Designer mobile phones: style over sense?

The new breed of gold-plated, bejewelled, designer mobile phones.

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Those who are in the habit of looking not at their watch but at their mobile phone for the time might like to consider the Celsius X VI II.

Launched last year, it is a mobile with a difference: not only is it hand-built, and limited to 18 pieces, but the time function is handled mechanically, by an integrated tourbillon akin to those made by world-class watchmakers.

It also retails for about US$350,000 (Dh1.285m) .

"But the demand for just such a product could be very big," insists Celsius's founder Edouard Meylan, citing predictions of a new super-mobile market worth $3bn within three years. "This is just part of what is obviously a new type of product and it will take time. But what happened with watches - people wanting evermore refined, handmade examples - will happen with phones, too."

It is already happening. The market pioneer Vertu, which has a regional office in Dubai, has over the past couple of years been joined by brands such as JSC Ancort, Porsche Design, Stuart Hughes and Goldvish offering luxury phones typically priced anywhere between $3,000 and $800,000. And upwards. The most extreme, record-holding, over-the-top example is the Gresso Luxor Las Vegas Jackpot phone. It is covered with 45.5 carats of black diamonds, its keys are cut from sapphire crystal, its frame is made of solid gold and its back panel from African blackwood, one of the world's most expensive. And it can be yours, for $1m.

Meylan concedes that the idea of spending the equivalent of the price of an apartment on a phone may sound "crazy", which is what many people told him when he first proposed Celsius five years ago. After all, it seems to run counter to the standard life-cycle for consumer technology: initially expensive and appealing only to so-called early adopters; becoming ever more affordable until, as with regularly upgraded mobile phones today, they verge on the disposable (environmentally disastrous mountains of discarded gadgets notwithstanding). But just as elite, mechanical timepieces bounced back from the cheap quartz-watch revolution by underscoring the emotional appeal of their craft - in turn creating new status items - so the same is happening with phones, albeit at a much faster pace. Expect laptops and tablets to go the same way, too.

"The fact is that people want to show who they are and in part do so through their house, car, clothes, watch, jewellery," says Meylan, "and phones are the latest accessory to meet this need, especially for men who have limited opportunity to express themselves through personal items. It's only recently that phones have become personal at all - BlackBerry and Apple, for example, now appeal to very different customers."

Pierre Oostang, the president of Vertu, goes one further. He calls the mobile phone the "definitive accessory of our times", noting how restaurant diners like to leave them on show by their plates, less in expectation of an important call and more as a means of announcing what sort of person they are. Small wonder, then, that - with some 1.5bn cellphones bought every year, and with just a sliver of that pie likely to ensure a new and stable luxury industry - mainstream phone brands are now launching into this market, too. Sony Ericsson has its $300,000 Black Diamond model, while Vertu is owned by Nokia. Even watch companies are making similar moves, with Ulysse Nardin having launched its Chairman product and Tag Heuer following its breakthrough Meridiist phone with its third model this year.

"And just as we now have less the attitude of 'one watch for life' but rather have a portfolio of watches we pick from depending on the way we're dressed or what we're doing, so the same will happen with phones," reckons Rob Driver, the UK managing director of Tag Heuer's owner, LVMH Watch & Jewellery.

"Besides, when you compare a Swatch with a Patek Philippe, the logic may be that there is no need to spend more than $30 on a watch, but there is still demand for products from those companies exploring the boundaries of craft. And that is what this is about."

Certainly, it is not obviously about the technology. Much as elite watches in the quartz age were sometimes met with a dumbfounded response on discovery that they did not have an alarm or calculator, let alone the ever-useful altimeter, so it will surprise some that a much more expensive phone is likely to be functionally inept, having a fraction of the computing power of today's mass-market products. Rather, these are more smartphones in terms of style than intelligence.

That is just as well. With the pace of technological advancement in telecommunications such that products now have a six-month lifespan before they are outmoded, and with the cellphone market shifting ever more distinctly towards internet and multimedia use over voice - because data streaming is where the money now is for network operators - it would prove a hard call for any of the new elite phone brands to keep pace.

Not that they want to. Indeed, some are even going backwards in terms of technology, while moving forwards in terms of creativity: Celsius is developing a new phone product for launch next year that will generate much of its power mechanically, with some of its functions also mechanical. Besides, Vertu's Oostang stresses that the well-heeled customers of such products are likely to have the BlackBerry or iPhone as well, if not several of them. Rather super-mobiles are more sophisticated baubles that, he says, are comparable to luxury cars or designer handbags. Flagrant bling may be the driving motivation to buy for some consumers, but for others it is about the old-fashioned desire for fine things. Either way, endless functionality is not the point.

"Of course, technology is still important. But it's about using proven technology to deliver best-in-class performance, in terms of sound quality or battery life, for example. Will we rush to have 3D screens? No, because I don't see that offering a luxury experience for some time," explains Oostang. "But the reasoning for buying such phones is really the same as for any luxury item. It's just that we're not yet used to the idea of thinking of phones in this way. My wife buys shoes that are not the most comfortable - and there's no logic in buying shoes you can't walk in. Inevitably there is a struggle with the question 'why...spend that much money on a phone?'."

Indeed, some brands are answering that question by pointing simply to a society in flux. All this talk of high-rollers being replaced by high-diallers could hint at vulgarity. But might it rather be an expression of these austere times' ideas on buying less and better? Aesir, a new Danish top-end mobile phone company, whose launch phone has been conceived by the acclaimed industrial designer Yves Behar, is taking the idea further still.

"For most people, a phone is a tool and it can make no sense to make a product that does less than other, cheaper products already on the market," admits Aesir's chief executive, Thomas Jensen. "But the fact is that, as with all aspects of living now, there is an increasing need for everyone to turn curator - to find and pick what works for you, what allows you to cut back on all the clutter. We can expect to see more and more products and services that aim to simplify what has become over-complicated. And you wouldn't believe how hard it is now to find a high-quality phone that is just a phone. Not everyone needs a device to tell them where the nearest pizzeria is."