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WORLD

Aloisson -- the ultimate cell phone

By Barry Neild for CNN

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Aloisson is currently making the world's first million dollar mobile.

LONDON, England (CNN) -- In the strange days of the 1980s, when cubes were Rubik and shoulders were padded, cell phones were the apex of executive luxury, despite weighing more than two pounds and boasting a battery life that wouldn't last until lunch (which was for wimps anyway).

Known affectionately as "the Brick" -- largely because it was the size of one -- the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X was introduced in 1983 to a public who would, for the most part, still have to spend another two decades queuing up to use slightly soiled phone boxes.

With a launch price of almost U.S.$ 4,000, Bricks were the preserve of the rich and powerful, who were often seen touting them as brash symbols of wealth in an era when stock markets soared almost as high as hairstyles.

But as prices plummeted and networks fanned out across the globe, cell phones have become ubiquitous, their ring tones chirping everywhere from the boutiques of Beverly Hills to the arid plains of Afghanistan.

Since the advent of these cheap, mass-produced handsets -- manufactured by Motorola and rivals such as Nokia, Siemens, Sony Ericsson and Samsung -- the nattering classes who once saw their phones as status symbols have been forced to swap gossip using same models as the rest of us.

Now, however, a new breed of device, perhaps more bling tone than ring tone, has begun to emerge, catering to customers who care little for miniature movie cameras or built-in MP 3 players, but for whom talk is never cheap.

In January 2002 Vertu, a newly-created independent subsidiary of Nokia, unveiled a sleek collection of phones that would appear more at home in the window of an exclusive jewelry shop and carried price tags -- roughly U.S.$5,000 -- to match.

'Best that money can buy'

Cased in precious metals such as platinum and gold and boasting features such as a sapphire crystal screen and jeweled bearings under each key, Vertu phones, the company says, are handmade to "set the standard for exquisitely crafted, high quality, luxury mobile communication."

To prove a point, the company recently launched a limited edition jewel-encrusted handset retailing for almost U.S.$84,000, stamping its mark on a luxury phone scene that it already dominates. "Our phones are the ultimate," Vertu spokeswoman Kathryn Robinson told CNN.

"They are designed to withstand being run over by a sports car. They have integrity of materials and design that other mobile phones do not."

Robinson says Vertu's phones appeal to "people who have achieved success in life and now want to have the best that money can buy" -- a client list that includes celebrities such as Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow and Victoria Beckham.

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Vertu's platinum and gold handsets are used by Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow.

But despite its obvious glamour, Vertu has done little to impress phone experts. "They are basically nothing more than a bit of bling," Dan Maudsley, a journalist for Britain's What Mobile magazine told CNN.

For Maudsley the current ultimate phone is the Sony Ericsson W800, a handset that combines communication device with a music player capable of storing several hours of music and, with a basic retail price of less than U.S.$ 500, far more practical.

"Nowadays anyone can have a designer label, but almost no one can afford a Vertu," he added.

"You've got to be made of money to have one, but as a phone they're pretty average," he said.

Combining both the luxury of the Vertu and the state-of-the-art technology of modern mobiles is a tiny European operation run by Austrian marketing manager-turned master craftsman, Peter Aloisson.

Rather than create his own handset, Aloisson has for the past few years been taking existing phones and customizing them with jewels and precious metals into Midas-touched replicas of their former selves.

Million dollar phone

"I knew that mobile phones would become part of daily life, and as with all things that are part of daily life, such as watches or tie pins, there should be luxury versions of them," he told CNN.

Aloisson currently produces about three phones per year, depending on orders from his celebrity and wealthy clients, mostly retailing for in excess of U.S.$30,000.

The Vienna-based craftsman says he is now working on a cell phone that could claim the "ultimate" crown for good -- a special order for a German manufacturer that will cost in excess of U.S.$1 million.

"It will feature solid gold parts with an exterior covered with 2,590 natural blue diamonds, some of the rarest jewels on Earth," he said.

Although the phone is being constructed for marketing purposes, it will eventually be sold off, no doubt creating the world's ultimate phone bill.

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