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The art of the scarf

While Hermes' Birkin bag garners more headlines and waiting lists, the French company's scarf attracts almost as much passion and devotion.

The 36-inch squares of Asian silk are often compared to works of art. The company commissions designs by artists from around the world. A single scarf may incorporate as many as 40 colors.

"The scarf is such an icon of the company because of the quality of the silk and the beautiful vibrancy of the colors and the diversity of the designs," says Robert Chavez, president of Hermes USA. Over the years, women who wear it have ranged from royalty such as Queen Elizabeth and Princess Grace to trendsetters Madonna and Sarah Jessica Parker. "It just still has a timelessness to it and just continues to be that icon year after year and decade after decade."

And while women wear the scarves around their necks, waists and more, some choose to frame the scarves. "They do make beautiful decorative objects, too," says Chavez.

With a price tag of $325, the silk scarf is an accessory that's more attainable for many shoppers than the Birkin that ranges from $5,500 to $37,000.

Also available are twillys (ribbons that can be used as headbands or neckties, $115), gavroches (pocket squares, $110) and shawls in silk cashmere ($850) and mousseline ($640) through the same design, silk-screening and hemming process.

Hermes, the 137-year-old company that once outfitted horse-drawn coaches in Paris, introduced the scarf in 1937 as the company continued to expand from a leather goods company into a lifestyle brand.

Hermes releases about 15 new designs each year, and each scarf is offered in 10 or more color combinations.

And at $325, its price might seem outrageous to some. Until you consider the workmanship that goes into that silky square, which takes 250 cocoons to make.

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THE MAKING OF AN HERMES SCARF

From an artist's sketchpad to the final inspection can take as long as two years and include as many as 40 artisans. The scarves are made at a factory in Lyon, France. Scarves that do not pass inspection are destroyed.

Step 1: Design

Designers and artists research and create sketches around the theme for the year's spring/summer and fall/winter collections. This year's theme is dance. The illustrations are submitted for consideration to Pierre-Alexis Dumas, who is artistic director and the son of Jean-Louis Dumas (former president/creative director and a descendant of founder Thierry Hermes), and Jean-Louis Dumas' niece, Pascale Mussard. The design is fine-tuned, which takes from six months to a year.

Step 2: Engraving

When the print date is set for a design, the layout is sent to an engraver. He divides the design into the individual plates.

Step 3: Color selection

Choosing from more than 75,000 colors, the printer does color trials on a design. Those trials are submitted to an inspection team in Paris. There can be as many as 50 trials before final hues are chosen.

Step 4: Printing

A roll of silk, enough to make 100 scarves, is stretched over a 300-foot long table for printing. Artisan-printers place each frame in succession onto the unfurled silk roll. After scraping, an hour of drying time and cleaning the table, another color is applied. The scarf is inspected for runs and imperfections between color applications.

Step 5: Finishing

The scarves go through a grooming process, which includes de-gumming and rinses to ensure color luminosity, durability and texture. The scarf is inspected again.

Step 6: Hem-stitching

The hems are rolled and stitched by hand, which takes around 40 minutes.

Step 7: Final inspection

The scarf is inspected for the last time. It is folded, wrapped in acid-free paper and placed in the signature orange box.

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WRAPPED UP IN POP CULTURE

In 1956, Grace Kelly, the American actress who became queen of Monaco, uses a Hermes scarf as a sling for her broken arm. Throughout the years, icons and legends as diverse as Queen Elizabeth, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe have used a scarf as a shield. (They were a must if facing the press on a bad hair day). But is the scarf still cool? Consider these pop culture references since 2000:

2002: Madonna fashions a scarf into a halter in the forgettable film "Swept Away." Hopefully, you missed it.

2003: In Lauren Weisberger's book "The Devil Wears Prada," Miranda Priestly wears a signature white Hermes scarf every day. And she frequently loses it.

2005: During season two of Bravo's "Project Runway," contestant Kirsten Ehrig is eliminated because she refuses to use her heirloom scarf in the "Clothes Off Your Back" challenge.

2006: Helen Mirren as "The Queen" often wraps a scarf, usually with a hunting theme, around her neck or head in Balmoral. However, in the film version of "The Devil Wears Prada,"Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly is never shown wearing an Hermes scarf, although the signature orange boxes do go flying in a pivotal scene for Emily Blunt's character.

2007: In the March 15 episode of "Ugly Betty," Alexis (Rebecca Romijn) presents Wilhemenia (Vanessa Williams) with a scarf as a peace offering.

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PROPER PRONUNCIATION

The "H" is silent. Hermes is pronounced "ER-mez." Not AIR-may. Not HERM-ease.

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