(Pocket-lint) - Nestled in the rolling hills of Hampshire, some 40 miles outside London, sits the headquarters of Vertu.
Established during Nokia's halcyon days in 1998, Vertu was sold in 2012 to a private equity firm. It makes luxury phones by hand, costing more than you probably earn in a month, and in some cases, a year.
It's a peaceful spring day and we're standing in front of the towering steel gates. The tranquility of the setting strikes us, only broken by the soft thrumming of our VW's diesel engine, left idling in the drive behind us.
We poke the buzzer marked "security". There's a shrill crackle as the speaker pops to life. After a brief conversation, the gates swing open and we head inside to see what Vertu is all about.
A world of luxury technology
"Apple Watch raised the notion of obsolescence," says Jon Stanley, head of PR, events and sponsorship at Vertu, as we start talking about luxury technology.
Obsolescence is the rationale used against the £8,000 Apple Watch Edition's existence and it's the same argument that people struggle with when it comes to Vertu. With technology being so fast paced, how can you ever justify a luxury that's outdated so quickly?
"Vertu's survival challenged the assumption that inevitable obsolescence removes modern consumer electronics from consideration as luxury goods. Ive was 'very interested' in Vertu." (The Shape of Things to Come, The New Yorker).
Like Apple's luxury play with the Apple Watch Edition, Vertu isn't pitched at everyone. Vertu isn't about producing mass-market phones that cost a lot of money. It's about creating a luxury product, for people who can afford it, without compromising on materials purely because of cost. That justifies its existence in itself.
"It's not about luxury for the sake of luxury … good luxury is about reliability and dependability," says Stanley, who cites audio brand Linn as a great example. It isn't creating products just to be more expensive, but because they are better.
Handmade in England
Laser etched on the back of Vertu handsets it says "handmade in England". We slip into a blue anti-static jacket fit electrostatic discharge strips to our shoes and head onto Vertu's factory floor.
Hutch Hutchison's card simply carries the name "Hutch". Head of design at Vertu, Hutch is introduced to us as "Vertu's fifth employee," and we're fortunate that he's also our guide through the heart of Vertu. He was there at the beginning, having designed the first handset in his bedroom.
Today Hutch is brandishing the Vertu Signature Touch. He flips open the backplate to reveal the signature of the person who assembled that handset in the building we're standing in. Like the plaque on a Mercedes AMG engine, Vertu applies the same philosophy: one phone, built by one person.
It's this attention to detail that makes the difference. These aren't phones built on conveyors by machines. There are real people, pouring love and attention into each handset, stiving for perfection. But above all, there's real skill and real precision. Hutch tells us that it doesn't matter how long the job takes, what matters is that it's done right.
Vertu's location is rather fortunate. This region of south-east England has a rich history in precision engineering thanks in part to the aeronautic industry. We're watching a Vertu Signature in gold being polished, using skills learnt from working with aircraft components.
The attention to detail is everywhere we look. We can see the inside of a Signature being handpainted - just so you don't see a different colour if you look down the side of the depressed power button.
It becomes obvious that Hutch is a fan of materials. Vertu uses Grade 5 titanium on many of its phones, an alloy that's stronger and lighter than pure titanium, and uses sapphire crystal for display coverings. "The Sapphire crystal is the most expensive part," says Hutch, a material that's in wider demand on all types of gadgets.
And with the Signature Touch and Aster having a 4.7-inch display, that's a large sapphire crystal that needs growing.
Vertu doesn't just use these materials because they are expensive, the aim is to deliver on that promise of reliability and dependability, and Hutch is happy to tell us that the choice of materials makes the job more difficult. Both are "harder to work with", but we're getting the message that Vertu is taking an uncompromising approach.
Of the phones that Vertu is assembling today, it's the Signature that's the most complicated. In modern terms the Vertu Signature is an enigma: it's a £10,000 handset (at its cheapest) that's dumb. It's designed for talking, it features a mechanical keyboard, it has a tiny display. In this topsy-turvy world of luxury technology, the Signature is the true flagship. The keyboard itself has more parts than an entire Signature Touch model.
