As Nokia moves to sell its luxury subsidiary, Vertu, it's time to shed a tear for the dying, gawking-worthy fad -- popular among rappers and Russian oil tycoons alike -- that we call the bling phone. The Financial Times's Daniel Thomas broke the story of the bling phone labels's demise and explains, "Vertu was created by Nokia in 1998 to tap into a niche market for mobile devices with price tags that rival luxury watches." In the age of the dumbphone, this more or less amounted to gluing a lot of diamonds onto the device and calling it a luxury good. Oh, and charging customers over $300,000 for the gaudy thing. The real growth in the bling phone preceded the introduction of the iPhone, and if Nokia's treatment of Vertu is any guide, other device manufacturers seem more focused on building a device that can compete with Apple's, since that's what rich people seem to be buying these days. Want to make it a bling phone? Buy an expensive case.
So goes the decline of the bling phone. As the iPhone continues to dominate and Android catches up, we sure are going to miss all of the ridiculous press release-worthy partnerships with fancy watch companies not to mention the creative uses of alligator-skin and many different shades of gold. Let's reminisce.
The Early Days
Way back in the day, all mobile phones were bling phones, but not in that gaudy Russian oligarch kind of way. The original cellular phone appeared in Bell's labs in 1947, but it wasn't until 1983 and the introduction of the Motorola DynaTAC that the device became a consumer good. The grey brick phone was not pretty, but it was mobile. With a price tag of $3,995 at the time -- which is closer to $10,000 in today's dollars -- the DynaTAC was really only a possibility for the super rich (and Zack Morris), however, so it became an instant status symbol.
Over the course of the next two decades or so, the major challenge for the cell phone industry became making the devices affordable and portable. As you can see in this early 1990s Radio Shack commercial at the top of this post, gold plated battery covers were not part of that equation quite yet.
Dolce & Gabbana RAZR
Once technology hit a point where size was no longer an issue, companies started exploring the possibilities of bling. After its runaway success with the RAZR in the mass market in the mid-Aughts, Motorola decided to branch out and partner with a luxury brand. The world ended up with the "liquid gold" Dolce & Gabbana V3i. Initially, Motorola only manufactured 1,000 of these devices, making them not only rare but highly sought after. At the time, the golden RAZR, while it didn't offer any unique features that the regular RAZR didn't have, sold on eBay for around $2,500. Now, you can buy it on Amazon for $100, a fraction of the price of an unlocked iPhone.
The LG Prada
Literally days after Steve Jobs took the stage at the MacWorld convention in January 2007, LG sent out the press release announcing their Prada phone. Unlike the D&G RAZR, the Prada phone featured a unique design and feature set that would have been incredibly innovative at the time -- had Apple not upstaged it. LG actually accused Apple of ripping of their candy bar-like design and touchscreen interface. Unlocked version sold for $850, and while LG managed to sell a million devices in the first 18 months it was on the market, Apple sold over 10 million iPhones.
Nokia really did branch into new territory when it launched Vertu. Rather than flirting with four-figure price tags, they gambled with six and forged partnerships with super high-end brands like Ferrari. Vertu is not going away, but the future of Nokia's bling phone branch is uncertain. Goldman Sachs is reportedly helping to negotiate the sale, which the FT expects will fetch $268 to $402 million. As those number suggest, Vertu actually saw some real success over the years, with 60 stores worldwide, though Thomas asserts that "the phones are seen to have the strongest following in Russia, Asia and the Middle East." However, Nokia never really committed, avoiding installing the latest Windows smartphone software and keeping the real special features (besides the diamonds, of course) limited to a push-button concierge service that sounds a little bit like Siri but with real people. The devices themselves otherwise sort of just look like Transformers and BlackBerry had a baby.
So far, it looks like TAG Heuer is leading the way forward with its Android smartphone. It's a lot like all of the other Android phones, except it's $6,750 and looks ridiculous.