Luxury on call: a $70,000 cellphone


The party in Beverly Hills featured an object that brought oohs and aahs from the celebrity-dotted crowd.

It was fashioned out of an 83-carat sapphire, platinum, black leather and rubies.

And it makes phone calls.

Price tag: $70,000. But at least you don’t have to buy it with a two-year plan.

The Vertu Signature cellphone — each of which is handmade by one craftsman in Hampshire, England — is the top-of-the-line model from the Vertu company, which is owned by Nokia. Vertu threw the party Wednesday to mark the official opening of its Rodeo Drive boutique.

So, who needs a $70,000 cellphone?

Ask the man who owns four of them.

“I would compare it to very high-end cars or timepieces,” said Youriy Iliev, 36, a Bulgarian American who described himself as an international financer. At the party he was wearing a Signature in a leather holster attached to his belt.

He bought his first one in 2002, shortly after they were introduced. Then he needed a second one.

“If I had to send one out for repairs, I didn’t want to be without one,” Iliev said.

Then came the others, which vary in color.

“It really depends on what I wear, it depends on how I feel that day.”

Music producer Quincy Jones and singer Seal, who also own Vertu phones, were at the party but declined to talk about them. They were quickly ushered into a private office, where phones could be handled and purchased.

They might appreciate the phone’s ring tones, which were created by composer Dario Marianelli, winner of the 2007 Academy Award for his work on “Atonement.”

Morgan Freeman, who doesn’t own a Vertu, mingled on the party floor but didn’t want to speak on the record.

If you can’t spare $70,000, Vertu has the Ascent model, made by a half-dozen craftsman and featuring the music of the English electronica band Unkle. It costs about $30,000.

Then there is the entry-level Constellation, with ceramic instead of metal keys, for $6,000.

Vertu was created in 1998 by Frank Nuovo, a graduate of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. At the time he was Nokia’s lead designer.

“I got tired of creating items out of molded plastic and stamped metal,” he said. “I wanted to create art and something that was a testament of craftsmanship, not mass production.

“I wanted to be fulfilled again.”

About 250,000 of the company’s phones have been sold. Nuovo said sales have grown every year.

“People of means buy for themselves the finest suits, the finest cars and the finest watches,” he said. “But then we still have pieces of plastic in our pockets for cellphones.”

Nuovo said the entire phone, including the electronics, are made to a higher standard.

“It’s not about bling-bling,” he said. “I hate it when people say that.”

Still, it’s a small market for Vertu’s products, especially compared with the more than 1.4 billion cellphones that were sold in 2009 alone, according to Forrester Research.

“To call it a niche would be a disservice to other niches,” said Forrester analyst Charles Golvin.

“Everybody knows who Gucci and Prada are, even if they can’t afford anything they make. Vertu isn’t there yet. But the idea of the phone as a fashion item, it could happen eventually,” Golvin said.

Iliev no longer uses his first Vertu Signature. It’s displayed on a desk in his Beverly Hills home on a pedestal made of ceramic and crystal.

He uses his BlackBerry “for business e-mails and calls” and an iPhone “purely for entertainment.” His remaining Signatures are reserved for his most important calls.

“When my Vertu rings,” he said, “I know I have to answer it.”