Style | Past Masters

Hermès scarves

Whether to wear, display or store away, the famous silk square is highly collectable, says Simon de Burton.

September 19 2009
Simon de Burton

The Hermès scarf, or carré, as it is properly known, has been described as the female equivalent of a Swiss Army knife. In other words, it’s always useful for a girl to keep one about her person. Worn with varying degrees of flair by characters as diverse as Queen Elizabeth II, Audrey Hepburn and Madonna around heads, necks, waists and wrists, it has enjoyed more or less constant popularity since the day in 1937 when the late Robert Dumas (who became director of Hermès in 1951) was inspired to produce a large silk square (hence carré) using a print, Le Jeu des Omnibus et de Dames Blanches, from the collection of Emile Hermès.

Since then, according to Hermès’ records, more than 2,000 designs have been created for the carré by numerous artists, and vintage versions now incite a collecting passion that keeps plenty of enthu­siasts coming back for more. And more. And more.

One such collector to fall under the carré’s spell is London-based business tax adviser Rhona Neil, who is somewhat coy about just how many she has accumulated. “That is rather like asking a woman her age,” she says. “Let’s just say several hundred. I store them inside Hermès orange boxes and wear a different one every day, apart from in extremely hot weather when I tie one to my handbag.”

Neil’s oldest carré is a 1963 example of La Torre’s Vieille Chine design, which pays homage to 19th-century Orientalist wallpaper patterns. “That was my best discovery. I found it in a Paris flea market for £60, but the fact that it might be worth more is irrelevant. I just think it’s lovely to be able to pick up a carré and wrap it around your neck before leaving the house. It brightens up the day.”

But this is not a collecting field that is exclusive to women. Peter Nitz, for example, began collecting 10 years ago after picking up his first few scarves while trawling markets and secondhand shops in search of stock for his antiques business. He now runs Zurich-based website which is dedicated to trading in Hermès carrés. “I have around 200 in my personal collection, all of which are individually folded, numbered and stored in archive envelopes. They are all pre-1970 examples because I feel the designs produced during the first 20 or so years were the most unusual, and they are the styles I like. Officially, production of the carré started in 1937, but as early as 1934 Hermès had some scarves produced by an outside company and these are very collectable.”

The popularity of collecting vintage carrés has, of course, led to a booming market in fakes which often take a trained eye to single out from the real thing – at any one time, there are hundreds of carrés for sale on eBay (900 when I looked), many of which are counterfeit. Usually, a copy can be spotted by the poor quality of its hand-rolled edge: on the genuine article this will be arrow-straight and beautifully finished. Care labels are also good pointers to authenticity: they should only be in French or English, positioned only in the corners and, on pre-2002 scarves, the lettering should only be black on a white background.

The fact that many designs are reissued in different colourways years after the original release can also cause confusion as to whether or not you’re looking at a first issue or even a genuine product, so it is often wise to send a letter to the Hermès Cultural Patrimony in Paris or to consult a recognised expert in order to determine which colour combinations were in fact issued.

One woman who has spent decades collecting carrés is Pat Kell, a former human resources executive from Alberta, Canada. She, too, is reluctant to reveal the number of vintage examples she owns, saying only that it “runs into the hundreds”. In 2004 she started selling Hermès online and the following year fuelled her passion by establishing a business called The Perfect Red Box that deals in all things Hermès, but her first love remains the vintage carré.

“To me, the true vintage carrés date from no later than the 1960s or possibly the very early 1970s,” she says. “I think the early creations really captured the more traditional Hermès images of French military, hunting, horses and so on, whereas the designs became far more contemporary in later years and the colours a little less subtle. They are wonderful things to collect for a variety of reasons: with prices ranging from $250 to no more than $1,500 they are not excessively expensive to buy, they are easy to store and, best of all, you can actually use them.”

Kell adds, however, that many people buy a carré only to put it away and never wear it. “Many scarves just live in a box. Often people think they are too beautiful to actually use, which means that there are thousands of vintage pieces out there in pristine condition. One of the most creative designers was Hugo Grygkar who worked with the company from 1946 up until 1959. Because he was an ‘original’, carrés designed by him are extremely collectable, yet there are still plenty of unused examples in circulation.”

Many artists have been called upon to produce carré designs over the decades, some of whom have worked with Hermès on a long-term basis and some who have been involved in only one or two projects. Among the most highly regarded are Philippe Ledoux, Pierre Peron, Françoise de la Perrière and the Texan Kermit Oliver.

For Jean Hefline of San Diego, California, the artists’ names provide a convenient means of categorising her extraordinary collection, which currently runs at more than 600 examples. Hefline, a retired fashion executive, bought her first Hermès carrés during the 1970s but has spent more than $100,000 on hundreds more during the past 18 months alone.

“I started buying really seriously when the price of gold went through the roof. Because of the recession, vintage carrés were being put on the market by people looking to liquidate some cash and I began to see them as a form of futures. The Hermès silk screening and colourways have always been the best, and I have always considered the scarves to be works of art. To me, they are currently undervalued, but I’ll never sell. I’m going to enjoy them, look after them and leave them behind as part of my estate.”

You could say she has it all wrapped up.

See also

Collecting, Hermès