How technology is changing conceptions of luxury

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Tesla Model S

It went all but unnoticed, but last month saw the closure of mobile phone maker Vertu.

Vertu began life as a division of Nokia, before being sold to a private equity company in 2002 (Nokia retained a 10% stake). The company pitched itself as “purveyors of the finest luxury mobile phones handmade by our craftsmen in England using only the most exquisite materials and cutting-edge technology.”

The strategy seemed to work at first. The Economist published a puff piece in 2003 that began with the apparently rhetorical question, “If you can spend $20,000 on a watch, why not on a mobile phone?” and went on note such luminaries as Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Lopez and Mariah Carey were all Vertu customers.

The launch of the iPhone in 2007 changed everything, of course. Bejewelled exteriors and a button to call Vertu’s dedicated concierge service were nothing compared to the magical touchscreen at your fingertips Apple provided.

In fact, this might just mark the moment when conceptions of what luxury actually means changed.

Although the iPhone comes in a few different configurations the hardware and software are essentially the same whichever model you choose, and are not radically different in price.

And while undoubtably a premium product, the iPhone is affordable enough to have sold in huge volumes – over 1 billion units to date.

The sheer scale of a product like that creates a strange paradox for the manufacturer.

When you know you are going to sell countless millions it justifies investment in materials and manufacturing techniques that no one else can replicate, so it becomes possible to sell a much more advanced product – at a cheaper price – than your competitors in the so-called luxury sector.

But it also means you can only use materials and techniques that are massively scalable. This could, ironically, lead Apple to someday launch a more exclusive version of the iPhone that targets the same market as Vertu once did.

In the meanwhile it is interesting to speculate about which of today’s luxury makers will be next to fall in the face of better technology, and what that might mean for the rest of us.

Executives at Bentley have no doubt nervously noted that California’s wealthy in-crowd go for Teslas these days.

Vertu Signature Touch made in collaboration with Bentley

This article first appeared in the Lancashire Post and Lancaster Guardian, where I write a weekly column.

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