offspring
> of a
> remote control and a slender electric shaver. In the left display case
> is a
> model built from white gold, which sells for $13,000; in the center, an
> $11,350 yellow gold version; and on the right, the top-of-the-line
> platinum
> Vertu, which can be purchased for $19,450 and, for the first 1,000
> buyers,
> comes with a certificate of ownership signed by Nuovo. (Not on
> display: the
> most basic Vertu, encased in proletarian stainless steel. Price tag:
> $4,900.) All of the phones feature a sapphire crystal face, a sheath of
> soft Italian leather for comfortable gripping and a backing and pillow
> —
> which your ear rests against — fashioned from aerospace-grade
> ceramics.
> ”This is an experience in exquisite design and craftsmanship,” Nuovo
> assures me. ”If the instrument were made out of copper, it would
> still be
> worth what it’s worth.”
> Nuovo settles into a boxy leather couch. He is wearing a black leather
> jacket, an olive green mesh crew-neck shirt and pleated black pants —
> all
> designed by his friend Jhane Barnes — and a pair of black lace-up
> loafers
> made by a Finnish company, the Left Shoe, from laser-digitized
> measurements
> of his feet. He shields his eyes from the light, since he has just come
> from the ophthalmologist and his green eyes are dilated. Nuovo has
> some of
> the physical bearing of a younger Al Pacino, and despite having managed
> just three hours of sleep the previous night — rather than his usual
> five
> or six — he speaks in a rapid proselytizing stream. He directs my
> attention to the coffee table in front of us, where a module covered in
> black fabric stands on its end, like the slipcase for a rare reference
> book. This is the Vertu packaging, out of which, Nuovo says, ”we
> unfold
> the story of Vertu.” He slides out the box’s top shelf. The instrument
> rests snug and gleaming in a leather-lined molding. Nuovo and I stare
> at it
> admiringly for a moment. Its six rows of platinum function keys are
> set in
> a shallow V shape, reinforcing the brand’s logo, which appears at the
> top
> of the phone nestling a tiny V-shaped speaker. Nubs of raised platinum
> protect the sapphire face from damage and, according to Nuovo, add an
> ”edge” to the design, so that the phone ”has a character that is
> both
> flowing and elegant and slightly on the aggressive side.” Its curving
> metallic lines nod toward Art Deco; the brash straightforwardness of
> its
> elements recalls post-World War II Italian modernism. It is just under
> five
> inches long and two inches wide — common dimensions for a cellphone
> — but
> it weighs in at a hefty half-pound. ”We’re not going to simply coat
> the
> instrument in metal, which would make it lighter,” Nuovo says. ”We
> made
> it the way it needs to be for robustness. There’s a size-to-proportion
> balance that has a calming effect, like Chinese health balls. It fits
> perfectly in the hand.”
> The instrument’s keys are set on jeweled, rubylike bearings, which both
> produce a pleasant clicking sound with each touch and ensure that the
> keys
> will outlive those of ordinary cellphones by many thousands of
> repetitions;
> in the dark, the bearings also radiate a warm pinkish glow. The ring
> tones
> are polyphonic, have names like Raindrops, Constellation and Sandpiper
> and
> sound like motifs from Philip Glass compositions. ”What if,” Nuovo
> muses,
> ”instead of buying a plastic phone, you purchased something that
> patinates
> beautifully?” He removes his own Vertu from his pocket. ”Look at the
> metal,” he says. ”There are no little dings or scratches. I’ve been
> using
> it for nine months, and I’ve drop-tested it onto concrete six times,
> and
> it’s absolutely bulletproof for me. It wears well. Its surface builds
> character. It becomes a friend.” Nuovo produces an elegant butterfly
> key
> from the packaging and opens the newer phone’s ceramic backing. He
> empties
> the case of its battery and the subscriber identity module card that
> links
> the phone to its service provider. The platinum recess that holds the
> phone’s guts is hand-tooled. The mechanical workings — more than 400
> parts, compared with about 50 in a typical cellphone — are assembled
> in a
> factory adjacent to Vertu’s headquarters near London by tradespeople
> who
> were largely plucked from the jewelry and watch-making industries. ”It
> takes hours to produce each instrument,” Nuovo says, declining to be
> more
> specific than that. He points out an engraved hallmark on the back,
> which
> certifies the authenticity of the precious metal and identifies the
> phone
> as production No. 0032. ”I have prototype No. 1,” he tells me. ”A
> gentleman whom I won’t name offered me so much money for it that if I
> had
> any debts, they’d be gone. But I’d never part with it.”
