The Real Story Behind The Stepan Sarpaneva/Kari Voutilainen/8848 Ti Chinese Phone: Yes, There’s More, Much More
by Ian Skellern
Social media has experienced quite the discussion of a Chinese phone “by Kari Voutilainen,” a Swiss-based Finnish independent watchmaker, which turned out to be not a phone but a SIM card cover. If not a social media storm in a teacup, then this has at the very least been a brisk zephyr in a thimble over the issue, which also involved another Finnish independent watchmaker, Stepan Sarpaneva.
The story so far
Day 1, October 25, 2016. Australian watch blog Horologium reported a story entitled “Kari Voutilainen: Limited edition mobile phones,” which began, “In Beijing on October 18, 2016 independent watchmaker Kari Voutilainen joined with new partner Chinese phone brand 8848 and company founder Du Yingying to launch a series of limited edition (180 units) of mobile phones based on the 8848 Titanium model, but with Voutilainen customization. At the same time 8848 announced a new private subscription customization service for customers, who will be able to select different leather choices, colors, ornamentation, and even engraving for their new phones.”
The Horologium article presented the facts as known and added no personal opinion one way or another as to whether the phone was a good thing or a bad thing.
Day 2, October 26, 2016. Hodinkee managing editor Stephen Pulvirent published “Kari Voutilainen Is Now Making Smartphones (And It Makes Me Want To Cry),” which led with, “Well, I can’t believe I’m writing this. Kari Voutilainen is making smartphones. Or at least making parts of them and slapping his name on the final handset. Essentially what you get for a few thousand dollars is an ostentatious leather-wrapped phone from Chinese maker 8848 with a strange ‘dial’ made by Kari stuck to the back. It’s about the furthest thing I can imagine from an actual Voutilainen watch and it kind of makes me want to cry.”
Now I appreciate that Pulvirent’s article is perhaps deliberately provocative, but the following isn’t worthy of a journalist of his talent and standing: he first admitted, “I’ve never actually seen an 8848 phone in person (they’re only available in China) . . .”, but that didn’t stop him from adding, “But these [phones] are particularly bad.” Pulvirent finished with “. . . but there’s no way for me to rationalize this as anything other than a cash grab that cheapens an otherwise incredible brand.”
And when I read that I have to admit that based on what he had said (which included, ” . . . after digging have turned up a reasonably complete picture of what’s going on here”), I generally agreed with Pulvirent’s sentiment. Why would somebody with the incredibly high reputation that Kari Voutilainen has risk cheapening his brand and reputation with a low-quality Chinese phone?
The message was clear: according to Pulvirent Voutilainen was a sell-out.
Day 3, October 27, 2016. Revolution‘s Suzanne Wong offered to clear up the Voutilainen phone saga with an altogether more positive spin in “The Misinformation Stops Here.” Wong tells us that, “They’re [the Voutilainen-made elements] made in Comblémine, Kari’s dial factory, and are as well made as you’d expect anything by Kari to be. Fellow Finn Stepan Sarpaneva has also pitched in with some work on the bezels, so you can see this is a group effort. Yay, Scandinavian solidarity!” and “If it brings Kari a ton of money and allows him to spend more time creating incredible watches without having to worry about financial pressure . . . I gotta say I’m totally cool with that.”
The message here was clear: according to Wong, Voutilainen was a sensible businessman.
Now from the more detailed information provided, it appears that Wong at least talked to somebody involved. And I generally agreed with her sentiment, which was 180 degrees opposed to Pulvirent’s view that I’d agreed with the day before.
Confused, intrigued and bamboozled? Talk to the source
Having been confused, intrigued, and bamboozled by two journalists I respect with completely opposite views on the same subject (though I suspect Pulvirent’s stance may have changed in light of more complete information), I gave Voutilainen and Sarpaneva a call to see if they could clarify the good/bad Chinese phone saga.
The video above by Stepan Sarpaneva highlights the small component that has caused quite a big hooha.
How it played out
Chinese electronics manufacturer Eren Eben, aka EBen, created a subsidiary brand called 8848, which has been dubbed the Asian Vertu. 8848 founder Yin Du learned quickly that many of his high-end customers expected more than exceptional quality; they also wanted exclusivity and ideally the option of customizing their phones. Note: the name “8848” comes from the height of Mount Everest in meters because “the company aims high.”
While it was relatively easy to offer a range of leather types, textures, and colors, Du also appreciated that the cover of the SIM card might also be personalized. Du happened to be talking to a friend about this and the friend, a watch collector, looked at the SIM cover, thought “watch dial” to himself and suggested that Du get in contact with a Finnish watchmaker he knew, Stepan Sarpaneva. He thought that Sarpaneva was open-minded and that his distinctive Krona bezel would be a perfect shape for the SIM cover.
When Sarpaneva got involved he realized that while he could certainly make a nice watch-dial-like SIM cover with his Krona bezel, he could not produce the covers in the quantities required: the first limited edition was to be 180 pieces. Who better to work with than fellow Finnish watchmaker Voutilainen, who had his own dial company, Comblémine SA, which makes special dials for his own company as well as Richard Mille, MB&F, RGM, MCT, Vacheron Constantin and many other high end brands. Voutilainen had created Comblémine in 2014 from Dialtech SA, which had gone bankrupt the previous year.
Naturally, just like Sarpaneva, before associating his name with anything Voutilainen checked the quality of the 8848 Ti and was impressed: the titanium case, made by a case maker who also makes high-end cases for Swiss watch brands, was nicely crafted and beautifully hand finished. The leather came from Belgium/Netherlands, and the company’s quality control process was first rate.
When Sarpaneva and Voutilainen presented their first few prototype SIM covers to 8848, the company’s quality control drop tested them from one meter 20 times to ensure that the Swiss components were up to scratch.
But as importantly for Sarpaneva and Voutilainen as the quality of 8848’s phones was the comfortable relationship that quickly developed with founder Yin Du.
There’s irony in the fact while many Swiss suppliers have been threatened by manufacturing moving to China, here is at least one instance of a Chinese manufacture sourcing from Switzerland.
For Sarpaneva and Voutilainen, the motivation wasn’t just the chance of much appreciated work in a very difficult economic climate for watchmakers and suppliers (as if that isn’t reason enough), but also the chance of extending the relationship with 8848 to include other niche artisans from Switzerland and beyond.
And we should bear in mind that this is not a co-branding of a mobile phone, but simply independent watchmakers creating a distinctive horologically-inspired SIM card cover for a high-end mobile phone in an association that may help spread the word about independent watchmaking among well-heeled Chinese consumers.
If there’s any downside at all to this collaboration, I don’t see it. I wish all involved the very best of luck.
Quick Facts 8848 Titanium M3
Case: hand-polished titanium, sapphire crystel, ceramic, calf leather
SIM cover: designed by Stepan Sarpaneva and Kari Voutilainen, manufactured in Switzerland by Comblémine SA, red “8”
Specs: 5” FHD screen, 4GB of RAM, 128GB, 21MP rear camera, 3MP front camera, snapdragon processor
Limitation: 180 pieces, also bespoke option
Price: $3,000 – $4,500
Availability: only in China
Also published on Medium.