What every collector needs to know about Hermès handbags
Handbags & Accessories specialist Rachel Koffsky looks at the ‘holy trinity’ of Hermès bags — the Kelly, the Constance and the Birkin — and offers an expert guide to what new and experienced collectors should look for
Thierry Hermès began his career in 1837 crafting 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 sacs. The techniques that for two centuries were used to craft the highest quality saddles are still seen today in the ateliers where Hermès craftsmen and women stitch and sew Birkin and Kelly bags by hand.
It takes a single expert craftsman 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; it takes two needles simultaneously passing through the same seam to produce a Birkin correctly. If done correctly, the saddle stitch will never unravel — either on a saddle or a Birkin.
Émile-Maurice Hermès was the creative mind behind the first Hermès accessories. After the advent of the automobile, Émile-Maurice diversified the Hermès 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 to carry. The bag would go on to achieve worldwide recognition 20 years later, when in 1956 Princess Grace Kelly 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 became immediately known, that it was renamed in honour of the princess.
The story of the invention of the Birkin bag — the result of the 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. Birkin ‘wanted something much more boho’, according to Caitlin Donovan, Handbags specialist at Christie’s in New York. ‘The two actually came up with the design for the bag on that flight, on the back of an airsickness bag.’ Since its inception, the specialist adds, the Birkin ‘has changed little in style or function’.
As is the case with many iconic Hermès products, the silk scarf was inspired by an item of equestrian clothing — the riding silk, with Émile-Maurice producing the first carré in 1937. Up to 36 colour frames are prepared and meticulously printed on the finest Chinese silk. Today more than 2,000 scarf designs have been produced, and an Hermès scarf is sold worldwide every 25 seconds.
The architect, illustrator and artist Nigel Peake created the ‘On a Summer Day’ scarf for Hermès, its whimsical, abstract cityscape exemplifying the house’s irreverent sense of humour and sophisticated aesthetic. Two Constance bags were created, which used Peake’s graphic as inspiration — the ‘On a Summer Day’ and ‘On a Summer Night’ Constance bags.
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 ‘Bleu Orage Clemence K28’ and ‘Rose Scheherazade Porosus B35’ 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. 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 values sky-high.
The expertise Hermès applies to every aspect of its design extends to the rigour of its dyeing process. All leathers are treated and dyed with near-military precision by highly trained artisans in the workshops of Pantin. The seasonal release of colours is always anxiously anticipated, and inevitably results in comprehensive dissection by Hermès fanatics. Rumours of ‘rested’ colours being re-released are regularly circulated.
At auction, pinks and blues tend to achieve the highest values. Shades such as Rose Confetti or Rose Sakura are known to command astronomical prices, especially in small pieces such as the Kelly Pochette or the Kelly 25. Bleu bags, especially shades such as Bleu Saphir, are highly coveted for Birkins. Some shades are part of the Hermès canon, including Rouge Hermès, known as Rouge H, and have been collector staples for half a century.
Said to have left the factory on the same day that Hermès designer Catherine Chaillet’s fifth child was born, the Constance bag entered the market in 1959, and was named after the designer’s newborn daughter. Although designed 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 more well-known Birkin and Kelly.
The limited-edition Marquette Constance pictured above is a celebration of the brand’s craftsmanship and the workshop in which every Hermès piece originates. Marquetry, a craft first practised in Florence in the 16th century, traditionally involves the inlay of exotic materials. This highly technical process is exemplified on the lizard-inlaid H clasp, the clasp itself having been crafted from six individual pieces of hardware.
Only Hermès would take an existing craft and spend years working towards an inventive new way to interpret materials. The delicate nature of osier, or wicker, means it is used by only the most skilled artisans. The resulting basket pattern 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 Osier Kelly was first seen in 2011; five years later, Hermès invented a technique to produce wicker bags in the round. The 2016 Spring/Summer Picnic Party collection saw the introduction of a selection of wicker items, and as the first of this collection the Picnic Kelly continues to be a top collector piece.
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 materials and colours — especially shades that are more difficult to achieve.
The So Black collection, currently one of the most desirable on the market, was not always as coveted as it is today. Designed by Jean Paul Gaultier, the black hardware effect is created thanks to a PVD coating. When it was first released in 2010, it was swiftly pulled from distribution because the delicate nature of the hardware made consumers wary of its utilitarian function. Of course, this only served to attract collectors. Seven years later, it is very rare to find one in perfect condition, like the model above, which was offered at auction in Hong Kong on 29 November 2017.