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Quality takes time

Exclusive photos: Inside the Paris factory where the Hermès Birkin is made

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It's no wonder that the owners of Louis Vuitton covet Hermès International — and that the French family-owned maker of leather goods, scarves and other fine accessories resists a takeover so vehemently. Since 1837, when it was founded, Hermès has done things its own way. Even in 2012, attention to detail remains as exacting as it was a century earlier. 

There is no assembly line at the Hermès leather workshop outside Paris. Each of the company's handbags is made to order by a single craftsperson, using fabrics and skins of the highest quality, assembling and stitching the handbag together by hand. Sure, the bags are pricey (they start at $6,000) but the attention to detail is priceless.

Come along for an exclusive tour of the Hermès leather workshop In Pantin, on the outskirts of Paris, where the luxurious bags are made.

Photo by John Dascoulias
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Hermès scarves are made in Lyon, watches in Switzerland, but many of the iconic handbags  — the Kelly, the Birkin, the Constance, the Trim, the new Toolbox — are made in a leather workshop in this modern steel-and-glass building in Pantin.

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The interior courtyard of the Pantin building. The light, airy building was decorated by acclaimed interior designer Rena Dumas, wife of former Hermès chairman Jean-Louis Dumas, who retired in 2006.

In these never-before-published photos, which were taken on an exclusive tour a little over two years ago, we get a look inside the exacting world where the perfect handbag is created as the company celebrates its 175th anniversary in business.

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Here's where the magic happens. The sixth and seventh generations of the Hermès family now operate the business; it began as a Paris saddlemaker. In 1992, the Pantin factory was opened.

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Tools of the trade

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What color handbag would you like? Each bag is hand-stitched with linen thread, using an awl.

 

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The beginning of an iconic handbag

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A lone craftperson works on a bag from beginning to end. The jobs are highly coveted; once hired, an employee rarely leaves. New employees come from a French leather-working school and work under the direction of a more skilled worker for a year-and-a-half until proving themselves. Only the most skilled workers are allowed to work with the most expensive skins like crocodile.

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Even though the surroundings are modern, much of the work is the same as it might have been a century ago. "For us, that is the way to convey the quality to the customer," our guide explains.

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One reason for a wait list: Hermès workers don't rush. It can take 24-48 hours to create a handbag as it is hand-sewn, buffed, painted and polished. More than 90 percent of the bag is handstitched because it allows more freedom to shape the bag and makes it more resilient. "There's always a purpose," the guide says.

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Many handbags are made to specification by the buyer who can choose the type leather beforehand. Among the choices: Calf leather, ostrich, crocodile and lizard. An Hermès store manager places an order according to a client's wishes.

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Parts of the puzzle

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Each worker is allowed to put a handbag together individually. Some prepare all of the elements first — leather and lining, double lining and metal parts — and assemble them at one time. Others may work on the body of the handbag first, assembling as they go. "Everyone works his or her own way," the guide says.

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All of the leather is cut by hand. It is painstakingly beaten around the edges with a tool called a griffe so that long needles can be threaded through by hand to sew the seams. A classic saddle stitch is used, reflecting the company's heritage of saddle making. 

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The beginning of a blue ostrich Birkin. One of the delays in creating a bag can come because it takes time to find the right skin.

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According to handbag lore, Hermès CEO Jean-Louis Dumas came up with the idea for the Birkin bag after sitting next to actress Jane Birkin on a flight from Paris to London in 1981. She carried a straw bag with her belongings and complained she couldn't find a weekend leather bag that she liked. He created the Birkin in her honor, basing it on an 1892 design. 

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The craftsperson takes her time to affix the clasp and lock. "If I do something quickly, it's not going to be really long lasting," she says.

 

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The worker affixes the clasp in a painstaking method.

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The interior of the bag is goatskin.

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A lot of light hammering goes on in a process called pearling. Instead of simply screwing the hardware onto bags, the craftsperson positions a small nail through the metal pieces, snips and "pearls' it, using a tool to create a smooth tiny button. The technique requires a lot of precision and patience.

 
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A distinctive feature of the Birkin is the lock and key.

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The hardware does not tarnish because it is typically plated with gold or other precious metals. Special-order hardware has been covered in leather and encrusted with diamonds. 

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Each bag is made with the interior facing the outside. Upon completion, the craftsperson signs it and carefully turns the inside material out to showcase the finished bag.

The easiest way to identify the difference between a Birkin and the Kelly, another wildly popular Hermès handbag named for Princess Grace of Monaco, is the Birkin has two handles.

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Each handbag is Inspected and can be sent back to the workshop if it is not up to Hermès' exacting standards. After all final checks, it is slipped in its own bag and is ready for the customer.

Made with such care, the handbag is meant to last forever. But if it needs a little freshening up in later years, an age-old bag can be dropped off at an Hermès store, where it is shipped to Pantin for a little recovery.