What every collector needs to know about Hermès handbags

Christie’s Handbags & Accessories specialists look at the ‘holy trinity’ of Hermès bags — the Kelly, the Constance and the Birkin — and offer an expert guide to what new and experienced collectors should look for

Thierry Hermès began his career in 1837 making harnesses, and from the outset was fastidious in his devotion to materials, quality and craft. In 1880, Hermès and his sons introduced saddlery to their array of products.

In the 20th century, Hermès further enhanced its product range by adding accessories for women, including carrés, or silk scarves, and handbags. The techniques that for two centuries were used to craft the highest-quality saddles are still seen today in the ateliers where Hermès artisans stitch and sew Birkin and Kelly handbags by hand.

It takes a single expert craftsperson up to 40 hours to produce a Birkin bag. The stitch on which the brand’s reputation is based — the saddle — cannot be replicated by a machine, as it requires two needles simultaneously passing through the same seam. If done correctly, the saddle stitch will never unravel — either on a saddle or a Birkin.

The birth of the Hermès Kelly

Emile-Maurice Hermès was the creative mind behind the first Hermès accessories. After the advent of the automobile, Emile-Maurice diversified the brand’s offerings with an array of products that reflected the changing times. For example, Hermès became the first French firm to introduce the modern zipper mechanism in leather goods and clothing.

Among his many contributions was the ‘Sac à dépêches’, which was produced in 1935 for his wife. The bag would go on to achieve worldwide recognition 20 years later in 1956, when Grace Kelly, who had recently become Princess Grace of Monaco, used her ‘Sac à dépêches’ to shield her baby bump from the paparazzi. In an early instance of what might today be described as ‘viral marketing’, Hermès received so many requests for ‘the Kelly bag’ — as it immediately became known — that it was renamed in honour of the princess.

The origins of the Birkin

The story of the invention of the Birkin bag — the result of a chance meeting in 1983 between actress Jane Birkin and Jean-Louis Dumas, then creative director of Hermès — has become legendary among Hermès lovers. The two were seated next to each other on an international flight. When Dumas asked why she travelled with a simple straw tote, Birkin explained that most leather bags were too structured for her taste.

She wanted something much more casual, and the two came up with the design for the handbag on that flight — on the back of an airsickness bag. Since its inception, the Birkin has changed little in style or function.

The genesis of the Constance

Said to have left the factory on the same day that Hermès designer Catherine Chaillet’s fifth child was born, the Constance entered the market in 1959, and was named after the designer’s newborn daughter.

Though created more than 50 years ago, the Constance’s elegant shape and functional design make it a favourite among collectors. It is said that a Constance can be harder to find than the better-known Birkin or Kelly. A perfect marriage of materials and colours, the Constance is a celebration of the brand’s craftsmanship and the expertise of the workshop in which every Hermès piece originates.

The Hermès horseshoe stamp

Collectors of Hermès are known for their encyclopaedic knowledge of materials, shades and models. To be an Hermès expert is to be fluent in a language in which phrases such as ‘Jaune Ambre Clémence K28’ and ‘Matte Mykonos alligator B30’ are not only familiar, but represent something very specific.

To these collectors, there is no greater privilege than becoming the owner of a bag emblazoned with a horseshoe stamp, denoting that the bag was a special order, and often crafted in a combination of the season’s most desirable new colours. To those who can immediately identify an Hermès hue or leather, the Special Order process remains a significant experience. These one-of-a-kind pieces can drive prices sky-high.

Rose, Bleu or Rouge: Hermès colours

The expertise Hermès applies to every aspect of its design extends to the rigour of its dyeing process, performed by artisans in the workshops of Pantin. The seasonal release of colours is always anxiously anticipated, and inevitably results in comprehensive dissection by Hermès devotees. Rumours of ‘rested’ colours being re-released are regularly circulated.

At auction, pinks and blues often attract particular interest. Shades such as Rose Lipstick, Rose Azalée and Rose Sakura are known to command high prices, especially in small pieces such as the Kelly Pochette or Kelly 25. Shades of blue, especially Bleu Marine and Bleu Saphir, are highly coveted for Birkins. Some shades, including Rouge Hermès — known as ‘Rouge H’ — are part of the Hermès canon and have been collector staples for half a century.

Silk scarves have inspired Hermès designs

As with many iconic Hermès products, the silk scarf was inspired by an item with equestrian associations — the riding silk — with Emile-Maurice producing the first carré in 1937. In the creation of an Hermès scarf, up to 36 colour frames are prepared and meticulously printed on the finest Chinese silk. The company has produced more than 2,000 scarf designs.

For the Autumn/Winter 2020 collection, Hermès combined its expertise in silk printing and leather craftsmanship to produce the first Marble Silk Constance. Crafted in extremely limited production, this rare bag is a reflection of Hermès’s continual commitment to innovation, while building upon classic design techniques.

Hermès’s Picnic collection

It is typical of Hermès to take an existing craft and spend years working towards an inventive new way to interpret it. The delicate nature of osier, or wicker, means it is used by only the most skilled artisans. In the Hermès Picnic collection, woven wicker is paired with Barenia leather, known to collectors as the material used in saddles.

This juxtaposition of old and new highlights the brand’s constant innovation. The Picnic Kelly was first seen in 2011; five years later, Hermès invented a technique to produce rounded wicker bags. The 2016 Spring/Summer Picnic Party collection saw the introduction of a selection of wicker items, such as the Picnic Bolide and Farming Bag. However, as the first bag of its kind, the Picnic Kelly continues to be a top collector piece.

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The Hermès So Black

Most people are aware that it can be difficult to find a Birkin, but few realise that this is because 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, which means handbag collectors can spend years searching for models in unusual styles and colours — especially shades that are more difficult to achieve.

The So Black collection, designed by Jean Paul Gaultier, is currently one of the most desirable on the market, but it was not always as coveted as it is today. The black hardware effect is created thanks to a PVD (physical vapour deposition) coating. When it was first released in 2010, it was swiftly pulled from distribution because of the delicate nature of the hardware, which made consumers wary of using it. Of course, this only served to attract collectors. Today, it is very rare to find one in perfect condition.

Explore Christie’s spring auction, Handbags Online: The Paris Edit, running until 25 April 2024

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