Martti Virta knew he wanted to create a luxury brand. He just needed an everyday object he could reimagine with opulence.
The Helsinki entrepreneur knew little about the artisanal processes to make gold and jewels adhere to a surface but admired how the famed S.T. Dupont of Paris did so with fountain pens and lighters in pioneering the “Art of Living Well.”
Virta settled on the iPhone as his popular status symbol, but it proved a difficult surface to coat with gold.
Through trial and error, Virta’s company Legend mastered the art to live up to an ambitious brand name and grow its reputation among a niche of vendors who can gold-plate and bejewel the non-conductive aluminum of the iPhone.
“I am very glad I chose iPhone customization as the main area of expertise,” Virta told Cult of Mac. “It’s far from boring and always brings interesting challenges.”
iPhones are ubiquitous but seen by some as saddled with a final form factor and a limited number of colors. Individual expression can be projected with a creative case, but a few companies seek to add a unique finish directly to the surface of the iPhone’s housing.
One of the biggest names in bespoke iPhones, Goldgenie, got commissioned last year by a Chinese woman to encase an iPhone 7 in gold, encrust the edges with diamonds and engrave it with the mug of President Donald Trump. A Goldgenie spokesperson said the unidentified woman was buying it as a gift for the then president-elect. The bill was around $151,000.
Last year, Cult of Mac profiled Dimitry Lischina of the Ukraine, whose Aurum Editions customized some 30 iPhones each month at a cost of $2,200 to $4,400 a pop. Lischina started his business in his garage and grew his business through word of mouth.
Legend’s artisans work on no more than 10 orders a month, largely due to the demand and the time-consuming process of hand engraving or inlaying mother of pearl. While there is an online gallery of beautifully crafted devices, phones are made to order. Many are customer-designed, with ongoing discussions during the process with the buyer.
About 95 percent of the work is on Apple mobile devices.
“We sell a finished product with 256GB memory as standard,” Virta said. “After discussing with the client his or her unique design, we present it in 3D format for approval. After that, we do our magic on the iPhone.
“These days, China and Gulf countries have the largest demand for personalized iPhones, one of the reasons being the popularity of 24k gold and personalized items.”
Legend made an appeal rich Chinese iPhone users this year with a Year of the Rooster iPhone 7, inlaid with enamel, hand-engraved Chinese cultural symbols and plated in 24k gold. Those not born under the rooster sign could opt for a dragon with red diamond eyes. The limited-edition iPhones run a little more than $3,600 and come with gold-plated EarPods and a luxury presentation box.
Legend, like other companies that gold-plate the iPhone, conducted a number of trial-and-error processes before finding one that applied durable bling to aluminum. Virta and his contemporaries remain reluctant to reveal how the “magic” happens.
There are many steps, most notably the removal of the iPhone’s anodization and the polishing of the aluminum so it can receive the plating.
“We use a special 24k gold solution that has cobalt in the mixture,” he said. “It’s also called ‘hardened gold.’ This allows for better wear…. 24k gold in itself is a very soft metal.”
Virta hopes Apple will soon confirm the specs on the iPhone 8, at least one model of which is rumored to boast a glass back plate and stainless steel frame. That could ease the process of gold plating, he said.
“Perhaps with iPhone 8, we will expand slightly our production capacity and we are looking forward to the launch,” he said. “However it will look, we will do our best to improve its appearance further.”