> Since the advent of cellular technology, Nuovo’s phones — as opposed
> to
> his instruments — have found their way into the hands of more people
> than
> virtually any other technology product on earth. In 1989, Nuovo was
> working
> at Designworks/USA, an industrial-design shop based in Los Angeles,
> honing
> his skills on sewing machines, patio furniture, dashboards and exercise
> equipment. (The firm has since been bought by BMW.) He was assigned to
> a
> new client, the Finnish company Nokia. Nuovo has worked on almost every
> Nokia phone in the past 10 years — more phones than he can count, he
> says,
> and each one, he adds, a notable commercial success. (Nokia hired him
> full
> time in 1995 as chief designer, a position he still holds.) During
> Nuovo’s
> association with Nokia, the company has come to dominate the cellphone
> market, selling more of its product in 2001 — about 140 million
> phones,
> representing more than one-third of handset sales worldwide — than its
> three closest competitors combined. (Sales exceeded $30 billion.) For
> Nokia, Nuovo designed phones in splashy colors and phones with
> removable
> faceplates and phones the size of makeup compacts and phones with
> high-tech
> graphics. He demonstrated a gift for addressing the
> image-consciousness of
> funky teenagers and that of sober businessmen alike. In 1995, while
> working
> on designs for Nokia’s highest-end phone — the slick, palm-size 8800
> series, coated in materials like titanium and aluminum but still
> assembled
> by robots on mass-production lines — Nuovo began to fantasize about
> taking
> a 180-degree turn in phone design. ”If you look at watches, pens and
> eyewear,” he says, ”those are technological products that are
> essential
> personal items. I thought that a communications device was ready to
> mature
> into something exquisite. It made so much sense to me that it hit me
> like a
> freight train.”
> In 1997, Nuovo and a team of colleagues from Nokia presented the case
> for a
> luxury cellphone company to Nokia’s president, Pekka Ala-Pietila.
> Nuovo’s
> group had studied the ever-increasing — and surprisingly
> recession-proof
> — market for luxury items, including watches, jewelry, pens, fashion
> and
> cars. They noted that of one billion watches sold worldwide each year,
> three-tenths of 1 percent — three million — could be considered
> high-end.
> They pointed to the enormous success of Nokia’s costly 8800 series,
> especially in Asia, and to the fact that many high-income consumers
> were
> replacing their cellphones once or twice a year. They observed,
> indignantly, that a small number of pirates were encrusting counterfeit
> Nokia phones with diamonds and selling them for tens of thousands of
> dollars to a responsive circle of Asian businessmen and Middle Eastern
> sheiks, regardless of the fact that the diamonds might impede the
> phones’
> reception and would, in time, fall out of their casings. And they
> argued
> that technology products have a standard life cycle: in their infancy,
> the
> sheer cost of new technology makes products prohibitively expensive and
> available only to elites; as a technology develops, prices are driven
> down,
> allowing products to be widely adopted; and finally, the product
> differentiates to serve the tastes of narrow market segments. Nuovo
> maintained that it was time to enter this final stage. The idea had an
> appealing simplicity. As Nigel Litchfield, Vertu’s president and
> formerly
> Nokia’s senior vice president for Asia-Pacific operations, says during
> a
> phone interview: ”My wife will go out for dinner in the evening and
> put on
> an expensive dress, expensive jewelry, an expensive watch and pick up a
> cheap plastic phone to put in her expensive handbag. What we’re saying
> is,
> Why should the mobile phone be different from any other luxury
> accessory?”
