Hermès Bags: The Kelly and The Birkin
The Hermès Kelly Bag and The Hermès Birkin Bag
Hermès is definitely at the top of the list when it comes to the world’s most luxurious and esteemed fashion houses. From cult-favorite Hermès belts to chic leather straps for Apple watches, the distinguished label is inarguably the epitome of unparalleled French style and sophistication. Loved by celebrities from Victoria Beckham to Kim Kardashian, let’s take a look at Hermès’ legendary handbags.
A quick history of Hermès bags
Though most known for introducing two of the most exclusive handbags of all time, the Hermès Kelly and the Hermès Birkin, the luxury house began as a harness and saddle workshop. Founded by Thierry Hermès in 1837, his namesake label was highly regarded for being the favored provider of equestrian supplies and other riding accessories to noble families and the upper classes. The iconic 24 Faubourg Saint-Honorè, the flagship location of Hermès to this day, was procured in 1879.
During the early 1900s, as other means of transportation were introduced and became more popular ways of traveling around, Hermès introduced luggage and other leather goods to accommodate these newly modern travel needs. One of the label’s first leather travel bags was the Haut à Courroies bag from the 1890s, which was designed as a stylish storage for a saddle and riding boots. In 1935, a smaller bag called the Sac à Dèpêches was created to fit through the door of a car and would later become known as the legendary Hermès Kelly handbag. Other early bag styles also included the Mallette and Bollide, renowned for being travel-friendly bags with roomy compartments.
What is a Hermès Kelly bag?
Featuring its distinctive trapezoid shape and feminine elegance, the Hermès Kelly bag is a status symbol from every angle. Yet it is almost impossible to mention the Hermès Kelly without referring to the bag’s namesake: Grace Kelly. A beloved Hollywood movie star who later became the Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly was one of the world’s most prolific figures. She was recognized for her acting abilities, her impeccable fashion sense, her unrivaled beauty, and her fairytale love story to European royalty.
On the set of Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief in 1954, Edith Head, the costume head designer of the film, gave Grace Kelly a Sac à Dèpêches bag to take home. In 1956, Life Magazine published a photo of Grace Kelly holding the bag around her stomach area; she was rumored to be covering up a pregnancy bump. Thousands flocked to Hermès stores asking for “the Grace Kelly bag” so much that Hermès ultimately decided to rename the bag after her. Even decades after her untimely passing, Grace Kelly is still a style icon to many, as reflected in record-breaking sales of the Hermès Kelly handbag throughout the years.
What is a Hermès Birkin bag?
If you’re familiar with the Kelly bag, chances are that you’ve also heard of the Hermès Birkin. The story behind the Birkin bag’s creation took place on an Air France flight from Paris to London in the 1980s. The popular French actress and singer Jane Birkin was on the flight and was trying to place her wicker tote-style bag in the overhead compartment but ended up spilling her items. She complained to her seatmate that it was so difficult for her to find a weekend or shopping bag that she liked. Coincidentally, her seatmate turned out to be none other than Jean-Louis Dumas, the head of Hermès, who then offered to create a tote bag especially for her. They ended up collaborating and sketching ideas on the back of an airplane sickness bag.
In 1984, Jane was called to Hermès to see the bag. As she requested, it had pockets for functionality and was sealed to prevent anything from spilling out. Hermès asked if they could name the bag in her honor and she gladly accepted. It’s important to note that the Birkin was not a popular handbag when it first came out and only reached ‘It’ bag status in the 1990s. Nowadays the Hermès Birkin, renowned for its more casual appeal, is considered as the world’s most collectible bag.
Why are Hermès bags so expensive?
