Seven years ago, a mobile phone was launched at a glittering party at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. This wasn't just any old phone. The star guest was one Gwyneth Paltrow.
The galleries were festooned with works of art specially commissioned to celebrate a phone so exclusive that the company executives refused even to call it a phone. It was officially a 'mobile communications instrument'.
And the price of a hand-made, craftsman-built Vertu Mobile Communications Instrument? Between £6,000 for the basic model and £16,000 for one with a platinum casing.
VERTU: Price, £2,600 to £1m. What does it do? Phone calls (in superb hi-fi sound), texts, connects with one button to a concierge service which will do or get whatever you need. Ostentation factor: *** But for the £1m Boucheron: ******
The Vertu is small, slim and handsome
Yes, it was certainly striking - small, slim and handsome, and made to extraordinary standards from superb materials. The keys worked on bearings made from 4.75 carats of solid ruby and the face was made of sapphire crystal.
All of this finery contributed to the Vertu's weight. If bothered by a mugger - something I estimated you would be within ten seconds of using a Vertu in a public place - you could at least brain him with it.
But as a phone, the Vertu didn't really do much more than make phone calls and send text messages. And anyway, it was a phone, for pity's sake, not a fine Swiss watch.
Even as a writer specialising in the best and most expensive gadgetry, I had to laugh at the ludicrousness of the Vertu. Rather than being made in the home of fine design, Switzerland, or even Japan at a push, the Vertu was being made in, er, Church Crookham, Hampshire.
As politely as possible, I poured scorn on the Vertu while interviewing its designer, a charismatic and super-bright Californian Al Pacino lookalike called Frank Nuovo, who had previously been chief designer for Nokia.
'Just hear the resonance of the ringtone,' Nuovo said after the launch party.
'Can you imagine what it takes to create an instrument in this size that has that kind of high fidelity sound? You can hear the quality in the reverberation. Each of those tones was written for international quality and something that could warn you without interfering with anyone.'
'It's a beautiful phone,' I said, 'if you don't mind me calling it that. But aren't mobile phones one of the most disposable items we own today?'
Most wealthy people I know, I felt I had to point out, buy the cheapest models because they lose them every few weeks.
Not only that, I added, but almost as soon as you've bought a normal person's phone, there's a more interesting and exciting model available. The idea of a phone of such quality that you'd feel the need to keep it for years was surely insane.
Who, after all, would want a mere phone to be some kind of heirloom that you passed down to your firstborn along with the Renoirs, begging him on your deathbed to keep it all in the family, but especially the mobile?
Well, what do I know? Seven years on, Vertu has been a riproaring British success, selling an ever-increasing range of deluxe mobile communications instruments in large numbers around the world - in places like Dubai, Beverly Hills, Singapore, Russia, China, and even in Britain, too.
They've just opened a shop in London's Old Bond Street which is full of customers. OK, there are a lot of oligarchs and sheiks in London, but the phones also sell well in Manchester, Liverpool, York and Leicester.
Celebrities apparently love them, although Vertu are too high class to name any supposed fans. What they do say is that an extraordinary number of the rich and famous try to cadge a freebie Vertu, and they never get one. Not even Paltrow was given one, so they say.
GOLDVISH: Price, £16,000 to £103,000 - plust VAT. What does it do? Phone calls, texts, but mostly just glitters. Ostentation factor: *****
So successful has the Vertu idea been, that there are now more than 300 people working in Church Crookham making them.
They include former watchmakers, goldsmiths and leather workers (yes, some of the phones include intricately crafted leather parts) - people, that's to say, who might well have trouble finding work without Vertu.
And this unpredictable British success is earning steady profits. Not bad going in the kind of times when most of us are thinking twice before buying a cabbage, let alone a phone that costs £2,600 to £25,000 - and more.
Yes, more. To celebrate the first London Vertu shop, Nuovo has unveiled the fanciest Vertu yet, the Boucheron 150, a gleaming slab of solid, sculpted gold that has taken more than 2,200 man hours to make - 1,000 for cutting to shape, 700 for polishing, 500 for assembling.
