Collecting Guide: Hermès handbags

From the Kelly to the Constance an expert introduction to the bags created by one of the world’s most famous fashion houses

  • 1
  • See quality as an investment

‘Working from its Paris ateliers, Hermès is the only major fashion house producing leather goods which continues to stitch by hand, using the celebrated saddle stitch, which has come to be known the world over,’ explains Caitlin Donovan, specialist in Handbags and Accessories at Christie’s. It takes between 30 and 40 hours to produce the most cherished Hermès models, such as the Birkin. This unwavering dedication to craftsmanship is evident in every object the house produces and helps to drive the ever increasing values of the rarest examples.

  • 2
  • Accessorise like a legend

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 celebrated actress using the bag to subtly hide a stomach rounded by pregnancy. From that point on, the Hermès ‘travel bag with strap’ was rechristened the ‘Kelly’ in honour of the Monaco princess. Subsequent models include the Hermès Birkin, named after actress and singer Jane Birkin.

  • 3
  • An Hermès bag can be a work of art in its own right

A Limited Edition Shearling & Ebene Barenia Retourne Kelly 35 with Palladium Hardware
A Limited Edition Shearling & 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 whimsical sense of humour. Hermès designers derive their inspiration from a wide variety 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 iconically Hermès.

  • 4
  • 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 this storied leather house, including handbags. The famed 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 Barénia, which is now highly collectible in handbag form.

  • 5
  • For a bag that’s unique, consider custom design

For collectors who appreciate rarity, nothing has more allure than the custom pieces. Only available to VIP clients, and sometimes only once, these special pieces can often the pinnacle of a collection. The magic of owning a piece that no one else has can drive values sky-high. Rarely on the market, thee pieces often carry a horseshoe stamp to denote that they are custom-made.

  • 6
  • 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

When buying a Hermès bag, it’s important to consider both material and colour. The brand is known for its signature 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; blues are available as rich turquoise, deep-blue marines, or soft sky; pinks range from shocking to the shade of a light lipstick; greens come in olive or rich chlorophyll shades, 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.

  • 7
  • Vintage & Discontinued

The hunt to find a discontinued, vintage piece can be challenging. If the item is no longer in production, and the last example was 10, 20 or 30 years ago, even when they become available on the market, the condition is often not suitable for auction.   

  • 8
  • Men’s pieces

The market has become increasingly co-ed with interesting items from the men’s collections increasing in value — larger size handbags, travel pieces, briefcases and backpacks in particular.

  • 9
  • Rarity

Most people know about the limited production levels and difficult to find a Birkin, but few realise that nearly every model is held at very low production levels. In a store, the pieces on display are likely close to the entire stock; if you are looking for an alternate colour or size, you are out of luck. For some, they settle for what is available, for others this begins their hunt for the exact version that they were looking for. These very low production levels breed collectors who know precisely what they want. For pieces that were only made for a short period of time or were particularly sought-after, like Pink 5P, there are collectors who may wait a lifetime for the right piece to surface.