Thomas Pruvot’s frequent requests for the time while his mobile phone was switched off on a long-haul flight to Hong Kong in 2005 led the then 25-year-old Frenchman on a quest for the ultimate accessory.
Together with a childhood friend, Pruvot envisioned a luxury phone that would fuse modern technology with centuries-old Swiss timekeeping. The resulting startup, Celsius X VI II, developed a limited-edition titanium and sapphire crystal handset featuring a complicated mechanical watch that retails for US$329,000.
As consumers increasingly rely on phones to tell the time and wear watches for status, Tag Heuer and Ulysse Nardin have also introduced high-tech handsets. Celsius aims to eventually sidestep perennial criticism about phones’ battery life by building a model that’s completely mechanically powered.
“The mobile phone is becoming the ultimate accessory,” said Edouard Meylan, another Celsius cofounder. “We see our product as the pocket watch for the 21st century.”
The market for luxury mobile phones is expected to grow 37 percent between 2010 and 2015 to US$719 million, according to Euromonitor International. The biggest markets are China, Japan and regions such as the Middle East and Russia, where luxury tends to be more overt, according to Fflur Roberts, head of luxury goods research at Euromonitor.
“It’s the smallest luxury market, but it’s also the fastest-growing,” Roberts said. “It’s an extension of a luxury watch or jewelry and it’s a way of displaying wealth or success.”
Nokia Oyj’s Vertu has the biggest share of the luxury phone market, according to Euromonitor. The UK company set up in 1998 has sold more than 300,000 phones in the past decade, President Perry Oosting said last year. It has more than 80 retail outlets and sells at counters in high-end watch stores.
Vertu introduced its first touchscreen version, the US$5,785 Constellation, in October. Top-end models, such as those in the Signature line, cost as much as US$16,500. Some celebrities are migrating from the Vertu to iPhones with gold or diamond cases, said Carolina Milanese, a research vice president at Stamford, Connecticut-based Gartner.
Other watchmakers have also stepped in. Ulysse Nardin has a range of limited-edition smartphones called the Chairman including the brand’s mechanical rotor that uses the wearer’s motions to automatically wind the watch and a crown that can be hand-wound. Both fuel the phone’s power reserve.
The Chairman retails for as much as US$170,000 for the full pave diamond and black model with 18-karat white gold and more than 20 carats of diamonds. It’s the most expensive phone produced by partner Scientific Cellular Innovations.
The Meridiist handset from TAG Heuer allows users to switch between time zones and has a chronograph for measuring intervals. Retailing for as much as US$39,50, it also includes more than 430 hand-assembled components. TAG Heuer, which has developed three collections, plans to introduce at least one range each year.
The first model from Paris-based Celsius, called LeDix Origine, embeds a watch with clear panels to show its complicated mechanism on an outer flap that opens to reveal a phone using Sagem technology. The mechanical watch doesn’t have to be turned off during flights, of course. Fifteen of the 18 handsets made for the initial LeDix model have been sold.