Vertu interview: $300,000 phones, armed guards on demand, and the specs arms race thaw

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Vertu make ridiculously lavish phones for those with big money – T3 sits down with head of design Hutch Hutchinson to ask what you get for the extra wedge

Luxury smartphone maker Vertu has released its first ever Android phone – which starts with the heavy price tag of £6,700. We talk to Head of Design Hutch Hutchinson about what exactly you get for the extra wedge…

A lot of people probably won’t have heard of Vertu, but you’ve actually been going 15 years?

Yeah the original idea was taken in 1998 by Nokia. At that time Nokia was incredibly cash rich, they’d done quite a thorough job of segmenting the market. They were doing phones for old people, businessman’s phones, funky coloured ones for kids, and an aluminium premium range.

But if this was the car worlds, it’s a bit like you’ve gone all the way up to a nice Aldi, and then stopped. What about that wide open space at the end.

So they signed us up to secrecy and pushed us out to another building, because then Nokia was 55000 people and an amazingly leaky place to be.

It took us until 2002 to productise it. I think we were pretending to make cutlery, I can’t remember what guise we were under.

But you’re totally spun off from Nokia now?

We were sold off last year, I think they retained a 10 per cent share, I don’t know why.

Things did seem to be more segmented back then – now you get mid to high range smartphones but it seems like legacy tech rather than something bespoke for a market. Do you think that’s something that’s missing at the moment, that differentiation between people?

I think you’ve summed it up exactly. Most people, haven’t heard of Vertu. If you asked most people what’s a luxury phone and they would tell you an iPhone. Even though they are very expensive by most people’s standards, they’re almost a commodity item at this point. They’ve sort of furthered this by removing design from the equation. I’d never slate that product it’s amazing, but they have deliberately made it a block – just a thing that does tech. And now there’s even more room for us to go back to that segmentation argument again and say why when I pull up in my Rolls Royce next to a guy in the Mini, why am I using the same phone? I’ve got different clothes, different shoes, and a different table. So we set about making that extra bit on the end of the market. As such it will never be mass market, I don’t think it ever could be.

The trick is to do it without adding bling, which a few case manufacturers do. But our plan wasn’t to do that, it was to make the best phone in the world.

So you get some bespoke orders?

We do do bespoke. We don’t advertise the service but people ask. If they have a particular gem stone they are in love with or particular material or engravings. We’ve had people from Dubai in saying, well it’s his birthday – let’s do something very special. Those ones can be extreme. I think the most expensive one was £300,000. All the sapphire was custom cut, it was kind of a crazy phone.

One thing people will wonder is 'what will I get from a Vertu that I won’t be getting from a much cheaper iPhone?'

We have various strength tests, including firing a ball bearing at the screen. Loosely speaking the Vertu Ti is four times stronger in terms of sitting on it and five times stronger in terms of firing a steel ball at it.

The screens are made of sapphire. Glass to sapphire is like a sofa is to steel. The way you create sapphire is you create a ring furnace and create a vortex, the heart of which is a little over 2000 degrees C. Then you take a stick of molybdenum and put a sea crystal on it, and you float it on a bed of air which is swirling below it. As you pull that stick up you grow a perfect crystal matrix off it. After about two weeks you got something about a foot long. The trouble is after that, there’s only one thing that’s harder than sapphire. So you have to use diamond saws and grinders. Therefore, you can’t scratch these screens unless you have a diamond.

It seems most mobile phone manufacturers are much more concerned with the processor, graphics chip, and operating system than they are the engineering of the phone. It could also be pointed out that this Vertu doesn’t have the highest specs on the market. Do you think it’s wrong to be concentrating so much on that side of things, then?

It’s an arms race, but it’s an interesting one because I was at CES and I was standing beside the latest thing from Huawei. Full 1080p display, quad core processor. Two years ago there would have been scrum to get at it, but people were just walking straight past it.

I believe right now it’s beginning to plateau.

In terms of the specs race?

Yeah. Go back ten years and the PC under my desk would have constantly being needed to be upgraded, and as soon as you bought one a new one came out with something else. It got to the point where now I’ve had the same PC for years, it works perfectly fine and I’m happy with it. This phones a bit like that computer – is it really lacking? No. More by luck than judgement, I think we’ve entered at the point where it’s all becoming a little academic. Unless you’re going to be doing… I don’t know what, what are you going to be doing? You’re not going to be running Photoshop on these things. You’re going to be consuming stuff. We seem to be ok with the arms race discussion.

And who buys them?

If you want to get served really quick, put that on the table. I’ve been there with the president – put the phones on the table and see how long it is before the owner of the restaurant comes out and says ‘would you like some champagne sir? You’re worth something.’

Europe is still the home territory – I think there’s an appreciation for luxury objects in Europe that maybe isn’t there in America, which is so annoying because it’s a massive market. The Far East – greater china and further than that is where the money is nowadays, that’s big for us. Traditionally Russia has been important, the Middle East. Basically, follow the money. Where it doesn’t sell? List all the poor countries in the works and that’s where it doesn’t sell.

And what’s this concierge service?

With the touch of a button you can get all sorts of services, can you get me this restaurant or this booking, etc.

We partnered with a service called Protector Services Group. Most of our clients are self made, entrepreneurial characters, always networking, always striking business deals. These guys will research any firm for you, give you business profiles and tell you whether they are legit or not.

On the other end of the scale, if you want it, they’ll provide men with bulges in their coats, or helicopters – the full spectrum of personal security.

So if you’re worried about a situation you can get your phone out and guys will turn up with pistols?

If they can do it in a country this side of the law, they will do it. I’ve met them, and they’re serious ex-army dudes.

You also get privileges – we have deals with lots of private members clubs all over the world, you can get in for free. Some of these are ten grand a year subscription clubs. As a Vertu owner, they’re very interested on getting to know people that have this much money. It’s all stuff you can get into because you’re rich.

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