> The timing of the nascent Vertu group’s pitch could not have been
> better.
> Through much of the 90’s, Nokia’s business grew at an annual rate of
> 40 to
> 50 percent. In 2000, the company agreed to finance a wholly owned
> subsidiary that would make luxury products under a different brand with
> entirely separate manufacturing and sales operations, much as Toyota
> does
> with Lexus. According to Wojtek Uzdelewicz, a telecommunications
> equipment
> analyst at Bear Stearns, the profit margins on Nokia’s standard
> cellphones
> are a healthy 35 percent; the profit margin on a Vertu phone, he
> estimates,
> would be ”an order of magnitude higher.” But Uzdelewicz notes that
> since
> Vertu is aiming for such a small market niche, profits aren’t the major
> objective. What, then, is? A burnished marketing image. Uzdelewicz
> explains: ”If they can convince us that 10 of the key, hip, glamorous
> people are willing to pay $20,000 for a Nokia phone — you can call it
> a
> Vertu, but everyone will know that it’s a Nokia — then maybe an
> average
> consumer like me will be willing to pay $10 more for a $100 phone.
> That’s
> where they’ll make their money. And they only have to find 10 stars to
> buy
> their phones.”
> Nokia set up the new company under a code name to avoid tipping off
> potential competitors, and Nuovo and Litchfield charged a team of
> engineers
> with creating a luxury phone whose reception would not be compromised
> by a
> metal casing. Nuovo knew that even wealthy customers would be wary of
> the
> risk of technical obsolescence, so he required a phone that could
> accommodate upgrades. Ground was broken on the 65,000-square-foot
> corporate
> headquarters and workshop near London. Despite the high costs of
> manufacturing in England, proximity to the European jewelry industry
> — and
> its vendors of precious metals and suppliers of precision mechanisms
> — was
> considered essential. A sales staff raided from the luxury-goods
> industry
> cultivated relationships with specialty retailers like Neiman Marcus,
> Selfridges in England and jewelers in Switzerland, Germany and the
> United
> Kingdom. Plans were laid for ”client suites” in London, Singapore,
> Hong
> Kong and New York, in addition to Beverly Hills. And in 2001, more
> than two
> years into the start-up, a name was chosen. ”Vertu” is derived from
> the
> Latin word virtus, which means ”excellence.” But, Litchfield says,
> it has
> another meaning as well: ”In the 18th and 19th centuries, wealthy
> individuals began to have small, personalized, highly crafted items
> designed for themselves — typically cigarette cases or snuff boxes.
> They
> were known as ‘vertu.’ We see ourselves as the modern version of that
> tradition.”
> Vertu made its debut this year on Jan. 21, at a reception at the
> Museum of
> Modern Art in Paris. Some 900 guests attended; Gwyneth Paltrow was
> photographed holding the instrument. Vertu began taking deposits for
> the
> phones, which would not be delivered until August, and Litchfield says
> that
> the response exceeded expectations, though he declines to cite sales
> figures. Vertu’s marketers began to mount soft-sell events for target
> audiences — a dinner for a group of Swiss bankers; a reception at the
> Andy
> Warhol exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, of
> which
> Vertu is a corporate member; a tour of the Richard Avedon exhibit at
> the
> Metropolitan Museum of Art for a group of subscribers to The New
> Yorker, in
> which Vertu has advertised. The aim was to generate a buzz among
> Vertu’s
> most likely customers, members of a rarefied market segment that
> Ekaterina
> Walsh, an analyst at the consulting firm Forrester Research, who
> studies
> high-net-worth consumers, calls ”splurging millionaires.” Of the four
> million millionaire households in the United States, Walsh says, 41
> percent
> tend, to one degree or another, to spend beyond their means. (Vertu’s
> surest audience, Walsh confides, is the 3 percent of millionaire
> households
> that she characterizes as ”high-asset delegator splurging
> millionaires,”
> with assets of more than $2.5 million, little interest in managing
> their
> own money and an inclination toward self-indulgence.) ”If any
> technology
> product were to be marketed as a luxury product, the cellphone is it,”
> Walsh surmises. ”A large number of millionaires aren’t technology
> savvy,
> and the cellphone is an established, unthreatening technology.