As coveted as Hermès bags are, they’re also notorious for their hefty price tags, so much so that a study compared investing in gold and stocks to Birkin bags over the past 35 years. The result: the Birkin came out as a better investment. Whether bought brand new or secondhand, the Kelly and the Birkin are known to have the highest resale values for handbags, with the Birkin having an astounding 500% value increase since it was introduced, which is an average 14% increase every year! The prices for both bags vary on a lot of things, like the type of leather used and the overall condition, but expect to pay at least $10,000 for a Birkin. If you’re asking yourself why Hermès bags are so expensive, here are a couple of factors that dictate the high price points:
From meticulously cutting the animal skin to using the signature saddle stitch that can’t be replicated by a machine, Hermès Kelly and Birkin bags are made entirely by hand in France. Becoming an expert Hermès craftsman takes years of practice and patience to learn the necessary skills, consisting of graduating from one of France’s leather academies to interning in an Hermès leather workshop.
Whether it’s an Hermès silk scarf or a bracelet, each Hermès product is ensured to be made from the highest quality materials. For Kelly and Birkin bags, all the hardware from the bag locks to the buckles are made from either palladium, gold, or in rare cases, even diamonds. The same applies to the types of skins used, which go through the rigorous process of being inspected prior to being cut for a bag. Exotic skins like crocodile and cowhides could have defects like mosquito bites and wounds, which are carefully cut out by hand.
Supply and demand
Even if you went into an Hermès store and asked for a Birkin or a Kelly, you are highly likely to walk out empty-handed. Hermès not only has a limit to how many Birkin bags each client can buy in a year, but both the Kelly and Birkin are known to have long waiting lists that can have an average of two years or more. Even if you ordered a bag and got yourself on a waiting list, Hermès cannot guarantee when it will be available or if it will ever be available for purchase.
What types of materials are Hermès Kelly and Birkin bags available in?
In the 2012 Leather Forever exhibit in London, Pierre-Alexis Dumas, the artistic director of Hermès wrote this foreword regarding Hermès leather:
Leather is the first material tamed by Hermès and remains its noblest conquest... It is by handling the finest leathers- chosen, cut, sewn and polished with expert skill- that six generations have learned and passed on the values that inspire Hermès' dynamism: attachment to quality, perfectionism (even in hidden details), and respect for time, all conjoined with creative verve.
As expected, the quality of Hermès leather is unlike any other. Most Kelly and Birkin bags are rendered in standard and exotic leathers. Below is a quick guide to some of the most popular leather types that Hermès uses.
Probably the most popular leather type among all, Togo was introduced in 1997 and is a grainy-like leather made from baby calf. It is loved for being almost scratch-resistant and for having a soft feel.
Completely scratch-resistant, Epsom is another favored Hermès leather. It’s different from others as it is an embossed leather, giving the bag a more structured and rigid silhouette. A very durable yet lightweight leather, it is also very easy to clean and maintain.
The oldest type of Hermès leather, Box Calf is made from smooth calfskin and has a sheen to it. It scratches very easily though, so you have to be very careful with bags made from this leather.
Bearing a similar appearance to the Togo, Clemence is another very popular leather. Made from baby bull, it features a broader grain and has a matte-like finish. It’s a heavy type of leather so it allows the bag to take on a slouchier shape.
Soft and supple, Swift is characterized by its fine grain texture and easily absorbs dyes well, making it a popular leather for bright colors. While it is easily susceptible to scratches, small scratches can be easily rubbed away by your finger.
Chevre de Coromandel
Made from goat hide, Chevre de Coromandel is ultra-soft to the touch. Lightweight yet durable, it is completely scratch-resistant and has a nice sheen on its surface.
Available in lisse (shiny) and matte finishes, Hermès uses lizard skins that are usually from Southeast Asia. Hermès bags made from lizards are very rare and require regular maintenance as they are subject to peeling and drying.
Also rendered in lisse and matte, Crocodile Porosus skins are from Australian saltwater crocodiles and are one of the most expensive leathers that Hermès works with. The belly is used for the front of the bag, while the head and tail are used for the handle and bottom. It has round scales down the sides of the bag and square scales in the middle.
