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Technological bling thing

Times Staff Writer

TIRED of that boring white iPod? How about that bottom-of-the-line phone you got with your wireless plan? Maybe you should put some bling on that thing. You know, ice it with a little python skin, or dress it up with a Christian Dior antenna trinket.

“Pimped,” “iced,” “blinged out.” Whatever you want to call them, decked-out gadgets -- as well as couture and luxury models -- are reaching ever-escalating heights of outrageousness. From Gucci iPod cases to emerald-laden Treos, they’ve gone far beyond the Swarovski crystal-encrusted cells made famous by status-obsessed starlets such as Paris Hilton. These days gadgetistas can select from limited-edition phones by fashion designers Anna Sui and Betsey Johnson, as well as luxury models made from rare Brazilian burlwood, stainless steel and 18-carat gold.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Sep. 05, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday September 05, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Decorated cellphones -- A caption with an article about cellphones in Thursday’s Calendar Weekend said a custom tropical faceplate was done for a BlackBerry device. The device shown was a Treo 650.

“Especially with devices like cellphones, people use brands to express their own identity,” said Ryan Block, 23, managing editor of the consumer electronics website Engadget.com. “In the ‘80s, maybe it was cars. In the ‘90s and 2000s, it’s definitely which gadgets you have.”

Cellphones top the list of techno things getting painted, crystallized, charmed and otherwise adorned or upgraded, but Treos, BlackBerrys, PlayStation Portables and iPods are also getting the treatment. In general, the more common or aesthetically challenged the technology, the more likely it will be customized, but there are exceptions. Customizer Carter Nichols has seen plenty of ultra-hip Motorola Razrs coming his way for cobra-skin and black-crystal coverage.

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“You think it’s so sleek and so cool, but to have crystals on a black Razr phone looks amazing,” said Nichols, 34, co-founder of New York-based Modphone, which specializes in high-end, handcrafted gizmo modifications. In the six years that Nichols and his wife have been in business, they’ve covered laptops in stingray skin and flip phones in rabbit fur or even pearls.

“We find that most of our customers want to cover everything,” including the brand, Nichols said. “They’re sick of AT&T; and Motorola. They just want it to be theirs.”

That’s how Helen Castillo felt after paying $139 to have her phone covered in crystals and topped with a fake-diamond antenna charm at the Glendale Galleria recently. She couldn’t even remember what kind of phone she had. Nor did she care.

“As long as it looks cute,” said Castillo, 35, who left her garden-variety clamshell phone at the Custom Cell Painting stall and returned one hour later to find it adorned in shimmering pink and lilac.

Popularized by actresses such as Lindsay Lohan, crystals are credited with starting the iced-out gadget trend, and they remain the most popular adornment. Stop by pretty much any mall, from the Beverly Center to Hollywood & Highland, and you’ll find at least one stall that will do it on the spot.

Customers who can part with their devices for a few days can save themselves the drive by using one of the dozens of web-based services that have sprung up to deck out whatever gizmo a customer’s got in whatever color, pattern, initial, logo or design he or she would like. Average cost: $60 to $100 per side, depending on the size of the device and complexity of the job. Buy one of the many bling kits that are available to do it yourself, and it will cut that cost by at least half.

Dressing up technological gadgetry with personalized designs is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the mid-'90s, when cellphones were less common and more expensive, just having one was a status symbol. But as cellphones became more common and additional techno gear came on the market, a customizing trend began to emerge.

Imported from Asia in the late ‘90s, it started with stickers and charms, then interchangeable face plates, then ring tones. But the trend has really picked up steam in the past year, fueled by blinged-out celebrities and the popularity of shows such as MTV’s “Pimp My Ride.” Now there is a dizzying array of options, including custom-molded and painted face plates, crystal keypads, signature screensavers, glow-in-the-dark headphones, even mink iPod covers.

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Denise Loo, 38, loves her iPod -- but so do the millions of other people who own them, and that’s the problem.

“It’s become mainstream,” said Loo, who divides her time among Hong Kong, Sacramento and Switzerland. “Last year it was so cool with the white headphones. You were different. Now everybody has white headphones, so I switched mine to black.”

The other reason Loo made the switch: Black looks better with her minkpod, the black mink fur case she recently began selling online.

“An iPod, the white color is a little too simple. People want flash and style and some sort of portable elegance,” she said. "[The minkpod is] a very luxurious, plush experience. It’s not like people want to wear a full mink coat, but they want to have a little bit.”

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THE same rationale applies to the plethora of big-name designers who’ve entered the gadget market of late. Kate Spade, Marc Jacobs, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior and Juicy Couture make iPod cases.

Anna Sui is one of the latest fashion stars to lend her name to a limited-edition line of co-branded phones with Samsung. The Anna Sui mobile phone cover is decorated in her signature colors of purple and black and signed with her name. The phone comes with a butterfly antenna charm -- and a lipstick. Samsung’s Diane von Furstenberg phone comes with a lip gloss and credit-card case; its Betsey Johnson phone is accompanied with custom screensavers and a matching rosebud-print purse. When Nokia introduces its $700, stainless-steel 8801 model this month, it will come with a mineral glass lens and exclusive ring tones commissioned by musician Ryuichi Sakamoto. What it doesn’t have is very much plastic or a vast array of features.

“It’s not a technology play,” said Keith Nowak, Nokia’s media relations manager. “It won’t make you a margarita. It’s a phone, but it’s a very nice phone. People say, ‘It’s expensive. Why doesn’t it have lots of features?’ It’s not about the features. It’s about the experience.”

Luxury phones are designed to be the polar opposite of blinged-out phones, though they share the same intent. Where the blinged-out gadget is personalization via part swapping, the luxury phone is meant to be off-the-shelf distinction via elitism and obscurity.

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It’s safe to say that those paying $20,000 for the hand-assembled Vertu -- with its 18-carat gold exterior, ruby key-press bearings and sapphire crystal display -- are few and far between. The same can probably be said for those who refer to this high-end cellphone as a “communication instrument,” as its manufacturers like to call it.

“There’s definitely this market that’s coming up where people are paying a lot of money for these really ostentatious gadgets, which we think is really funny because of the completely ephemeral nature of consumer electronics,” said Block, who recently ran a Blinged-Out Gadget contest on Engadget.com. “This is all stuff you’ll be throwing away in two years.”


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