Vertu Constellation: how to build a RM21,500 smartphone

A RM21,500 smartphone with mid-level specs, to be exact. But build quality's the important thing for the ultra-rich, says Vertu's head of design
Vertu Constellation

The Vertu Constellation costs RM21,500. For a smartphone.

And all that money gets you… a mid-level Android blower. A 4.3in 720p screen, a 1.7GHz dual-core processor running Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean and a 13MP camera. You don't even get LTE connectivity.

You may well scoff. We did. But then, Stuff readers and penurious journalists aren't really the target market for the Constellation – we don't own an oilfield, for starters.

Money can't buy (specs)

Vertu Constellation

According to Vertu head of design Hutch Hutchinson, the Constellation's spec sheet is a deliberate choice on the luxury phone brand's part. "The 720p screen at 4.3in takes us to 400-odd ppi, which is more than an iPhone and more than the human eye's possible resolution," he notes. "The unfortunate truth is the bigger screen content you run, the more power you consume.

"It's a little like the arms race around processors and cores. We've upped the GPU in this processor over the previous one, because we've got a higher screen resolution – but most of the time we throttle it back down. There's absolutely no user case other than scrubbing through video that needs that speed of processing on this phone."

And the lack of 4G? "It's not there yet from an operator perspective," he says. Vertu's aimed at the globetrotting ultra-rich, so they're looking for consistency across different territories. "We spend a lot of time on antenna development," says Hutchinson. "Four bands 2G, five bands 3G, and all the antennas tuned on a global basis rather than being honed for each person's spectrum. Because one thing we do know about our customers is that they travel. A lot."

Crystal clear

Vertu Constellation

What Vertu's customers are paying for is premium materials, rather than internals. Round the front the Constellation sports a sapphire crystal screen, wrapped up in titanium and leather. "The amount of time and trouble it takes to create that is disproportionate," says Hutchinson. "It's an immense amount of time and trouble compared to working with a bit of aluminium and plastic and glass."

That screen, for example, is technically monocrystalline aluminium oxide – it takes two weeks to grow a piece about 40cm long, which is then ground down using diamond saws and polishing tools. Why diamond? Because that's the only thing that'll scratch it.

The frame's made of grade 5 titanium, treated using a nitriding process to be three times as hard as the regular stuff. Vertu's developed a special process for welding the parts together in an inert atmosphere (liquid titanium would explode in an oxygen-rich environment) – to ensure that the bond's as strong as solid titanium.

Finally, the back of the phone's wrapped in leather from a 150-year-old German tannery. "This is the thickest leather we've ever done," Hutchinson says. "We then spent a long time developing their leathers to be as strong as automotive-grade leathers while not losing that tactile feel. There's a suite of about 20 different leather tests that go on before we put it on our handset." Including motor oil, solvents and ketchup, fact fans.

Living in a material world

Vertu Constellation
Vertu Constellation

By focusing on the materials, Vertu reckons it's producing a luxury item that's closer to a watch or a car than a phone – and that the 1 per cent of the 1 per cent are prepared to pay a premium for its kit.

"As a designer, there's two categories of objects in your life," says Hutchinson. "There are things which I refer to as "darlings" – and for those you will pay the earth, because you love them – and then there's "friends" – they're things you like, you'll buy a slightly nicer one, but when it comes to, say, the kitchen table, I'm never going to pay ten times as much for that."

Phones, he reckons, are "darlings." "A phone is the closest thing to you in your life, probably – it contains just about every aspect of your personality from your secret e-mails to your pictures to your music collection. Everything's in there, and yet there's this tendency for it to become a very anonymous object. Whereas everything else that's treasured in our lives – our clothes, our shoes, our cars, we spend a lot of attention saying, 'This says something about me.'"

Of course, that four grand isn't just going on the phone itself – you also get access to Vertu's services, which range from access to members' clubs to VIP boxes at events to a security service that'll track you and send in the troops if you deviate from your scheduled route. Everything the well-prepared oligarch needs, then.

In the hand, the Constellation's certainly pleasant to hold, with that leather-wrapped minimalist design looking substantially less gaudy than previous blinged-up Vertu models. Though, despite the financial meltdown encouraging more discreet displays of wealth, it still has a ruby for the Vertu Services button.

While we can't say we'd drop RM21,500 on a phone – especially one with a dual-core processor – it's clear that it's not really aimed at us bleeding-edge tech fans. That sapphire crystal screen is a window onto a world of super-wealth that we'll never get to scratch our way through – unless we can get our hands on some diamonds.