We asked Vertu why its phones cost so much

While swiping away at the all-new Signature Touch, CEO Middle East sat down with Hutch Hutchinson, Head of Design at Vertu, to ask what makes technology a luxury
By Thomas Shambler
Mon 04 Apr 2016 10:24 AM

The world is awash with smartphones at the moment, with more on the way. Seemingly every month we get a new 'flagship' device, either from the mainstream tech companies or the smaller firms in China. What makes Vertu different?

We set off on a mission back in the 90s – back wen nobody used the word luxury. We wanted to make a better phone. So we asked ourselves, 'If money was no object, what would we do'. We were at Nokia at the time, and that question had never been asked. Price is very important because phones are in a very competitive market. But even today, that questions remains at the core of what we do. We build phones using some very exotic materials at very high price points. We do crazy one-offs for people if they want, and even adding precious stones if needed. And of course, you can't scratch our screens as they are solid sapphire.

The stigma surrounding Vertu is that it produces expensive, luxury mobiles. But that they aren't very functional…

That's not the case. For example, we have an optical image processor in the new Signature Touch. We have four gigabytes of RAM, and a dedicated image processing chip – this actually comes directly out of professional SLR cameras. It takes 21-megapixel photos. More importantly, we have it loaded with an extra-large battery. That's the thing, more horsepower equals more fuel consumption. You don’t want to have to charge your phone every few hours.

Everyone uses the world luxury these days, it's overused. Many people see an iPhone as a luxury smartphone.

If you asked people what a luxury phone was in this region, there is a very high awareness of Vertu. But most of the world would still say an iPhone.

So you agree?

A great example between us and them, is our most expensive component. The sapphire screen. It's there for a very good reason, it protects the screen. Now, our friends at Apple attempted to produce sapphire with a company called GT Advanced Systems. It was a horror story. They failed miserably. Now Apple has gone back to glass.

What are the benefits of having a sapphire screen?

People think it's just posh glass. It isn’t. Saying that is like comparing custard and steel. If you are talking substances, sapphire is the second hardest thing on the planet after diamonds. It's not found, it's grown. You take a little seed crystal and put it in to a blast furnace that's running at 2000-degrees centigrade. Then you drop aluminium oxide on over it, and slowly it grows. It takes a long time. Two weeks per screen at least. Then you have to cut it, grind it down, and polish it, all using diamonds. Just a single screen has a six-month lead time from ordering it to receiving it. But the results are incredibly scratch-resistant. Actually, it is five times stronger than glass.

So toughness is something you've paid particular attention to?

If you look at the side of this phone, you will notice metal 'guard rails'. These are actually made from solid grade five titanium. In car terms, this creates a roll-cage of sorts. It protects everything inside the phone, and provides structure to that extra hard screen. This titanium is the same stuff they use in jet engines, it's twice as strong as regular titanium.

It's very light.

That's the magnesium shell. It's incredibly light. Now, you can cast magnesium – that is pour it in to a mould – but this can make it brittle. Instead, we machine the phone out of a solid lump. Again, this goes back to the ethos of the brand, 'what if money were no object'.

Does that philosophy extend to how the phone works, as well?

We have done quite a lot to improve the audio. I know that a smartphone is essentially a small computer that you talk in to, but to this day it's really annoying when you can't hear what people are saying on both ends. We actually spent a long time talking to some ex-Bowers & Wilkins sound technicians, to create a parabolic meshing with a titanium net. This means three times the amount of sound, but done in a way that keeps the speakers safe.

There's no doubt that the build-quality of Vertu has always been noteworthy. But again, the stigma is that they don't really work too well.

No, I absolutely agree with the commentary. We had a great time building on what was essentially Nokia's platform. They were phones that were phones. They lasted five days on a single charge. We still make phones based on that, and they still sell. After that, we moved on to the smart Symbian platform and then had a bumpy transition to Android. Hardware was mismatched to software, power consumption was out of control, and many manufacturers had these problems. But with the launch of the latest Android, it got a lot slicker. The hardware just works, seamlessly, with all the functionality of any Android device out there.

How do you translate the luxury aspects of the phone's exterior, with the interface that many people have to use daily?

Over the years I have carried out many different workshops with some highly-paid consultants on how to design a luxury user interface. I have finally, after many years, come to the conclusion that there is no such thing. The only good interface is an understandable one. Many companies took android and make it their own, breaking it in the process. We actually spend more time on apps, like the clock for example.

That's fitting given that Vertu is probably more akin to a watch than a smartphone.

It makes sense that way. We use an analogue clock face, which is a bit dated if I am honest. But when you think about it, it lets you see 12-hours in to the future at any given moment. We have utilized this, so calendar notifications pop up. It's a more elegant solution, which is what we're all about. Putting high-end luxury with the new technology, and doing so in style.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.