A store for $300,000 cell phones

By Michal Lev-Ram

LAS VEGAS — Step into Vertu’s new Las Vegas boutique and you’ll see pricey objects made of sapphires, gold and diamonds. But this is no jewelry shop — Vertu sells high-end cell phones at prices ranging from $4,650 to $310,000.

The U.K.-based company, a subsidiary of Nokia (NOK), has opened 25 boutiques worldwide since 2002. But its new location in the posh Wynn Las Vegas hotel is the company’s first store in the United States and it opened this week, just in time to piggyback on the Consumer Electronics Show.

“It’s like going from a Volkswagen to a Ferrari,” says Frank Nuovo, principal designer at Vertu and former chief designer of Nokia. “They’re both good but with a Ferrari you’re talking about something totally different.”

Plenty of cell phone companies make high-end devices for fashionistas willing to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a unique, design-centric device. Samsung plans to sell a $1,600 music phone called the Serenata through Bang & Olufsen, and last year LG launched its $800 Prada phone in Europe. Nokia also has a $750 version of its N95 multimedia phone, but none of these devices are comparable to the prices found in Vertu’s lineup.

At $6,300, the company’s latest phone, called the Ascent Ti, is made of titanium, leather and sapphire crystals. It’s also got an “ear pillow” made of the same ceramic material that protects NASA’s space shuttle. Another device, the Signature Vertu phone (pictured above) has black and white diamonds and retails for $68,000. Yet another, a special edition Signature Cobra phone, was made in partnership with French jeweler Boucheron and features one pear-cut diamond, one round white diamond, two emerald eyes and 439 rubies. But while Vertu phones are heavy on the precious stones, they are lacking on advanced features. Most of the phones don’t even have a camera, though Nuovo says they all have Web browsers (assuming you don’t mind triple-clicking your way through a diamond-encrusted keypad).

So who buys these pricey, impractical devices whose technology may soon be as out of date as last year’s fashions? Not that many people. Only eight Signature Cobra phones were made and sold. Then again, the bejeweled device cost $310,000 a pop.

“All products eventually make that journey from functional to a work of art,” says Nuovo, who carries about four Vertu phones on him at all times.

For those of us who can look but not buy, Vertu’s Las Vegas store is still a treat — especially when compared to your average U.S. phone mart. Well-dressed salespeople are all smiles, the floor is made of marble and there are lots of glitzy mobiles to gawk though they’re all locked in glass display cases.

Next month Vertu plans to open another U.S. store in New York’s Plaza Hotel, and the company says more locations will follow.

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