Ring and bling: Tech gadgets dressing up

Naked gadgetry is so yesterday unless its decked out in crystal or gold by a couture designer


Tired of that boring white iPod? How about that bottom-of-the-line phone you got with your wireless plan? Maybe you should put some bling on that thing. You know, ice it with a little python skin or dress it up with a Christtian Dior antenna trinket.

"Pimped," "iced," "blinged out." Whatever you want to call them, decked-out gadgets -- as well as couture and luxury models -- are reaching ever-escalating heights of outrageousness. From Gucci iPod cases to emerald-laden Treos, they've gone far beyond the Swarovski crystal-encrusted cells made famous by status-obsessed starlets such as Paris Hilton. These days, gadgetistas can select from limited-edition phones by fashion designers Anna Sui and Betsey Johnson, as well as luxury models made from rare Brazilian burlwood, stainless steel and 18-carat gold.

"Especially with devices like cell phones, people use brands to express their own identity," said Ryan Block, 23, managing editor of the consumer electronics Web site Engadget.com. "In the '80s, maybe it was cars. In the '90s and 2000s, it's definitely which gadgets you have."

Cell phones top the list of techno things getting painted, crystallized, charmed and otherwise adorned or upgraded, but Treos, BlackBerrys, PlayStation Portables and iPods are also getting the treatment. In general, the more common or aesthetically challenged the technology, the more likely it will be customized, but there are exceptions. Customizer Carter Nichols has seen plenty of ultrahip Motorola Razrs coming his way for cobra-skin and black-crystal coverage.

"You think it's so sleek and so cool, but to have crystals on a black Razr phone looks amazing," said Nichols, 34, co-founder of New York-based Modphone, which specializes in high-end, handcrafted gizmo modifications. In the six years that Nichols and his wife have been in business, they've covered laptops in stingray skin and flip phones in rabbit fur or even pearls.

"We find that most of our customers want to cover everything," including the brand, Nichols said. "They're sick of AT&T and Motorola. They just want it to be theirs."

That's how Helen Castillo felt after paying $139 to have her phone covered in crystals and topped with a fake-diamond antenna charm at the Glendale Galleria in California. She couldn't even remember what kind of phone she had. Nor did she care.

"As long as it looks cute," said Castillo, 35, who left her garden-variety clamshell phone at the Custom Cell Painting stall and returned one hour later to find it adorned in shimmering pink and lilac.ind at least one stall that will do it on the spot.

Customers who can part with their devices for a few days can save themselves the drive by using one of the dozens of Web-based services that have sprung up to deck out whatever gizmo a customer's got in whatever color, pattern, initial, logo or design he or she would like. Average cost: $60 to $100 per side, depending on the size of the device and complexity of the job.

Buy one of the many bling kits that are available to do it yourself, and it will cut that cost by at least half.

Dressing up technological gadgetry with personalized designs is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the mid-'90s, when cell phones were less common and more expensive, just having one was a status symbol.

But as cell phones became more common and additional techno gear came on the market, a customizing trend began to emerge.

Imported from Asia in the late '90s, it started with stickers and charms, then interchangeable face plates, then ring tones. But the trend has really picked up steam in the past year, fueled by blinged-out celebrities and the popularity of shows such as MTV's Pimp My Ride. Now there is a dizzying array of options, including custom-molded and painted face plates, crystal keypads, signature screensavers, glow-in-the-dark headphones, even mink iPod covers.

Denise Loo, 38, loves her iPod -- but so do the millions of other people who own them, and that's the problem.

"It's become mainstream," said Loo, who divides her time among Hong Kong, Sacramento and Switzerland. "Last year it was so cool with the white headphones. You were different. Now everybody has white headphones, so I switched mine to black."

The other reason Loo made the switch: Black looks better with her minkpod, the black mink fur case she recently began selling online.

"An iPod, the white color is a little too simple. People want flash and style and some sort of portable elegance," she said. "[The minkpod is] a very luxurious, plush experience. It's not like people want to wear a full mink coat, but they want to have a little bit."

The same rationale applies to the plethora of big-name designers who've entered the gadget market of late. Kate Spade, Marc Jacobs, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior and Juicy Couture make iPod cases.

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