Apple iPhone China
Sales staff welcome customers looking to buy the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus at an Apple Store in Beijing, Oct. 17, 2014. Reuters/Jason Lee

Apple is now tops in China. Leveraging its image as a status symbol for the country's growing class of urban professionals, the iPhone maker was the No. 1 smartphone vendor in the People's Republic in the first quarter, according to numbers released Wednesday by Gartner. It's the first time Apple has held the top spot in the country, surpassing indigenous vendors such as Xiaomi, Lenovo and Huawei. It also beat out global rival Samsung in the Chinese market.

In China, iPhone sales were up 72.5 percent in the first quarter of 2015 compared with the same period in the previous year, the research firm said. Greater China also became Apple’s largest volume market during the quarter, topping North American iPhone sales. Globally, Apple maintained a 17.9 percent market share, with 60.1 million units sold.

Apple's growth in China has largely been driven by its perception as an "aspirational brand" in the country as well the move to larger displays with the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, said Roberta Cozza, research director at Gartner. "Part of the growth also comes from switchers from Android, as some Android players failed to impress users."

Gartner Smartphone Market Results 1Q 2015
Smartphones sales for the first quarter of 2015 Gartner

Samsung held on to its top spot globally with 24.2 percent of smartphone sales in the first quarter. However, Apple’s strong showing in Asian markets as well as the rise of Chinese smartphone vendors continued to eat away at Samsung's overall share. In the same period last year, there was a gap of more than 40 million units between Samsung and Apple. That difference was halved to just over 20 million units, according to Anshul Gupta, research director at Gartner. With the release of the Galaxy S6, Samsung is expected to partially stanch and slow its bleeding in the second quarter.

Overall, the smartphone market continued to grow in the first quarter, reaching 336 million units, an increase of 19.3 percent from the same period in the previous year. Among the fastest-growing regions were emerging markets, including the Asia-Pacific, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Excluding China, emerging markets saw sales increase 40 percent during the first quarter.

China is of big interest to Apple, accounting for $16.8 billion, or 29 percent, of Apple’s revenue in the quarter ending in March. The company has rapidly expanded its physical presence in the country with 21 stores and plans for 40 by mid-2016, Apple CEO Tim Cook said in March.