Ask any sculptor who works in wood, and they’ll tell you that it’s a difficult, unforgiving material. But at least a sculpture gets to stay in one place. Imagine carving a piece of wood to fit around an iPhone, which spends all day being bashed around, slipping in and out of pockets, dropped on the floor, tossed casually on tables.
It’s a challenge Warren Fosse knows well. Carved, where he is in charge of business development and marketing, make phone cases and power banks from gorgeous, fine-grained wood. The company launched in 2011, and they quickly discovered that wrapping a piece of wood around a phone wasn’t an easy task.
“What we did launch about two years ago was a two-piece wood case that had a seam in the middle,” Fosse says. “It was a good product, but it never really struck us as the product we wanted to make. There were issues with it.”
The breakthrough, Fosse says, came when they decided to make a solid, one-piece case. The Indiana-based company used old wood, battered skateboard decks and discarded naval timbers to create them. They had to stabilize the wood with resin, use computers to cut it, sand it religiously.
Plastic and metal might be well-adapted to mass production, but tech companies are starting to explore different approaches.
“Wood is a natural material,” Fosse says. “It will bow and flex with humidity and heat, and respond to the environment it’s in. We put a lot of time and development into making the bases structurally sound enough so that they wouldn’t have those problems, while not making them so bulky that you couldn’t put them on your phone.”
You might reasonably ask: why go through all this? Why put so much work into what can only be seen as a niche product, with a premium price tag (the solid cases can cost up to $190)? Answer: because it’s not a niche product. Not anymore.
In the past few years, the use of natural materials on tech products — wood, marble, leather — has skyrocketed. Plastic and metal might be well-adapted to mass production, but tech companies are starting to explore different approaches. Carved aren’t the only ones in on the action. House Of Marley headphones use wood to finish their cans. Sennheiser created an amp covered in Carrera marble — an expensive indulgence, but one that showed how they were thinking. A French company, Orée, make exquisite Bluetooth keyboards out of maple wood and walnut.
Calculating the size of such a market is tricky — there are no existing studies on how many of these products are sold, no data that splits tech into material type. But the global smartphone accessories market is valued at US$81.5bn, according to research firm ABI, and Fosse estimates that the natural materials part of that is around 1% — around US$815m. Not bad for bits of skateboard and dead tree.
As technology has become cheaper and more ubiquitous, Fosse says, the demand for personalisation has increased. Why spend hundreds of dollars on a smartphone only to cover it in cheap plastic? If you’re going to use your Bluetooth keyboard all the time, why not spend a little extra on a soft wooden number that will be a pleasure to use? The advantage of a wooden product over a metal one, for example, is the individuality — no two wood grains are exactly alike, and Carved goes to great lengths to market its products as unique. “It’s something that resonates with people,” he says. “Having something a little more natural makes the [product] less cold and a little more personal.”
Right now, the value of these materials is purely cosmetic — no-one has figured out a way to make an actual smartphone out of wood. And these are still premium products — the asking price for Sennheiser’s marble Orpheus amp and accompanying headphones is around US$55,000 — and it will be a while before mainstream tech users begin to pick them up in earnest. But there’s no question that if you can surmount the technical obstacles, as Carved did, there are real possibilities. Fosse says that when Carved first launched their solid wooden case, “we couldn’t keep up with the demand.”