Vertu started life in the late 1990s as an indulgence for Nokia’s designers. Led by Frank Nuovo, the group set out to explore what a phone could look and feel like if its design was unconstrained by budgetary concerns. What if you could use all the best materials and most expensive manufacturing processes, what sort of phone would you end up with? Given free reign to experiment within the then-resplendent Nokia, Vertu gradually evolved into its own division, with a name, logo, and brand identity that grew to be synonymous with overt demonstrations of wealth.
Last year, Vertu gained its independence from Nokia after being purchased by a private equity group and quickly moved to Android as its platform of choice. It is now the most exclusive Android OEM around, offering handsets that cost at least four figures in whatever currency you care to buy them. Still, the way the company conducts its business hasn’t really changed from the start. One single manufacturing facility on the outskirts of London handles every Vertu order, with the entire team of designers, engineers, and assemblers all working under the same roof.
The central tenet of Vertu design also remains unaltered. “If you want to stand out, that’s what it was built for,” says Hutch Hutchinson, the company’s chief of design, as he points to the $15,000 Signature handset. It’s an unapologetic luxury item, one which turns its Nokia Series 40 software and anachronistic number pad into an asset, demonstrating through them that the owner of the phone doesn’t need modern technology, he most likely has people doing those jobs for him. And yet, Vertu is also looking to the future with the introduction of two Android phones this year that usher in touchscreens, the Google Play Store, and many other modern smartphone amenities. The company is eager to appeal to women as well as men, and it’s extending its range to accommodate a younger customer too.
Being a luxury mobile-phone brand presents some unique challenges for Vertu. Whereas the luxury industry “moves at a very slow and considered pace,” says the company's head of PR Jon Stanley, the exact opposite is true of smartphone manufacturing. By the time you’re fully up to date with both components and software, there’s already the next iteration waiting in the wings. Vertu will never actively compete in the specs race, but it recognizes the need to match the basic building blocks of its contemporary competition.
Here’s a look at what Vertu does with those components once it gets them inside its Church Crookham HQ.
- The angular V logo actually came about before the Vertu name. It was originally a softer representation of two outstretched arms of communication — conveying the demonstrative fashion in which chief designer Frank Nuovo expressed himself — but was modified after people realized it looked too similar to the Mazda logo. The V got sharpened up and the word ‘vertu’ was chosen to match it, meaning ‘objects of excellence’ in latin.
- Vertu’s headquarters is split into two halves: to the right are all the administrative and design teams and to the left you’ll find the manufacturing and shipping facilities. The company’s production line is as transparent as can be — you can literally see workers assembling Signature handsets from the reception area.
- Aside from the Vertu branding, which is abundant throughout the building, there are plenty of aspirational missives reminding those who work at the company about its unique position and business practices.
- Everyone inside the production area is outfitted with a lab coat and a set of anti-static heel straps. Vertu claims its cleanroom, where the sapphire glass is bonded to the displays, maintains the same standards for particle contamination as you’d find inside an operating theater.
- Upstairs are the global procurement and admin staff, while the ground floor is occupied by phone assembly, testing, and packaging. Behind the pallets of boxed handsets is a vault secured by a 10-inch door composed of 15 different materials, which is backed up by a set of steel bars. Inside, an omnidirectional camera keeps a constant watch over the most precious materials that Vertu uses to adorn its phones.
- There are no conveyor belts at Vertu. One worker is responsible for building each phone from start to finish, and each handset is engraved with his or her signature upon completion. That personal touch is appreciated by the customers, who will occasionally request a particular person to build their next phone, which in turn feeds into the job satisfaction and pride of the people doing the assembly.
- As a luxury brand, Vertu serves an aspirational clientele and it seeks to reinforce a similar attitude among its workers.
- If something can be done by hand instead of machine, Vertu opts to do it the human way.
- There’s a litany of small, custom-made components that go into every Vertu design and they’re all subject to an extremely demanding quality check. Some of the most intricate elements are subject to a 15 percent rejection rate, owing to the precision required and the company’s unwillingness to employ mass production methods.
- Although Vertu emphasizes the relationship between a phone and its builder, some tasks are done in a serialized fashion.
- Putting the finer touches on the internal frame of a Vertu Signature.
- Vertu’s factory feels more like an oversized workshop, with every employee having his own worktable and arsenal of tools.
- Qualcomm is Vertu’s main chip supplier for the new Constellation handset, whose innards look as tightly packed and integrated as any other smartphone’s.
- Once a phone is fully assembled, it’s put through a series of machine tests to ensure everything functions correctly, which is then followed by a hands-on check to verify that the phone feels like it should as well.
- The Par Excellence cabinets, located just to the side of the production area, contain perfect examples of each component and phone that Vertu manufactures. They’re used as reference points to ensure that the company’s maintaining the same level of quality throughout.
- The smallest screw used by Vertu can almost get lost in the palm of your hand.
- Carousels filled with screws, antennas, physical key assemblies, and other small parts sit next to each workstation.
- Training to become a Vertu technician can take anywhere from three months to a year, depending on the level of expertise, but you never have to do the job blind. Step-by-step instructions are provided by a terminal in front of you, which also automatically rotates the component carousel to the part needed to complete its orders.
- Knowing how to take a Vertu apart comes in handy on the rare occasions that an assembled unit doesn’t pass through the quality checks.
- A final polish and inspection from a pair of white-gloved hands and your Vertu’s ready to go. The company knows that “the last thing we see is the first thing the customer sees,” so this stage of production is closely scrutinized.
- A set of five leather-bound Constellation handsets, showing off the various color options and the pervasive V theme, which is extended by the cut of the matching leather cases. The retail value of this one box of phones is somewhere in the region of 25,000 euros.
- Vertu’s current range, from left to right: the 2008 Signature, which is still the company’s most expensive and exclusive handset; the 2013 Vertu Ti, its first Android handset; and the most recent Constellation, which the company describes as “deliberately more conformist.” Pricing for each starts at 9,000 euro for the Signature, 7,900 euro for the Ti, and 4,900 for the Constellation.
- Although famed for its ostentatious designs like this snakeskin model in its concept store, Vertu considers them only a peripheral part of its business. Most of its work is done for customers of more restrained tastes who still want a device that “looks like it came from Mars.”
- Hutch Hutchinson, Vertu’s design chief, says the company is making a conscious effort to appeal to a wider audience with this year’s Constellation and Ti Android phones. While he still believes there’s room for the outrageously sharp lines of the Series 40-powered Signature — for those who want to assert their opulence by merely presenting their phone — he feels Vertu also “needed something that looked like it came from the moon rather than Mars.”
- Vertu’s sales pitch hinges on three factors: unparalleled customer service and support, handcrafted devices, and exclusive materials. This particular handset is made of genuine alligator skin and zirconium.
- Renowned British sculptor Richard Wilson put together this futuristic cityscape from discarded Vertu parts. The street lights are made out of antennas, the skyscrapers are built out of metal frames, and the green paths are old bits of motherboard. There’s also an art installation within the landscape that’s made out of display panels that didn’t quite make the cut. Vertu is looking into auctioning off the recycled art piece and giving the proceeds away to charity.