"Simon Cowell has one of these," we're told as we cast our eyes over the carousels of precision components that make up a Vertu Signature. We can well believe it.
In front of us we're watching a mother of pearl keyboard being assembled. It will eventually find a home in a £16,200 phone. But that patterning on the keyboard, and the white aligator skin that adorns the back, will be totally unique to this individual phone. Wafer thin mother of pearl is fused to sapphire crystal, but that's not the biggest surprise. Each key sits on a ruby bearing, a ruby you can't even see.
Those rubys are there because of the feeling it gives to the Signature's keyboard action. In many ways, that sums up Vertu's approach to selecting materials. It's about using the best materials for the job, rather than the easiest, the most affordable, or the most readily available.
For right or wrong, Vertu is probably more recognisable for its finishing than the intricacies of the internals. A quilted black leather Aster has just been assembled and we pick it up. There's a softness and a luxuriousness that's immediately apparent. It's a phone you want to hold.
It reminds us of something that Hutch said earlier: "Louis Vuitton is luggage, but better. Rolls-Royce is a car, but better." Through extrapolation, we have a good idea where this is going.
Turning this £5,100 smartphone in our hands, we think of the Moto X and LG G4. To paraphrase Pulp Fiction: it ain't the same ballpark, it ain't the same league, it ain't even the same sport.
It's no surprise, then, that completed devices end up in Vertu's on-site vault. The foot-thick door stands open and we shoot a gaze through the second barred door behind. Hutch catches our gaze at a tray of phones within: "That's python." Of course it is.
In each presentation box you get the certification for any precious stones or exotic skins your device might have used. Vertu works in accordance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, to ensure that you have all the relevant permits.
We gaze over snake, alligator, ostrich, stingray, and the much more conventional calf skin, in all manor of colours. Pink alligator? Orange ostrich? There are bespoke phones, limited edition phones, small runs on materials that Vertu has sourced, or made to order designs. The feel of these phones is unique, it's sensual, far removed from the polycarbonate or aluminium bodies that dominate the mainstream market.
Then there's the finish in places you can't see. The machining on the inside of the battery cover, the hallmarked gold SIM card tray. The high standards set by the luxury watch market that are echoed through these smartphones.
Something to be treasured
We approached Vertu with a somewhat sceptical view. Astronomically priced phones, in a market where the hardware moves so fast, it's almost out of date before its in the hands of customers. Many will say, to use a colloquial expression, that it's batshit crazy.
As time goes on, Vertu begins to make more sense. Luxury has become part of the language of consumer technology, but in many cases, everyone else falls short: carbonfibre of Motorola, leather of LG, HTC's metal working. Vertu isn't interested in these slightly superficial effects, it's the real deal.
The earliest Vertu models were launched with interchangeable hardware, to try and keep pace with changing technology, something that all smartphone fans know has slowed down. "We've reached a plateau," says Hutch, referring to the technology, before saying "there's no point in trying to plug this year's AMG engine into last year's car - the pipes don't line up."
In a market where the technology has levelled, and quality of design and differentiation now matter more.
And Vertu tests and tests its phones. It tunes the audio, it tests the signal quality across all bands for perfect tuning as it's customers are always on the move. It tumble tests, drop tests, it temperature tests, humidity tests to make sure that what you're getting delivers technologically and the materials and finishes don't interfere with the function.
"I've run Android Lollipop on a Signature Touch," said Hutch, "and the battery life was worse."
Vertu phones won't be the most powerful, and won't be the first to upgrade Android versions, but will probably be the highest quality phone you could own. Like a prestige motorcar or precision timepiece, we're excited that someone is doing this.
It's easy to knock Vertu on price, or for being outdated, but we should really be embracing this quirky company. You need to look beyond the spec sheet to the authenticity of Vertu that plays out in each and every exquisite detail. It's a part of the industry to be treasured.
Vertu might not be for you, but as Hutch says, its customers are "people who are a bit busier, with a bit more money."