The mobile phone has come full circle. Launched as an expensive gadget for the well-heeled executive, which gradually became a mass-market everyday essential, the phone is starting to return to its elite origins.
Take, for an extreme example, the Gresso Luxor Las Vegas Jackpot, encrusted with 45.5 carats of black diamonds, made of 18-carat gold and 200-year-old African blackwood, and yours for $1m. That’s the equivalent of almost 10 years of peak-time talk-time. Then there are other ‘jewellery’ phones by specialist brands such as Goldvish, Celsius and Vertu, as well from watchmakers Tag Heuer and Ulysse Nardin. Indeed, it might seem that the rapidly growing luxury phone market is for those concerned more with bling-tones than ring-tones.
Not so, counters entrepreneur Thomas Møller Jensen, CEO of Copenhagen-based Æsir. Æsir is among the latest of the new super-phone brands, which has launched with a model emphasising quality of make but with a style more in keeping with the traditional Danish stripped-back aesthetic. In fact, it has been designed by industrial-design hotshot Yves Béhar, with Æsir planning to launch new collections by different designers each year.
‘Even with the recession there is a strong market for products that require a certain knowledge to appreciate; it’s not always about flashiness so much as a demand for the well-designed but also highly crafted product,’ says Jensen of his €7,000 phone. ‘Of course, an unfortunate by-product of taking that approach – without the mass-production and huge sales of typical phones, but with all the same tooling and start-up costs – is the price. But phones have become a means of saying something about yourself and so more people want a more individual, hand-made product.’
It will not be to all tastes. The Béhar design, with its scratch-resistant ceramic casing, sapphire crystal screen and micro-tooled metal buttons, is still all square-edges and stark simplicity. And Æsir’s second model – currently in development with an unnamed high-profile designer and due for launch next year – will, Jensen says, ‘be radically different from the kind of phones we have now, we want to challenge ideas of what a phone should and could be’. Each part of each phone is made in partnership with a number of best-in-class manufacturers, hence the company name, Æsir being a Nordic term for a collective of the gods of Norse mythology.
Crucially for some, as Jensen concedes, in technological terms the Æsir designs (and this goes for most of the elite phones currently available) cannot hope to compete for functionality with today’s smart-phones which, since the money is in data-roaming rather than calls, the industry is especially keen to push. But then they do not aim to, being targeted more at the consumer who already has one of those for every day, but wants a special phone for other occasions, much as one might have a wardrobe of watches.
‘And then there is the fact that not everyone wants a smartphone or to be able to read emails everywhere anyway,’ Jensen adds. ‘More consumers are feeling their smartphones taking over their lives, and are coming to the conclusion that “if it’s that important, they can just call me”. Who really needs a device to tell them there’s a Starbucks around the corner? Ironically, it’s getting harder all the time to find a simple product that just does one or two things well. Complexity can just make products less efficient and harder to use. It may not be a feasible business model for the mobile phone industry’s big players, but less is better – that is what luxury is really about.’
Indeed, ironically perhaps, given the luxury phone market’s initial flashiness, Jensen argues that products such as Æsir’s represent more progressive values. In being built to last, they reflect a more back-to-basics or eco thinking that most technology manufacturers ignore in their readiness to persuade consumers to upgrade as frequently as possible. ‘For a long time the phone industry has been building phones that simply aren’t designed to last which to me, thinking about design holistically, makes no sense,’ he says. ‘It’s a pre-recessionary kind of thinking. We’re looking forward.’
And what about the ring-tone? Æsir has taken two-and-half years to develop its phone – against an industry norm of just nine months – which included specially engineering its sound chamber for an advanced acoustic performance, so clearly it wasn’t going to settle for any old tune. Rather, it commissioned Danish-Vietnamese bassist and musician Chris Minh Doky, who was knighted last year by Denmark’s Queen Margrethe II for services to the arts, to compose something suitable. It could probably turn even a call from your bank manger into a pleasure.