The rise of mobiles caused problems for wristwatches as a generation lost the need for a watch, but now watch brands are embracing the technology and creating their own phones. Rachael Taylor reports on what the new rich playboy accessory has to offer watch retailers.
At one time it seemed the timepiece was in danger of extinction from mobile phones, but then trends, as they always do, reversed and the wristwatch was king once more.
Now there are an increasing number of brands mixing mobile phone technology with luxury watch mechanics and branding to create a new hybrid product.
At BaselWorld this year a brand named Celsius X VI II unveiled a time-telling, call-making masterpiece that had been locked in the development lab for five years. It took 35 engineers, watchmakers and artisans to create the LeDIX Furtif, a mobile phone made up of 700 mechanical parts clad in a carbon fibre case and decorated with gold or platinum accents.
The real showstopping feature of this mobile phone is that it is propelled by a flying tourbillion – the world’s most off-centred tourbillion, apparently – that can be seen in its full working glory through a sapphire crystal glass plate on the top of the flip phone and is operated by a crown near the fold of the phone. The movement has been finished with exceptional attention to detail, including polishing, satin brushing, Clous de Paris hobnail decoration and shotblasting. It has a power reserve of 100 hours that is powered up by three hours each time the phone is opened and closed.
The LeDIX Furtif has watchmaking features that many brands can only dream of, and on top of that it really is a working, if basic, mobile phone with 3.5 hours of talking time, 240 hours of power reserve in standby mode and 3.2 megapixel camera.
This micromechanical watch phone, which is unlocked so it can be used with any network, has been limited to just 24 pieces, which isn’t surprising considering that it carries a price tag of about £190,000.
A product like this is the type reserved for the pages of luxury magazines and supplements dedicated to crazy out-there products, but the brand’s decision to exhibit at BaselWorld is an interesting one and suggests that this is not as much of a PR stunt as we might think. Exhibiting at the show is expensive and by making such an investment it would seem that Celsius X VI II has identified retail jewellers and watch shops as a viable route to market.
At about the same time as the LeDIX Furtif was unveiled TAG Heuer introduced the world to its first touchscreen smartphone, the TAG Heuer LINK. While the LeDIX Furtif is a fairly basic phone with an exceptional horological movement, the TAG Heuer LINK is an advanced phone that operates on the Google Android operating platform, which the brand claims makes it one of the fastest phones on the market.
TAG Heuer launched its first luxury mobile phone in 2008, the Meridiist, but this latest development from the R&D department puts it leagues ahead in terms of technology. The LINK has 1Ghz of processor power, 16 million colour screen resolution, a 3.5 inch display and a 5 megapixel auto-focus camera, plus access to 250,000 apps and it is pre-loaded with a whole host of TAG Heuer add-ons such as customised screen designs, widgets, animations, wallpapers, icons and ringtones.
And as you would expect from TAG Heuer the watch has been carefully hand assembled and finished to give it a luxury edge. The materials used to craft the phone are not the usual mobile phone fare and include black PVD, diamonds, surgical grade steel, lizard skin and gold.
Ulysse Nardin has also made a play to enter the mobile phone market and has taken a very luxe approach. Coinciding with TAG Heuer and Celsius, it also chose BaselWorld as the scene to unveil its offering, the Chairman which was created in collaboration with technology company Scientific Cellular Innovations.
The luxury watch brand played up to its reputation at BaselWorld and showed off an edition of the Chairman phone crafted from 18ct white gold and set with 3,100 round brilliant diamonds weighing more than 20cts, limited to 100 pieces.
While this was definite showboating, the brand has released a more commercial line of phones that feature many iconic Ulysse Nardin design details such as its distinctive mechanical watch rotor, which has been set on the back of the phone encased under sapphire glass. Rather than just a decorative detail the rotor is fully functioning and is used to power up the phone kinetically.
Scientific Cellular Innovations co-founder Bobby Yampolsky says that the project has proved successful so far with retailers already taking stock of the phones, adding that his company and Ulysse Nardin are planning to build on the project.
“People now view their mobile devices with the same intention to convey personal style and craftsmanship as with an elegant timepiece,” says Yampolsky. “The Chairman’s popularity at BaselWorld exceeded expectations and inspired us to further explore ways to fulfill the needs and desires of our customers.”
But however strong affiliations are with watch brands, it will be hard for many iPhone junkies to let go of their communications crush to move over to a watch brand’s brand of phone, even if they do hanker for a luxury upgrade. For those sort of shoppers Geneva-based company Golden Dreams is offering a solution – customised iPhones. It transforms standard iPhones with a luxury makeover that could be alligator skin cladding, gold plating or, as shown at BaselWorld, studding the case with 4,000 diamonds.
“Switzerland is renowned for its finesse and expertise in the luxury industry,” says Golden Dreams commercial director Alexandre Mason. “At Golden Dreams we successfully applied this traditional expertise used in making Swiss watches and jewellery to personalise iPhones and turn them into exquisite luxury creations.”
But just how does selling mobile phones, regardless how luxe the finishing touches or inner mechanics might be, translate in watch shops and jewellers? Dino D’Auria, co-founder of luxury watch and jewellery retailer Frost of London, based on the city’s New Bond Street, says it is just like selling any other high-end accessory.
The retailer sells a variety of high-end phones from brands better known for watches, such as Dior, TAG Heuer and Versace, and well as models from luxury phone brands Goldvish and Vertu. Prices for the phones range from £3,000 for a stainless steel and black rubber TAG Heuer Meridiist and can go up to £125,000 for a Goldvish, although D’Auria says that the sky is the limit.
D’Auria says that the main market for luxury phones is men, although the brand do cater specifically for ladies with the Dior line, which has handy functions such as a keyring that can be used to answer the phone so that ladies don’t have to dig in their bags when a call comes in.
“Most guys with money have nice watches so we say that’s a beautiful watch, we can accessorise that,” he says. “Guys can’t drive in the office so they can’t show off their cars, and most people now have a nice watch so it’s not impressive, but if you pull out a luxury phone worth £10,000 people will say ‘OK, woah, how much money have they got?’.”
Primarily, these phones are used to show off wealth, as just another luxury accessory – so do shoppers care about the functionality of the phones? While some are technically advanced, like TAG Heuer models and Vertu which D’Auria describes as “the Patek Philippe of the phone world”, he believes that it is more about the looks that the apps.
D’Auria says that his customers who buy luxury mobile phones use them as a second phone and swap between the two just as someone would do between a sports watch and a top-end watch. “Most people have an iPhone or a Blackberry but they will have a luxury phone for business or going out for dinner,” he says. “Most people don’t use their phones fully anyway. They have most of the functions that people have and need. You’ll generally find that affluent business people won’t be clued up on phones, or use all the functions anyway. ”
But there are features beyond glitzy looks that do clinch sales at Frost of London. One major influencer is the benefits package that Vertu offers. The phone brand calls it a concierge service and each phone has a special button that owners can press that will call through to the service that then acts as a personal assistant. Packages vary for an additional monthly fee and the concierge service ranges from simple tasks such as securing dinner reservations at top restaurants to more outrageous requests such as, in the case of one Frost of London customer, calling in the service to send a team of chartered surveyors to check out properties overseas, which it did, included in the package.
For many watch retailers, the sale of luxury mobile phones might be a step too far, perhaps even a betrayal for those who still consider the communication devices as taking a chunk out of the wristwatch market. But for those that are pioneering enough to give it a go, it is a lucrative additional alternative revenue stream for those with a high-wealth customer base who love luxe accessories.
This article was taken from the July 2012 issue of WatchPro magazine, out now. To view a digital version of the magazine click here.