Daniela Finlay had known for a while that water bottles had become a big deal.
But it wasn’t until she watched a fellow student break down after dropping and denting her stainless steel Hydro Flask earlier this fall that she understood just how big.
“Crying may be a little bit of an exaggeration,” says Finlay, a freshman at Wellesley College, recalling the moment. “But she was very visibly upset.”
And can you blame her?
Once an afterthought, the humble water bottle has emerged as a designer product — the “it” accessory of the moment.
The trendiest bottles retail for around the same as a car insurance payment, selling — in some cases — for more than $100. The popular brand BKR has taken to billing its water bottles as beauty products, selling them in store beauty departments.
Earlier this year, the water brand Evian held a New York City release party for its limited-edition glass water bottle — designed by Louis Vuitton’s men’s artistic director Virgil Abloh.
“We don’t just see water,” Abloh said in the marketing material for the bottle. “We see infinite possibilities and inspiration.”
American consumers have long been discerning about the water they drink, as evidenced by the rise of pricey brands like FIJI and Smartwater. But with disposable plastic bottles falling out of favor, perhaps it was only a matter of time before permanent containers became the focus.
In the last three years, Americans bought roughly 287 million water bottles, says Joe Derochowski, who serves as home industry adviser for the market research firm NPD Group.
And in just the past year, sales of bottles in the $30-$40 range have jumped a whopping 15 percent.
“It’s people saying, ‘If I’m going to buy a water bottle, I want it not to just be functionally good, I want it to look good,’ ” says Derochowski. “And in a selfie world, that’s kind of what is happening.”
Indeed, on a recent afternoon inside Boston University’s George Sherman Union, atop nearly every table was some sort of colorful bottle. Pricey Hydro Flask bottles have become part of the official uniform of so-called VSCO girls — trendy cliques of middle- and high-school-age girls who favor baggy sweat shirts, Vans sneakers, scrunchies, and — apparently — high-priced water bottles.
Even those still in elementary school are suddenly jostling for fancy water bottles over toys.
When her 7-year-old son asked for a Hydro Flask for Christmas, Shalyn Sherman had to look up what, exactly, he was talking about.
“He’s all about the Hydro Flask,” says Sherman, of Lynn. “It’s on his Christmas list, it’s on his birthday list. That’s the main thing he wants right now.”
The ascent of water bottles to status symbol probably began with the vilification of the disposable kind. When Nalgene’s jewel-colored bottles exploded onto the scene in the 2000s, it was amid growing national concern over environmental sustainability of single-use plastic. In short order, they became fashion standards on college campuses across the country.
But those hard-plastic bottles, selling for about $10, were cheap compared to the market’s offerings now. S’well bottles — available in various sizes and designs — go for as much as $60. Hydro Flasks can range in price from $30 for a smaller 18-ounce bottle to $65 for a 64-ounce wide-mouth version.
Then there’s the Soji Black Obsidian Crystal Elixir Water Bottle — retail price, $94 — which, according to the company’s website, includes “a powerful grounding stone that quickly blocks all forms of negativity . . . [and] shields against psychic attacks, mental stress and tension.”
For acolytes of the craze, such high-brow bottles are worth the hefty price. The high-end bottles can keep water cold for extended periods, and many say it’s one thing they’ll have with them pretty much every minute of every day.
But even those happy to make such an investment admit that, all told, there isn’t much fundamental difference between the latest popular brands and cheaper varieties.
“I think the mass appeal effect is that you’re able to heat or cool something for 24 hours,” says Ramsha Arshad, a senior computer science major at BU who owns a high-end S’well water bottle. “But most water bottles these days can do that.”
Which is not to say, however, that everyone is sold.
As bottles have gotten increasingly high-tech and pricey, some have resisted the urge to upgrade.
Seated at a table inside BU’s student union on a recent afternoon, junior Jay Li defiantly pulled a massive blue Nalgene bottle from his backpack — a bottle that, among today’s flashier alternatives, appeared downright ancient.
Li purchased the bottle two years ago, for around $10, and it has served him well, he said, always holding enough water to get him through the day.
He’s aware that it’s not the trendiest of bottles, but he is comfortable with that.
“It does the job,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s just water.”Dugan Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett.