Oddly Enough

Luxury phones rival handmade watches for jet-set

BASEL, Switzerland (Reuters) - Luxury mobile phones are seeking to rival handmade watches for many jet-set consumers, especially business travelers who rely on digital gadgets to tell the time abroad.

A woman looks at a Boss showcase on the opening day of the watch fair Baselworld in Basel, April 12, 2007. The world's leading watch and jewellery show Baselworld is to be held in Basel from 12 April to 19 April. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

At Baselworld, the watch and jewelry industry’s largest annual trade fair, telephones draped in diamonds and sapphires were displayed alongside traditional wrist accessories. Some included tools to instantly track flights, convert currencies and check the weather.

The luxury unit of the world’s top mobile handset maker Nokia, Vertu, displayed sleek telephones ranging from $4,350 to $310,000 at its booth in Basel, a few steps from hotel heiress Paris Hilton’s new watch collection, in one of six huge exhibition halls heaving with people.

Vertu President Alberto Torres said many of the company’s younger customers were more interested in their mobile phones than their watches, unlike older clientele who show deep loyalty to luxury watchmakers such as Patek Philippe, Rolex or Cartier.

“The phone has a strong association for a lot of young people,” he said in an interview Friday in “The Hall of Inspirations,” one of the show’s six giant exhibition areas.

Some of Vertu’s designs are marketed at busy people whose days may feature “breakfast in London, shopping in Paris and a late dinner in New York,” offering a virtual concierge service for help with restaurant bookings and gift ordering.

Others are wrapped in diamond-perforated leather that resists “almost everything from lipstick to suntan lotion,” according to promotional material.

Because they are constantly holding their phones, laying them on dinner tables and otherwise flashing them about, Torres said many wealthy people had become increasingly conscious of the image their handsets projected.

“A phone has become an important element of lifestyle. The phone says something about yourself,” he said.

Vertu’s sales increased by 140 percent last year and should rise another 100 percent in 2007, Torres said, declining to specify a dollar figure.

One of Nokia’s smallest but most profitable segments, Vertu is approaching the 100,000 per year mark in numbers of handsets sold, Torres said, noting that overall turnover was in line with many medium- to large-sized luxury watch companies.

“We would be a significant brand in the watch industry (in terms of sales),” he said, while stressing that Vertu did not believe the shift to pricier mobiles would prompt the rich to stop buying high-end watches.

“Our customers tend to have several luxury items,” he said.

Like most luxury goods segments, high-end mobile phones have benefited from a surge in the number of millionaires worldwide alongside fast economic growth in countries such as China, India and Russia. Rich people in the oil-producing Middle East have also flocked to status symbols with the recent commodities boom.

Other companies have also entered the luxury mobile field to greet the new clientele. Motorola and designers Dolce & Gabbana have launched a gold-colored version of the best-selling RAZR model, and South Korea’s LG Electronics Inc. has helped develop a Prada phone to complement Prada accessories.