There is a Pavlovian power of suggestion about certain colours that quicken the pulse and generate a sensation of pleasurable anticipation: Tiffany & Co blue, Cartier carmine and, of course, Hermès orange. Packaging is the foreplay of the luxury experience: the rustle of the tissue paper; the neatly snipped, deftly tied ribbon; and – in the case of Hermès – the famous orange cardboard casket itself. More than mere packaging, the box is a totem, a harbinger of only good things… After all, you’re unlikely to be disappointed by its contents. It is hard to overestimate the box’s significance. “There is an element of surprise at Hermès,” explains its artistic director Pierre-Alexis Dumas, “which is the orange box.”
Hermès orange has a long history that began during the second world war, when orange card was the only material the supplier could lay his hands on. Erratic stock meant that the shade fluctuated until 1949, when it was fixed as an eternal reminder of the war years, albeit in a brighter, more joyous shade. Now, it could be argued that the famous orange box is undergoing its most significant change since, as another name will share the hallowed space. Alongside the elegant, familiar serifs of the letters that spell Hermès, there will be an image of a bitten piece of fruit, the equally familiar logo of Apple. Inside will be a special edition of the Apple Watch (from October 5, priced from $1,100), featuring an Hermès-branded dial with indexes and fonts reinterpreted from the maison’s Cape Cod, Clipper and Espace watches.
“This is the first time that we have put two names on the orange box,” says Dumas of a decision that has been a source of some controversy on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. “It is absolutely subversive to the family tradition,” but, he believes, subversive in a good way. “It is saying that we both belong to a tribe, we could call it a tribe of excellence, and we want to acknowledge that through a common project. It also shows that we are still capable of questioning our own traditions and breaking the rules when we feel it’s relevant, and that is very stimulating.”
Since it was unveiled a year ago in Cupertino, to the sort of rapturous reception that normally attends evangelical gatherings of spiritual rebirth, the Apple Watch has been the most discussed tech launch, as well as marking Apple’s first foray into the luxury-goods market. Significantly, the recruitment of Marc Newson by Apple chief design officer Jony Ive has allowed the company to make use of his experience of working inside the luxury industry, with his own watch brand, in addition to Louis Vuitton, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Montblanc and indeed Hermès. The range of options includes a gold case, while a wide variety of ingenious, colourful and easily interchangeable straps means that the watch’s role as a fashion accessory is predicated upon more than its novelty.
Indeed, much of the focus of the Apple/Hermès collaboration is on the design of specific straps for the watch. There will be the “double tour” strap, a contemporary classic originally designed for Hermès by Martin Margiela in 1998, the single “tour” (in 38mm and 42mm versions) and the cuff, both designed by Pierre Hardy. Leather is, of course, what Hermès does best, and Dumas talks of it in a manner that is almost reverential. “There are three signature Hermès leathers with different textures and finishes.” There’s Box, a shiny calfskin used for Noir (black) straps with a surface “like satin”, and Barenia, which comes in Fauve, a natural colour, and “ages beautifully and very quickly, so it takes on a wonderful patina. Then Capucine [red-orange], Bleu Jean and Etain [grey] come in a fine-grain leather called Swift.”
Of the strap shapes, the most emblematic was also the most problematic. “Jony, Marc and I absolutely wanted to have the double tour bracelet, but the band would slide under the watch and prevent it from being in contact with the skin. To avoid this, our craftsmen added thickness to create a little additional tension, which is a technique we use when we make handles for bags or luggage. I like the idea that the solution to a very contemporary problem was found using a craft that would have been familiar at the time of the foundation of Hermès.”
And this notion of a traditional craft-based solution to a decidedly contemporary challenge is a metaphor for the relationship between Apple and Hermès. Hermès has, of course, designed many accessories for use with Apple products, but the seeds of a collaboration were sown when Newson introduced Ive to Dumas around 2007. And in a way, their first joint effort was not the watch, but the Cavale saddle Hermès provided for the (Red) Auction put together by Ive and Newson to benefit Bono’s Aids charity in November 2013. “…for Jony and Marc it is the company’s consummate craftsmanship that lifts it to design’s top ranks” ran the lot notes in the auction catalogue. “Jony and Marc were taken by the sheer beauty of Cavale’s ultra-rational form and its exquisite detailing and craftsmanship.”
For Ive, it is all about the detail. In the exclusive interview he gave How To Spend It earlier this year (see “The man behind the Apple Watch” on Howtospendit.com), he illustrated his fanatical attention to minutiae by holding a box by its lid and, as the bottom section slid out, explaining how the friction coefficients and forces were calculated to ensure a uniform drop time for all boxes. His eye detects and his mind ponders details that others would simply not perceive. “I remember seeing an Hermès case for menu-card holders; it was so extraordinarily beautiful. The menu holder was the primary product, but the case was a thing of beauty in itself – beauty and utility – in that it featured declivities into which each object fitted perfectly. That level of care implies so much,” and is something he believes is lamentably rare “in a world where we are surrounded by so many ‘care-less’ products”.
Care is a word that often appears in conversation with the softly spoken Apple design head. It is a term of the highest approbation and one that he feels is shaping a change in our understanding of what constitutes luxury. “There’s an evolving perception of what’s valuable and meaningful to a new generation, and it centres on the notion of care – care in design, materials, craftsmanship and a design process driven by utility and end use.” He identifies this “preoccupation with utility and functionality” as “one of the key similarities between us. Hermès is a company that exemplifies the pursuit of authentic excellence, rigorous standards of manufacture, a sense of extraordinary craftsmanship, and a fabulous disregard for compromise in the pursuit of making utilitarian and highly functional objects. As a consequence, those objects are incredibly beautiful.”
Crucially, he believes that the same qualities of care can be detected whether in the “handcraftsmanship of the individual” or in “sophisticated automated processes”. Ive describes this “textured variety of technology behind the manufacture of one of these products” as what he finds so intriguing.
“You can make a handful or millions of something applying the deepest care and thinking. I believe that the notion of care transcends issues of scale and volume.
“The materials that Hermès and Apple use are inherently modest, but they’re wonderfully transformed by care and expertise. Of course, I was impressed by the leathers we used for the different straps – but I expected to be. I was almost more impressed by the material that covers the strap within the packaging. It serves one purpose only, to protect the bands during shipping, and yet the amount of work that went into the development of that piece of material was remarkable. And it is this expertise and care that transforms these materials into something extraordinary.”
Apple is already the world’s highest valued company, and could it be that as well as Hermès orange, Tiffany blue and Cartier carmine, luxury’s colour chart may soon feature Apple white?