The Boucheron is meant to be a one-off. But when I asked Nuovo at its launch the other night how much a buyer would need to stump up to take it off Vertu's hands, he and his MD went into a huddle and agreed a nice round £1 million (line rental not included).
If that's not amazing enough - that a serious company, a subsidiary of the hugely successful Nokia, are confident asking between £2,600 and £1m in the middle of a world slump for an item of which a serviceable alternative can be bought for less than a tenner - then consider this.
TAG HEUER MERIDIIST: Price, £2,650. What does it do? Phone calls, texts, email, voice recorder, great speakerphone. Ostentation factor: **
The TAG HEUER MERIDIIST from a different angle
Not only has the Vertu become the unlikeliest of hits, but it has spawned several competitors. A few doors down from the Vertu shop, for example, at a store called Flawless, you can buy the Swiss-made GoldVish phone. The range runs from £16,000 to £103,000 - plus VAT.
And Goldvish are flying off the shelves in the run-up to Christmas, the manager, Dino, tells me.
Another few minutes' walk, to Selfridges on Oxford Street, and they will sell you a Tag Heuer Meridiist, also Swiss, which is only made from stainless steel (shame!) but does have rubber, leather and alligator bits.
It comes out at a mere £2,650 - a bit of a snip, since buyers don't have to suffer the ignominy of knowing there's another phone in the range that's more expensive.
Take the No10 bus (there is a credit crunch on, after all) over to the Christian Dior shop in Sloane Street, and you can try a custom-made, diamond-studded Dior phone from France. It costs a reassuringly expensive £15,000.
Even work-a-day Motorola are getting in on the mega-phones lark. Their Aura model, due out next year, is expected to cost £1,600 - cheap as these things go, but still the price of some 320 Samsung SGH-B130 phones, which sell from £5.
So what is going on here? What is causing wealthy people in their thousands to spend piles of cash on mobile phones which, for the most part, will live in their deep pockets and probably end up being left in restaurants and nightclubs?
DIOR: Price, £15,000. What does it do? Phone calls, texts. Also comes with a clever Bluetooth remote control, so a girl can control (and locate) her phone even when it's nestled at the bottom of her bag. Ostentation factor: **
Well, there are a lot of issues here, issues on which Nuovo and the Church Crookham crew have been so resoundingly right, and we scoffers so wrong.
First, taste is just that. It's what some like and others don't, not what the style-Nazis say is tasteful.
So while you or I might think the regular Vertus are pretty nice, but the Boucheron 150 is a bit on the naff side, there are plenty of people, some foreign but many British, who will think the £1m phone is beautiful and find your cool, industrial-looking, gadgety smart phone hideous.
Then there's the question that these luxury phones don't have many features. Most don't have a camera and few the internet.
Well, that may affect us poor donkeys who work for a living, but the richer the person, the less they email and Google, and the more they bark orders on their phones to their subordinates.
What about the problem I pointed out when Vertu started up, of the wealthy always losing their phones?
Interestingly, Nuovo says, this hasn't turned out to be the case. 'I think even very rich people have learned to be careful, partly because they are expensive, but also because the numbers they have stored in their phones are even more valuable than the Vertu itself.'
The remarkable heft of the Vertu - it weighs almost twice as much as the average phone - has also turned out to be a benefit, according to Nuovo. 'It means they slip to the bottom of ladies' bags, so they always know where they are. And men like the feeling of presence the Vertu has.'
One question remains, however. Will even the £1m Vertu be luxurious enough for some people?
Back at that Paris party seven years ago, I got chatting to a would-be distributor for Kuwait.
Turning the (then) £16,000 platinum model over in his hands, he said that while schoolchildren in his country might quite like the Vertu for its novelty value, he was concerned that adult consumers might consider it - how could he say? - not quite ostentatious enough.
I wonder if the Boucheron 150 does it for him at last?
Bling bling! The £1m mobile, hand-crafted in solid gold and encrusted with jewels - just don't leave it on the train... | Mail Online