Why every baby you know chews on the same rubber giraffe

After birth, the giraffe.
After birth, the giraffe.
Image: Calisson, Inc.
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The giraffe tends to appear in parents’ lives sometime around the birth of a first child. It’s 7.5 inches tall, squeaky, and vaguely vanilla-scented. Its pupil-less eyes have the same blank, dazed expression newborns might recognize in the sleep-deprived parents dangling the toy above their crib.

If you have birthed a child or given a baby gift at any point in the last five years, you may well have encountered Sophie the Giraffe. Sophie doesn’t make children smarter or improve cognitive development or any other benefit more high-tech toys promise. It’s just a rubber teether, distinguished from the thousands of other animal-shaped rubber teethers on the market primarily by its $24.99 retail price. In contrast, a perfectly serviceable set of Nuby teething keys—another baby favorite—is $4.99 at BabiesRUs.

Yet in less than a decade Sophie went from being a virtual unknown in the US to the go-to baby gift for the upper-middle class. Roughly 500,000 Sophies are sold in the US each year. Its price point is right in prime baby shower gift territory. The giraffe is the 10th most popular baby item on Amazon, alongside staples like changing pads and breast milk storage bags.

The giraffe’s rise to fame is a starlet’s tale of obscure rural beginnings, an LA discovery, and a few lucky breaks.

In France, where the toy manufacturer Vulli produced its first Sophie on May 25, 1961, la girafe is a childhood staple. Sophie sales match or surpass annual birth rates.

So when French expatriate Hélène Dumoulin-Montgomery gave birth to her daughter in California in 2000, she looked for a toy Sophie for her baby like the one she’d had as a child. Sophie wasn’t sold in the US at the time. Dumoulin-Montgomery, who then worked part-time as a realtor’s assistant, contacted Vulli and asked for permission to import the toy.

The company was ambivalent, Dumoulin-Montgomery said. (Vulli did not respond to Quartz’s requests for comment.) After middling sales in neighboring western European countries, Vulli was content to focus on the French market. Nonetheless, the company agreed to grant Dumoulin-Montgomery a license to distribute the toy stateside.

In 2001, Dumoulin-Montgomery received her first shipment of 100 Sophies. Nobody wanted them.

“She was expensive. Everyone was comparing it to toys [made] in China,” she recalled via Skype while on vacation in France. (Her company, Calisson, Inc., is based in Orange County, California.)

“I had a face to face with Sophie and said, ‘How am I going to sell you?’”

Sophie’s fate changed in 2004 after a meeting with Teri Weiss, owner of the Beverly Hills gift boutique Elegant Child. Weiss crafts custom gift baskets destined for the offspring of high rollers in LA’s entertainment and finance scenes. She sells doll strollers more expensive than the strollers most people buy for their actual children. Dumoulin-Montgomery arrived at Weiss’s offices with a duffel bag full of children’s clothing and toys recently imported from France.

“I remember it like yesterday,” Weiss recalled. “She brought a bag. I didn’t like anything. Nothing. And then at the bottom I saw this little giraffe, with no packaging or anything. I pick it up. It’s the right color and shape. I said, ‘That would look great in my basket.’” Dumoulin-Montgomery had six Sophies in the trunk of her car. Weiss bought them all.

She put a Sophie that same day in a basket a Hollywood agent was gifting a client, the actress Kate Hudson, who had just given birth to her son Ryder.

“A week or so later, her assistant calls me and says, ‘Kate Hudson received this basket.’ It’s literally a $500 basket, and her assistant says, ‘Her son loves this giraffe.”

Demand rose as famous babies like Ryder Robinson were photographed gnawing on the toy. For the next four years, Elegant Child was one of Dumoulin-Montgomery’s biggest clients. Weiss was sending out 100 to 125 rubber giraffes per day at the peak, she said.

Sales exploded after the toymaker Mattel’s 2007 recall of millions of lead-tainted Chinese-made toys. Sophie is made of natural rubber—each giraffe spends three months curing on a tray in the factory in Rumilly, France—and embellished with food-grade paint.

Its success has led to unsubstantiated reports of imposter giraffes. Several parents have complained in Amazon reviews of receiving a giraffe they suspect is counterfeit, either because its painted spots faded (a normal occurrence in the genuine toy, Dumoulin-Montgomery said) or it has a funky chemical smell. Neither Dumoulin-Montgomery nor Amazon was able to confirm cases of counterfeit Sophies.

Sophie’s US success convinced Vulli to invest in international marketing, Dumoulin-Montgomery said. The giraffe is now available in 75 different countries. If Sophie is on the higher end of toys in the US, in other countries she is practically gilded. In Brazil, the toy retails for roughly $50. In Europe Sophie is considerably cheaper—£8.99 ($13) on Amazon UK, €11 ($12.50) in her native France—and thus more democratized. London mom Carol Horne was at a wedding in Amsterdam in 2011 when her then-6-month-old bit down on the toy’s distinctive squeaker. Without turning around a Dutch woman two rows ahead said, “Ah—Sophie!”

For this story, I informally surveyed roughly 30 parents with kids born after 2007, from Cape Town to London to New York. Nearly all of them had purchased or been gifted at least one Sophie at some point.

“I’d never heard of Sophie until I got pregnant, and all of the baby registries listed it as a top pick,” said Stephanie Paterik, a New York journalist expecting her first child in August. “I’m still unclear about what she is/does, but registered for her anyway.”

Sophie isn’t a universal panacea. Several parents surveyed for this story reported that their children never cared for the toy. At least two family dogs tried to commandeer it as their own.

But for those babies who do take to the giraffe, Sophie holds a near-hypnotic sway. My own daughter gummed hers reverentially. An increasingly worn Sophie appears in almost every photo taken of her in her infancy. That graspable neck, chewable legs, and soothingly empty expression appeals in a way Sophie’s fans are incapable of explaining.

“It’s her face. There’s something magical about it,” Dumoulin-Montgomery said. “I wish I could go in the head of a baby just to know.”