> Everyone has
> one. Vertu doesn’t even see itself as a technology company. Pretty
> much all
> the splurgers among millionaires will be interested in a luxury phone.
> Vertu’s timing is perfect.”
> In some quarters, though, Vertu’s timing has been questioned. In a
> recessionary economy, a platinum phone provides an easy target of
> ridicule.
> BusinessWeek captured the spirit of the media coverage with a short
> article
> on Vertu under the headline ”Wretched Excess.” Much mockery was
> reserved
> for the phone’s round-the-clock ”concierge” service, which is
> accessed by
> a push of a button and which, according to British Vogue, ”is ready
> and
> waiting to organize everything for you, from a table at Nobu to a
> holiday
> in St. Barts.” Nuovo was wounded by the coverage. ”Vertu isn’t about
> conspicuous consumption,” he maintains. ”It’s about a craftsman
> trying to
> make the very best thing he can. What do you say to an artist who
> spends
> hundreds of hours making a sculpture and then sells it for $2 million?
> Is
> that ostentatious? I’m an artist. This is my art. The Frank Nuovo
> element
> is the Vertu brand.”
> Nuovo and I walk over to Spago for lunch. We are seated at a corner
> banquette, on the other side of a glass wall from Nancy Reagan and her
> entourage. Nuovo tells me about a concept he calls romancing the phone.
> ”It’s about relationship-building with objects,” he says. He glances
> at
> my wrist. ”Look,” he continues, ”the functionality of a $5 Timex is
> likely on a par with a $50,000 luxury watch. But you can’t compare the
> story of the two. You can’t compare the emotional gratification of
> wearing
> something that was crafted over so many hours. People care about
> objects.
> In some ways, our objects are us.” Nuovo makes no apologies for his
> own
> attachments. At his home in West Los Angeles he keeps a Porsche
> Carrera and
> a 1952 Bentley and a BMW and a Honda minivan, and he says that each of
> these vehicles allows him to exercise a different part of his spirit.
> When
> he started designing cellphones, ”black plastic was all we had, and
> phones
> all looked like business tools,” he recalls. ”I would try to explain
> to
> people that phones needed to add color, and they would say: ‘Why? It’s
> a
> phone. It’s pure functionality.’ And I would think, No, it’s not a
> phone!”
> In Vertu, Nuovo ”wanted to take something as unlikely as a
> communications
> technology and present it as art.” And why not? His artistic hero is
> Leonardo da Vinci, for whom the marriage of art and technology made
> perfect
> sense. Nuovo’s expressive medium just happens to be the cellphone.
> Still,
> Nuovo realizes that a $20,000 cellphone might not gain an easy
> acceptance
> in a society as ambivalent about technology as it is about wealth, and
> he
> knows that he may not be able to convince skeptics. ”I’m not a
> marketing
> department,” he says. ”I’m a vision department.”
> We walk back to the client suite. I give in to curiosity. I ask to
> make a
> phone call to my girlfriend, Emily. The answering machine picks up. I
> whisper urgently into the phone: ”Are you there? Pick it up. I’m
> calling
> on a $13,000 white gold phone.”
> Emily picks up. For a moment, we chat about our days. Then we talk
> about
> the quality of the sound, which I find to be crisp — not without a
> hint of
> everyday cellphone quaver but surely a few notches clearer than the
> reception on my $99 plastic cellphone. The gold is pleasantly cool on
> my
> cheek, and the leather grip is plush, and the weight in my hand feels
> rather — luxurious. ”What do you think?” Emily asks. ”How does it
> feel?” I consider the instrument. I consider the experience. ”It
> feels
> good,” I say.
> Mark Levine last wrote for the magazine about the television show
> ”Friends.”
> —

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