It's the jet-set calling

Luxury phones are rivaling posh watches as the timeless symbol of wealth.

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By  Reuters Published  April 13, 2007

Luxury mobile phones are seeking to rival handmade watches for many jet-set consumers, especially business travellers who rely on digital gadgets to tell the time abroad.

At Baselworld, the watch and jewellery industry's largest annual trade fair, telephones draped in diamonds and sapphires were displayed alongside traditional wrist accessories. Some included tools to instantly track flights, convert currencies and check the weather.

The luxury unit of the world's top mobile handset maker Nokia, Vertu, displayed sleek telephones ranging from US $4350 (AED15,975) to $310,000 (AED1.1 million) at its booth in Basel, a few steps from hotel heiress Paris Hilton's new watch collection, in one of six huge exhibition halls.

Vertu president Alberto Torres said many of the company's younger customers were more interested in their mobile phones than their watches, unlike older clientele who show deep loyalty to luxury watchmakers such as Patek Philippe, Rolex or Cartier.

"The phone has a strong association for a lot of young people," he said in an interview on Friday in "The Hall of Inspirations", one of the show's six giant exhibition areas.

Some of Vertu's designs are marketed at busy people whose days may feature "breakfast in London, shopping in Paris and a late dinner in New York," offering a virtual concierge service for help with restaurant bookings and gift ordering.

Others are wrapped in diamond-perforated leather that resists "almost everything from lipstick to suntan lotion," according to promotional material.

Because they are constantly holding their phones, laying them on dinner tables and otherwise flashing them about, Torres said many wealthy people had become increasingly conscious of the image their handsets projected.

"A phone has become an important element of lifestyle. The phone says something about yourself," he said.

Vertu's sales increased by 140% last year and should rise another 100% in 2007, Torres said, declining to specify a dollar figure.

One of Nokia's smallest but most profitable segments, Vertu is approaching 100,000 a year in terms of handset sales, Torres said, noting that overall turnover was in line with many medium to large luxury watch companies.

"We would be a significant brand in the watch industry [in terms of sales]," he said, while stressing that Vertu did not believe the shift to pricier mobiles would prompt the rich to stop buying high-end watches.

"Our customers tend to have several luxury items," he said.

Like most luxury goods segments, high-end mobile phones have benefited from a surge in the number of millionaires worldwide alongside fast economic growth in countries such as China, India and Russia. Rich people in the oil-producing Middle East have also flocked to status symbols with the recent commodities boom.

Other companies have also entered the luxury mobile field to greet the new clientele. Motorola and designers Dolce & Gabbana have launched a gold-coloured version of the best-selling Razr model, and South Korea's LG Electronics Inc. has helped develop a Prada phone to complement Prada accessories.

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