Hermès is in the business of creating icons. The Birkin bag, the double-banded Cape Cod watch, even those whimsical patterned ties: each is an inescapable totem of the 177-year-old fashion house's rock-solid brand.
Yet looking at their new line of pens, it would appear that after two centuries of brand cohesion, someone at the company was itching to try something new.
That someone, it turns out, is Pierre-Alexis Dumas, Hermès' artistic director and great-great-great grandson of the company's founder. "I wanted to do an object that's unlike anything you've seen before," said Dumas during last night's launch event at their New York flagship on Madison Avenue. "This is the way we should design at Hermès. We should not be superfluous. We should be essential."
And so we have the Nautilus line of cap-less, retractable pens, designed by the Australian industrial designer Marc Newson. There's no enamel, no precious metals, nothing that would imply glittering luxury. Instead, the brushed aluminum and stainless steel pens are matte, solid, and uncharacteristically understated, priced at $1,350 (for the ballpoint) and $1,650 (for the fountain). They come in dark blue, burgundy, and black -- with nary a spot of that signature Hermès orange to be found.
"I've been heading the collections for about 10 years," said Dumas. "The exercise, every season, is to give a contemporary expression to an age-old company. It's a paradox, but it leaves space for creativity."
Of course, at a time when most people use smartphones for correspondence and pens to sign receipts and not much else, there's a certain irony to creating a ‘modern,' pen, but Dumas explained that's missing the point. "Using a pen is an interesting act of resistance," he said. "I don't write the same way with a computer -- I'm more inspired when I'm writing with a pen. It's a different, more personal thought process."
In conjunction with the pens, Hermès has launched an entire ecosystem of distinctly traditional leather accessories. (No one said anything about them abandoning their billion-dollar business model entirely.) There's a leather ink-cartridge holder ($500), leather pen cases ($360), a stationary set, with notepads and notebooks ranging from $35 to $65, a leather writing set (medium size: $2,000), and notebooks ($115) bound in Hermès' signature colorful silk patterns.
At the launch event, guests were invited to try out the pens at different tables. At one, a graphologist analyzed visitors' handwriting. ("Bold leader" here, in case you're wondering.) People could also write letters on Hermès stationary, which the company then mailed, or listen to leather-covered headphones and practice "automatic writing," letting their hands move to the beat of the music.
The stationary, which is made in France, is thick, lustrous, and tactile -- you don't write on the notepad paper as much as carve into it. The pens feel balanced and almost uncannily solid when held.
"We spent a long time trying to get the right shape, so that it fits well in your hand," said Dumas. "I find the object very sensual."
The glossy blue leather writing set is the least practical piece in the product launch. It's lovely to be sure, but fairly bulky -- even if you've got a capacious briefcase or purse, only the most dedicated traveling scribes will want to lug it around.
Still, this is Hermès; items will move. As Dumas stood in the thick of it all, smiling and greeting visitors, Glenda Bailey, editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar, rushed up to him brandishing a giant shopping bag. "I bought a brown and a navy," she exclaimed about her new pens. "I just love them, they're fantastic."
Dumas beamed. "Good!" he said. "You're not leaving empty handed."