London Calling

vertu mobileBut Frank Nuovo, the company’s principal designer, had been fantasizing as far back as 1989 about creating “a beautifully crafted ‘concept phone’ that would be more of a fashion accessory than a purely functional object,” he says.

At the time, mobile phones were massive, clunky things with huge antennas and long, bulky cords; they were kept in a small briefcase-like bag in the trunk of a car.

When it was clear that a version of these phones would soon penetrate the mass market, Nuovo, who was enjoying considerable success as an industrial designer of medical instruments, automotive products and consumer electronics, was intrigued by the idea of transforming the way cell phones functioned and looked.

“My early work as a designer was about ergonomics, comfort and user interface,” says Nuovo, now 47, from his independent design studio in Los Angeles.

“It was about taking a complex product, like an air-traffic-control work station, and figuring out a way to make it easy to use but also attractive. Style was always a big part of it.”

Nuovo already had several ideas percolating when, within a few months, he got a call from Finland – Nokia wanted to hire him as a designer. “It was my job to create handsets that were smaller, sexy and easy to use, and later, to turn an object of complex function into an object of desire,” he says.

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Line up all the cell phones you’ve owned over the years and Nuovo’s influence is clear, even if you’ve never owned a Nokia model: The silhouettes and materials have become progressively more sleek, “pocketable” and fashion-forward.

Of the “cool-looking” phones he created and perfected for Nokia during his 16-year tenure as design chief, Nuovo likens them to costume jewelry. By contrast, Vertu, now Nuovo’s primary artistic and strategic focus, is a product on par with fine jewelry and grand-complication timepieces.

Vertu, which means “a love of, or taste for, fine objects d’art” in Latin, currently consists of three distinct collections available in multiple variations and in limited editions, each its own mini fantasia of technology.

Signature was the debut model, unveiled in 2002, and is still considered the most sophisticated and desirable, thanks to its unprecedented use of space-age ceramics and titanium, along with precious metals and jewels.

A particularly handsome version featuring black and white diamonds bears the nickname “The Dalmatian,” while a fabulous combination of 18K rose gold and pink sapphires arranged in a floral pattern is downright princess-worthy.

vertu mobileAscent is a valentine to high-performance sports cars (a limited-edition version was created last year in celebration of Ferrari’s 60th anniversary, complete with revving-engine ring tones and a hand-stitched Ferrari-red leather back plate).

Its muscular, sculptural chassis is made of a special alloy that boasts a hardness twice that of stainless steel; the battery cover resembles a fuel-tank cap and the sporty leather details come in a range of, snazzy colors (as well as classic brown and black).

Constellation is Vertu’s bestseller, inspired by the golden age of travel by air and sea; the Monogram series, – marked by a stylized “V” motif emblazoned on backgrounds of fine-grain leather, seems to reference the glamour of transporting a Goyard steamer trunk aboard a cruise ship; the Rococo series, as its name suggests, is unabashedly ornate, with its black, scarlet or ivory leather components embellished with metallic floral embroidery.

The exclusive Rococo Sapphire-ensconced in azure leather and accented with blue-cabochon sapphires, its stainless-steel bezel engraved with the Rococo floral pattern, is pure whimsy, irresistible to any woman with a passion for fanciful accessories like jeweled minaudieres, candy-colored timepieces and bracelets bearing droll, gem-accented charms.

Imbued with strictly sybaritic appeal, Vertu has found its niche with connoisseurs of all ages, from the creative and business elite to the glamour-hungry 20-something, to the discerning older gentleman, who thrills to the idea of owning the ne plus ultra of models.

Vertu has also caught the attention of many boldface names and tastemakers, including Gwyneth Paltrow and Michelle Yeoh, who wielded Vertus on two separate red-carpet occasions during the 2008 Cannes film festival.

The handsets are sold in exclusive establishments all over the world, including its eponymous boutiques (the first U.S. store opened at Wynn Las Vegas just this year).

Though each Vertu is considered high fashion, “it was four years before I allowed a single diamond to appear on any of the handsets,” Nuovo says.

He wanted the integrity of the technology, as well as the precision and passion with which each phone is conceived, constructed and tested, to establish the brand’s identity first.

For example, more than 300 custom tools had to be created just to put the first prototype together. Constellation’s ceramic keypad is similar to the material used on the space shuttle’s exterior (and it takes two days of continuous polishing to make it gleam).

Ruby bearings – they look like tiny, incandescent cherry Life Savers – are implanted beneath every Vertu keypad and are used to make the keys more durable and the process of pressing them a smoother, more comfortable experience.

Vertu acoustics are likewise sublime, and even the ring tones are meticulously art-directed, the result of consulting an exclusive roster of talented composers (including David Arnold, of James Bond-theme fame).

That each handset is tested for quality and performance to an almost obsessive compulsive, degree is another testament to the product’s functionality-driven foundation.

Each is subjected to extreme temperatures (recipe: freeze two hours, bake in an oven for two hours; repeat five times in a row). A 64-gram ball bearing is dropped onto each sapphire-crystal display screen to see if it breaks (it never does – nor does it scratch, even when you rake a car key across the surface).

And it’s someone’s job to push each key more than one million times to make sure the keypad handles efficiently.

Still, “it’s important that we don’t go too far with the tech features because doing so could compromise the seriousness of the design,” Nuovo says.

As such, Vertu phones are equipped with classic functionality, the basic processes of “making a call, keeping track of info and sending text messages with a beautiful, clear display to help you do all that.”

The decision to let simplicity reign supreme – rather than the latest gadgetry and geeked-out gimmicks that make technology reporters swoon – was a clever move, given the ephemeral nature of cell phones as we have used them thus far.

Fortunately, the way Vertu handsets work ensures they’ll be vital for years to come. Their beauty, on the other hand, seems destined to transcend time.