Cellphones That Speak Luxury
New York Times, November 23, 2009
The market for mobile phones is 30 years old, at best, dating from the first commercial cellular system installed by N.T.T. in Tokyo, in 1979. Compare that with 300 years for watches. Consider it a sign, then, of cellphones’ burgeoning promise in luxury circles that among the players who have staked fresh claims in the market this year are Swiss watchmakers.
“Why should we, because we are Swiss and conservative, remain in watches only?” Jean-Christophe Babin, president and chief executive of TAG Heuer, asked as he introduced the Meridiist, the brand’s first venture into cellphones. Named to evoke the meridians of global travel, the model, introduced at the Baselworld fair in March, is available at 100 points of sale worldwide, most of them fine jewelry and watch boutiques.
Unlike the “scratchable, short life, plastic” offerings in the mass market, the Meridiist comes in a sapphire crystal case, Mr. Babin said, describing it as a suitable accessory for luxury-minded executives who hope to communicate success and sophistication to their colleagues across the dining table.
“BlackBerry is really the product they use from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.,” he said. “The Meridiist will be their evening phone.”
The strategy borrows heavily from the playbook developed by Vertu, the subsidiary of Nokia, which introduced its upscale Signature mobile phone in 2002.
“There’s a huge gap between mass market premium products and the minimum delivery of the Vertu experience,” the company’s creative director and designer Frank Nuovo said.
The newest model to emerge from the Vertu workshop in Church Crookham, about 40 miles, or 65 kilometers, southwest of London, is a flip phone. Named the Constellation Ayxta, it is brimming with elite features that include a concierge service; a selection of dining and nightlife suggestions for 70 cities; an exclusive soundtrack by the Grammy-nominated British electronic musicians Zero 7; and a reworked custom ring tone, originally composed by the London Symphony Orchestra for the brand’s Signature model in 2002. Prices start at $6,500, in stainless steel, while precious metal versions range up to $8,600.
Even in the midst of the luxury trade’s biggest identity crisis in decades, analysts say the mobile market is ripe for the picking.
“Any mass market product or good, there’s always a way to personalize it,” Thomas Husson, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, said. “There’s no doubt that this ultra-differentiation starts with the luxury brands.”
Fashion houses have been the quickest studies. Christian Dior, working with ModeLabs, the French manufacturer that TAG Heuer partnered with on the Meridiist, recently introduced the second-generation version of its luxury Dior mobile phone.
With its sleek flip case bearing the brand’s iconic woven cane design, and Bluetooth-enabled “My Dior” accessory, a miniature second phone that clips onto a handbag for easy access, it certainly looks and feels luxurious. But stacked up against iPhones and other so-called “app phones,” many of these deluxe handsets fall short on functionality.
In contrast, the new Ulysse Nardin Chairman, the product of a licensing agreement between the Swiss watchmaker Ulysse Nardin and the British company SCI Innovations, may bridge that gap. It is, for one thing, the first mobile phone to contain a self-winding rotor mechanism, like an automatic watch, that supplies backup kinetic energy to help keep the battery charged.
“Other luxury phones are not half as advanced as the Chairman,” SCI’s president, Bobby Yampolsky, said. “We’ve developed a true hybrid.”
The model, which starts at $13,000 and ranges up to $50,000 for precious metal versions, comes with bells and whistles that include a lacquered wooden docking station, complete with built-in speakers and a USB device for simultaneous backup and charging. Its touchscreen measuring 3.2 inches, or 81 millimeters, its high-definition video playback, its 32 gigabytes of internal memory and its 8-megapixel camera are impressive. But what puts it in hailing distance of iPhone territory is that it runs Google’s Android mobile operating system.
As the mobile commerce channel heats up - Forrester Research predicts that revenue generated by U.S. mobile commerce buyers will rise from a projected $201 million in 2009 to $360 million in 2013, with Europe not far behind - expect more luxury phone manufacturers to head in this direction.
Giorgio Armani is already there, thanks to his partnership with Samsung Electronics and Microsoft. In October, he introduced a third version of his two-year-old luxury phone, incorporating a Windows Mobile 6.5 operating system.
Mr. Nuovo, at Vertu, whose phones feature e-mail and texting functionality but otherwise remain resolutely focused on delivering superior voice quality, is unconcerned.
“It’ll be very hip in a few years to have a vintage Vertu,” Mr. Nuovo said. “The reality is, if you had a GSM phone from 1995-1996, and you fired it up, it would work fine, just like my old Bentley.”