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Apple gets stars to set Watch's status

Apple is getting its new smartwatch into the hands of as many A-list tastemakers as it can to build cachet

Think of the Apple Watch as a Tesla for your wrist.

The company's new smartwatch isn't just another toy gadget for geeks. At least in the early going, the Apple Watch appears to be synced to something else: status.

Consider the recent photos Beyonce released of her jet-setting to Coachella.

The pop star was decked out in denim shorts, a rocker tank top and a headwrap flourished with exotic feathers. But the ensemble's showstopper was dangling from her arm.

The diva flashed a specially made 18-karat gold link Apple Watch estimated to be worth more than $17,000. And forget about owning one; it's not for sale.

It's a new tack for Apple Inc., the Cupertino, Calif., tech giant that focused on functionality and style to sell nearly half a billion iPhones. Before its first deliveries to ordinary customers Friday, Apple has been getting its digital timepiece into the hands of as many A-list tastemakers as possible.

Katy Perry posted a picture of herself wearing an Apple Watch with a Mickey Mouse face. Rapper Drake shared a picture of himself wearing the device in a matching red sweat suit at Coachella.

Grammy-winning artist Sam Smith posted a photo on Instagram showing off a green strap version gifted by Apple's chief of design, Jony Ive.

"I'm actually the happiest boy in the world right now," Smith wrote.

The celebrity endorsements are a slight departure for Apple, which has launched iconic products in the past, though more organically and with the gravitas and salesmanship that comes with Steve Jobs standing on a stage.

Experts say the nature of the Apple Watch is forcing the company to market more aggressively. For one, Apple is charged with creating a consumer category largely from scratch. At least with the first iPhone, a market for smartphones already existed.

Then there's the nagging question about whether anyone needs an Apple Watch in the first place, especially if you don't consider pulling a smartphone out of your pocket or purse an inconvenience.

"This is the first time they are truly nervous about a launch," said Peter Misek, a partner at DN Capital and a former financial analyst who followed Apple. "The strategy really highlights this one was different. Some would argue the use hasn't been defined. Millennials need to be convinced to get one."

That's why Apple's product rollout is different this time too. Rather than appealing to the masses — and the long lines that ensue — the watch can be seen only by appointment at Apple's retail stores and at a handful of luxury boutiques across the country.

Enlisting the help of influential stars and style icons builds awareness where there was none — and it's a stab at adding cachet to a product that needs to transcend the gizmo world and seize broad appeal.

That's made easier when you have the likes of Pharrell Williams peddling Apple watches to young audiences on the hit show "The Voice" and on his Instagram account.

"They're breaking new ground with a smartwatch, which has always been a bit nerdy. They have to position it away from the fan boys to get a wider market," said Steven Addis, chief executive of Berkeley creative agency Addis.

The early marketing blitz appears to be working. Apple is estimated to have already pre-sold 2 million watches, according to research at FBR Capital Markets. The firm also increased its estimate for the number of Apple Watches shipped this year to 20 million from 17 million.

If Apple's celebrity, status-conscious marketing sounds familiar, look no further than the company's acquisition of Beats Electronics last year for $3 billion.

The headphone brand's founders, rapper Dr. Dre and record producer Jimmy Iovine, turned run-of-the-mill hardware into a must-have item by using their connections to big-name professional athletes and musicians to drive their marketing.

"Beats did that masterfully," said Nick Nanton, a celebrity branding expert. "Apple's cool factor has gone up and down the last decade. Certainly by adding Beats to the lineup their relationships [to stars] would come along with it."

Nanton said Apple probably wants some of Beats' street cred to rub off on the Apple Watch. The company also appears to be cashing in on Beats' relationships with stars such as Perry and Drake.

"If you look at the spectrum of Apple products, you've got the MacBook on one end and Beats on the other end," he said. "The Apple Watch is probably in the middle."

But status can be fleeting, of course, and there's no guarantee the Apple Watch will command an air of exclusivity, even with the hires of Burberry executives to boost the project. Apple did not respond to requests for comment.

At least one luxury watchmaker said Apple can try all they want, but they'll never match the prestige of a hand-tooled timepiece.

"We respect the brands that have the courage to go in this field, [but] Longines will not go in this field. We will stay with our traditional analog watches," Walter von Kanel, president of the 183-year-old Swiss luxury brand, told CNBC. "A watch is not only giving time, it's a status symbol, and I don't think you'll get a status symbol in an Apple Watch with 2 billion functions that no one understands."

Ostentation can also backfire. Actress Anna Kendrick made it known to her nearly 4 million Twitter followers she's not impressed by Apple's foray into the luxury market.

"We should be thanking Apple for launching the $10,000 'apple watch' as the new gold standard in douchebag-detection," she tweeted, referring to the higher-end Apple Watch models for sale.

It could always be worse, noted Ariel Vardi, co-founder of Venice start-up Little Labs, which is developing a variety of smartwatch apps.

"It's not like Google Glass, where everyone just found a camera on your head creepy," said Vardi, referring to Google's stab at wired eyeglasses, which were also ridiculed for being pretentious hardware.

Vardi wears an LG G Watch R, a smartwatch powered by Google's Android platform. Needless to say, he has high hopes for the new technology.

"When people see these on the street, they say, 'Whoa! That's cool,'" Vardi said.

His co-founder at Little Labs, Kris McDonald, believes the success of smartwatches such as Apple's will have more to do with functions and apps in the long run once the glitzy marketing cools off.

"Beyonce is going to play the same apps and games as Joe Blow on the street," he said.

david.pierson@latimes.com

Twitter: @dhpierson

paresh.dave@latimes.com

Twitter: @peard33

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