I have felt underdressed many times in my life, but never, until today, when walking into a cell phone store.
This particular cell phone store, though, is the Vertu boutique on Madison Avenue. Vertu was founded in 1988 as a division of Nokia known for making 18-carat gold candybar handsets, before being spun off to a Swedish private-equity group in 2012; it has more in common with an exclusive jeweler than with your local Verizon outlet, and my clothes–jeans, a normal shirt–reveal that I can’t afford to buy anything sold here. The security guard looks at me skeptically as he holds the door open. Inside, arranged on marble pedestals behind thick glass, like diamond tiaras, are sleek black and silver phones.
I’m here to see Vertu’s new model, the Aster–the first Vertu smartphone aimed at the women’s market. The Aster is a large-screen Android phone, about the same size as a Galaxy S5. Three different models are brought out on a tray, differentiated by the leather that covers the back: one is calfskin, one is karung–the skin of an elephant trunk snake–and one is ostrich. A helpful groove has been scooped from each side of the titanium casing, which according to Vertu PR makes the phone more easily grippable by the tiny, delicate fingertips of an elegant lady. The tactile appeal is evident even to my own crude hand.
I pick up the ostrich one, because it’s the most expensive and because it’s an appealing raspberry color. At 193 grams it’s heavy–a third again heavier than the Galaxy–which gives it a reassuringly solid feel, although I imagine you’d get tired if you held it in one hand for long.
When I turn it on, I’m greeted by an Android home screen. I play a video clip–two minutes of Life of Pi–and the boy and the boat and the tiger and the water all look crisp and sharp while the front-mounted speakers roar convincingly. I take a picture with the camera and it comes out looking pretty good, and I bet it would look even better if I were good at photography. It’s definitely a nice phone. It costs $9,700.
With the possible exception of the car, the touchscreen smartphone is the most desirable mass-produced object in history. The iPhone and its Android rivals are so useful, so powerful, so much fun that, from the moment they appeared, everyone wanted one and, seven years on, hundreds of millions of people have them. The most expensive iPhone costs $500 with a two-year contract. If you shop around you can get a Galaxy S4 for free with a new plan.
The existence of a highly valued device that’s within reach of millions of people is a triumph of late capitalism. But if you’re a rich person who likes to own things that no one else has–if you see that as the point of being rich–it’s a problem.
And that’s where Vertu comes in. The company’s raison d’etre is to replace the iPhone’s aura of mass-produced magic with old-fashioned exclusivity–to make phones that most people can’t afford.
The Aster, like all Vertu phones, was designed price-first: $6,900 for the entry-level calf leather model, $9,700 for the ostrich, with personalized units costing much more. Vertu’s new owners have scaled back the bling and focused on touchscreen smartphones. So the Aster represents the answer to an interesting question: How much are today’s high-but-not-ludicrously-high-end smartphones–the iPhone, the Galaxy, the HTC One–held back by the need to compete on price? When you set out to make a phone that costs six times more than its competitors, how much can you improve on them?
In terms of raw specs, the answer turns out to be: not much. The Aster is an impressive piece of hardware, no doubt, but it’s not in a different category from the best phones made for the non-millionaire market. The screen is made from super-tough sapphire crystal, long tipped as the Next Big Thing in touch screens, and available now in Kyocera’s Brigadier. The display has a resolution of 473 pixels per inch, which is a lot of pixels but not as many as in the LG G3. The speakers sound great but not appreciably better than those in the HTC One M8. The camera has 13 megapixels, which is five more than the iPhone 6 but seven fewer than the Sony Xperia Z3 (not that megapixels are the be-all and end-all).
The difference isn’t in the software either. Practically speaking, there’s no way a company like Vertu can compete on software. Even if it developed an operating system as good as iOS and Android, it would wind up with no third-party apps, and rich people want to play Candy Crush and use Facebook too. So every Vertu smartphone runs the latest version of Android, just like almost every other handset that doesn’t have an Apple logo on the back.
So the company finds other ways to justify the 1,000-percent premium. The silliest is to opt out of mass production altogether, as each Vertu phone is “handcrafted by a single craftsman whose signature is engraved inside the back plate compartment.” These craftsmen (some of whom are women) work at the company’s headquarters in Hampshire, England; it takes them two or three days to assemble a single phone. This process makes for better working conditions than those at Foxconn, of course, but it doesn’t have any practical effect on the product’s utility. A phone isn’t like a guitar or a boat; it’s not designed to respond organically to the subtleties of the user’s touch.
So what else can a fancy smartphone offer? Human beings at your beck and call. The Aster’s price also includes six months of Vertu’s Classic Concierge service: round-the-clock access to a team of assistants who’ll book your plane tickets and wangle those tricky restaurant reservations. But while I’m sure this would be useful in certain circumstances–your personal assistant has to sleep, presumably, and may not have a connection at Alinea–it’s not really part of the phone. For $200,000 you can have my iPhone and I’ll be your butler for a year, but that doesn’t mean I own a $200,000 iPhone. (With regard to Vertu Concierge, two other things seem worth mentioning: a) This is a free trial for a very expensive service, although when I tried to find out exactly how expensive the PR person resorted to stuff like “The cost and levels are very customizable so it truly depends on what the customer is looking for,” which is PR-speak for “We don’t want the price to appear on your website.” b) “Classic” is the lowest of three tiers of concierge service that Vertu offers, which suggests that the experience of the very rich is in certain ways not that different from the experience of the rest of us.)
Then there’s Vertu Life, a bespoke app that lists “exclusive privileges and unrestricted access to elite events.” I launched the app and saw some lovely photos–a beach, a restaurant–although I couldn’t read the text because it was in Russian and the very apologetic PR person was unable to fix it for me. Vertu characterizes these perks as “access to invitation-only events and closed-door shopping experiences.” Of course, “invitation-only events and closed-door shopping experiences” differ from “events and shopping” only in that not everyone gets to do them, which makes them a lot like the phone itself.
I’m not the only one who enjoys making fun of Vertu–tech pundits have been doing it for years. It was easier when they only made feature phones, or when their first smartphones ran Nokia’s Symbian operating system. “My phone is much better than that $10,000 phone” is a pleasant sentiment, and one that phone bloggers were happy to express. I am sad to report that they’ll have to stop. Whatever phone you have, I doubt it’s clearly better than a Vertu Aster.
Even the 1,000-percent price premium has started to seem less risible, less like an amusing way to exploit the bad taste of magnates and gangsters. The Aster, in the end, is a perfectly viable luxury object. It’s a $1,000 smartphone attached to a $5,000 purse. From the perspective of the tech industry it’s easy to say that the price of the smartphone is reasonable and the price of the purse is insane, but the price of the purse is where the tech industry is headed.
The clearest signs of this direction come from Apple, inventor of the modern smartphone. The Apple Watch, the company’s biggest bet since the death of Steve Jobs, will come in three “collections,” from a $350 aluminum model with a plastic strap to a solid gold version that could easily cost as much as an Aster. And a string of high-profile recent hires suggest that the company sees its future in the world of high fashion. Apple, famously, skates to where the puck is going to be, and its rivals scramble to follow. As retro-fetishistic as handmade cell phones might seem, over the next few years, other gadget makers will be moving in the direction of Vertu, and the time when hundreds of millions of people could own the most exciting object in the world may be over.