The Virtues of Vertu

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A closer look at the world’s most expensive smartphone and its maker

IMAGINE A COUNTRY idyll. Meadows, gardens, trees, lush grass. Welcome to Hampshire, England.

Next to an obscure junction in Hampshire, where Sandy Lane meets Beacon Hill Road, sits a high-tech factory surrounded by a parking lot. On its roof are the letters V-E-R-T-U. (Thanks, Google Maps.)

This unremarkable facility houses Vertu (www.vertu.com), which makes the world’s most expensive handmade smartphones. Vertu offers three models; the Signature, the Constellation, and the TI that starts at US$10,500.

Vertu began 15 odd years ago, when Finnish electronic giant Nokia was busy conquering the mobile phone market. Foreseeing a potential niche in the still undefined category of phones-as-luxury-goods it launched Vertu, its UK-based subsidiary.

GENESIS
Among its co-founders was Dr Peter Ashall, an engineer and veteran of Motorola. After several years spent building its product line, Ashall stepped down and consulted for charities. He is back in the luxury business, however, helping develop a glittering female- centric smartphone for jeweler Savelli in Geneva.

Despite criticism that Vertu’s were sugar-coated mediocrities—flashy exterior with crude Simbian specs—the 1,000-employee firm did very well for itself.

“Since Vertu began in 1998, our business has grown every year,” said former CEO Perry Oosting, who joined Vertu in 2009 until Nokia sold it.

There lay its greatest problem. While Vertu proved its business model worked, by 2008 Nokia’s grip on mobile phones was being lost to Apple, Samsung, RIM, and LG. Vertu was tethered to a bad parent.

While Nokia tried to reinvent itself with its Lumia series, in 2011 Vertu unveiled the ill-received Signature. It was still super-expensive.

Unfortunately, the Nokia empire was crumbling. In 2012, European private equity firm EQT VI swooped in and bought Vertu for US$372,400,000. According to information on EQT’s website, Vertu sales were US$276 million in 2012.

Resurrection
CEO Oosting stayed for a year longer before his replacement by Massimiliano “Max” Pogliani, a Nestle executive in June 2013.

Before he left, Oosting presided over the launch of the Vertu TI, a gleaming black Android Ice Cream Sandwich-powered model that could be pimped according to its owner’s tastes. It used Android because Nokia’s own Windows-based OS had a sucky user interface.

This year’s Vertu Constellation sets a new benchmark. Last November, newly minted CEO Pogliani tweeted an Instagram pic of awed Chinese buyers at the Vertu Constellation launch.

They had good reason to be.

The Constellation has a scratch- resistant, sapphire crystal touchscreen protected by a titanium frame. The US$6,700 starting price rises depending on the accessories. In Vertu stores across the world’s major cities, sales reps can only handle the product wearing black gloves.

Rocking Out
Although geeks lament its modest specifications, from its camera to its dual-core CPU, unlike other smartphones the Vertu’s latest come with exclusive apps. For example, activating Vertu Concierge opens a list of booking options for restaurants, retail stores, and events, all curated by Vertu.

Likewise Vertu Life grants access to posh events. Then, for a security protection app, there is Vertu Certainty.

Take it from head designer Frank Nuovo, who succinctly spelled out Vertu’s raison d’etre. “We’re not creating a product that will compete with the do-all multimedia products,” he said.

Vertu exists to serve the upper crust of any society. No wonder the Vertu News page for product inquiries has a field for “Titles,” meaning whether you are an Ambassador, a Lord, or a Sheik. Vertu is a bestseller among Chinese millionaires and Russian oligarchs.

Even Vertu’s default ring tone is posh, being a specially commissioned score from the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Although smartphones that eclipse Vertu’s in price exist, these are often from phone makers licensing car brands (Vertu TI has a Ferrari variant) or couture like Dior. Vertu, on the other hand, is a full-fledged, upmarket cellphone maker.

So where can status-conscious Filipinos buy a Vertu? Try the accredited Lucerne Jewelers at Edsa Shangri-La. For a fully stocked Vertu store, the closest is in Hong Kong. The leather-back Vertu Constellation comes highly recommended.

Print ed: 12/13-01/14

 

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