Collecting Guide: Hermès handbags

An expert introduction to the Kelly, the Constance, the Birkin and more — the iconic creations of one of the world’s most famous fashion houses 

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  • See quality as an investment

‘Working from its Paris ateliers, Hermès has crafted leather goods by hand since 1837, utilising the durable, double-needle saddle-stitch,’ explains Caitlin Donovan, specialist in Handbags and Accessories at Christie’s. It takes between 30 and 40 hours to produce one of the most cherished Hermès models, the Birkin. This commitment to craftsmanship is evident in every object the house produces and helps to drive the ever-increasing values of the rarest examples.

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  • Accessorise like a legend

A violine ostrich retourne Kelly 35 bag. Hermès, 2011. $34,000. This lot is offered in Christies Handbag Shop
A violine ostrich retourne Kelly 35 bag. Hermès, 2011. $34,000. This lot is offered in Christie's Handbag Shop

Every Hermès model is a legend. Created in 1935, the Kelly bag has become part of the brand’s genetic code, having shot to fame when it was carried by Grace Kelly in 1956 — the actress using the bag to subtly hide a stomach rounded by pregnancy. From that point on, the Hermès ‘Sac à dépêches’ was rechristened the ‘Kelly’ in honour of the Monaco princess.

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  • An Hermès bag can be a work of art in its own right

A limited-edition shearling and ebene barenia retourne Kelly 35 with palladium hardware

A limited-edition shearling and ebene barenia retourne Kelly 35 with palladium hardware

While Hermès remains faithful to its roots, it’s also a brand that innovates constantly and is celebrated for its sense of humour. Hermès designers derive their inspiration from a wide range of sources, with the highly sought-after ‘Shearling Kelly’ — sometimes referred to as the ‘Teddy Kelly’ — being a perfect example. A unique play on a classic design using unconventional materials, it is unmistakably Hermès.

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  • A brand aware of its roots

A rare natural barenia leather Birkin 40 with palladium hardware

A rare natural barenia leather Birkin 40 with palladium hardware

Hermès was established in 1837 as a harness workshop, and expanded into saddlery towards the end of the 19th century. The company has been synonymous with fine equestrian goods for almost 200 years, and this heritage is reflected in the construction and aesthetic of all the pieces created by Hermès, including handbags. The Birkin bag, for example, was heavily influenced by the ‘Haut à Courroies’ bag, originally crafted to hold a saddle, and still produced by Hermès today. The first leather ever used by the brand was barenia, which is now highly collectible in handbag form.

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  • Why collectors covet the horseshoe stamp

For collectors who appreciate rarity, nothing has more allure than a one-of-a-kind creation. Only available to VIP clients, these special pieces are denoted by a horseshoe stamp and represent the pinnacle of any collection. The magic of owning a piece that no one else has can drive values sky-high, as they rarely appear on the market.

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  • Colour is everything

A shiny vert eméraude niloticus crocodile sellier Kelly 28 with palladium hardware. Hermès, 2015. Estimate £20,000-£30,000

A shiny vert eméraude niloticus crocodile sellier Kelly 28 with palladium hardware. Hermès, 2015. Estimate: £20,000-£30,000

Hermès is known for its mastery of shades, with more than 100 to choose from. The colours are deep and rich, often presenting slightly differently on different materials. Reds — whether fiery, bright or deep-blood tones — have become legendary, while blues are available as rich turquoise, deep-blue marines, or soft sky. Pinks range from shocking to the shade of a light lipstick, and greens come in tones of olive or rich chlorophyll, such as ‘vert céladon’. From year to year different colours top the collector list, but it would be difficult to argue that the jewel-tone ‘vert emeraude’ does not hold the top spot.

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  • For the love of vintage

The hunt to find a discontinued, vintage piece can be challenging. If the item is no longer in production, a collector can spend a lifetime seeking the vintage piece of their dreams. As in many collecting categories, condition is everything and handbags are no different. Fortunately, finding that perfect bag in pristine condition is a hunt that collectors find worthwhile and rewarding.

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  • The market has become increasingly unisex

Interesting items from the men’s collections are increasing in value — larger handbags, travel pieces, briefcases and backpacks in particular. As the market for women’s handbags trends towards smaller pieces, savvy male collectors have started collecting Birkin 40s, while female collectors look towards the men’s section for travel items.

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  • The rarest of the rare

Most people are aware of the limited production levels that can make it difficult to find a Birkin, but few realise that nearly every model is held at a very low level of production. The materials and quality intrinsic to their creation contribute to the rarity of all Hermès leather goods. Handbag collectors can spend years searching for models in atypical colours — especially shades that are lighter and more difficult to achieve — and materials. Which makes it all the more rewarding when a coveted Hermès actually falls within one’s grasp.