The most expensive Hermès Birkin bag to be sold, at a staggering price of $500,000, was made from Himalayan Crocodile Niloticus. Considered the holy grail of Hermès leathers, the white Himalayan skins depict the snow-capped mountains of the Himalayas.
While the list above includes some leather types that Hermès uses, there are also some instances when a bag is done in a non-leather material, as canvas or wicker, as exemplified in the Kelly Picnic bag, a limited edition design launched in 2011. There’s also a clear Kelly bag that was introduced in 1997 in honor of the 1995 terror attacks in Paris. Made from transparent vinyl, it is entirely see-through and is a collector’s item.
What sizes are Kelly and Hermès Birkin bags available in?
The Kelly bag can be found in eight sizes, varying from 15cm to 50cm. While the 15cm and 20cm bags were discontinued in the ‘90s, over the years Hermès has reintroduced some micro Kelly bags in these sizes. Here are the approximate sizes for Kelly bags:
|Kelly bag||Measurements in cm (width x height x depth)|
The Hermès Birkin comes in six different sizes, with the 15cm micro Birkin as its smallest variation. Released in 2010, it is the only Birkin that comes with a shoulder strap and is one of the rarest Hermès Birkin bag sizes. Listed below are the approximate sizes for Birkin bags:
|Birkin bag||Measurements in cm (width x height x depth)|
How to tell if an Hermès bag is real
As two of the most sought-after and coveted handbags in the world, it comes as no surprise that the Kelly and the Birkin are very much prone to counterfeiting. While it’s recommended that you should always consult with an expert in the authentication of Hermès bags, there are some ways that you could easily spot counterfeit versions before seeking professional advice.
Overall first impressions
From the smell of the leather to checking out the typography, initially examining the general condition of a Kelly and a Birkin can already give you an indicator of its authenticity. If the bag looks too tall or doesn’t look symmetrical, refer to the approximate bag sizes and see if the measurements match. Get a feel of the leather; as Hermès leather is of unparalleled quality and should not have any chemical-like smells at all. Any tags hanging from the bag or attached authenticity cards automatically rule out the bag as a fake as Hermès does not issue these.
Similar to other designers like Louis Vuitton and Chanel, Hermès bags also have their own unique stamps called blind stamps, which refer to two things: the date stamp and the craftsman stamp. These are called blind stamps because they can be difficult to locate and can be found anywhere from the interior of the bag to the back of a strap.
The craftsman stamp always varies and could contain a combination of or one of these: a shape, symbol, letter, or number. This is not only the craftsman’s personal signature or code on the item, but it also enables Hermès to know who manufactured the bag if it’s ever sent for repairs.
The date stamp can be very helpful as it will let you know the bag’s year of manufacture, which can then help you check if it corroborates with the color and skin it’s rendered in. Since Hermès comes out with different colors every year, it’s important to cross-check if the color of the bag matches the year of manufacture. Since date stamps were only introduced in 1945, all bags prior to this year will not have this stamp at all. From 1945 to 1970, bags were stamped starting from the letter A to Z, so bags made in 1947 will be stamped with a C, while you’ll find an F stamp on bags from 1950. Bags from 1971 to 1996 follow the same order, but the stamps are accompanied by a circle shape. The same applies to bags made from 1997 to 2014, although this time the stamps are accompanied by a square shape and stop at the letter R. It is believed that Hermès ended the alphabetical format in an attempt to thwart the increasing number of counterfeiters. After 2014, letters are still used for date stamps but they are not in order. Here’s a more detailed chart to show date stamps over the years:
|1945 to 1970||A to Z (for example, 1945 will be A while 1955 will be K)|
|1971 to 1996||Same A to Z format but inside a circle|
|1997 to 2014||Same A to Z format but inside a square and stops at letter R. In the later part of 2014, date stamps were not manufactured with a square shape.|
|2015||T (without an accompanying shape)|
|2016||X (without an accompanying shape)|
|2017||A (without an accompanying shape)|
|2018||C (without an accompanying shape)|
|2019||D (without an accompanying shape)|
|2020||Y (without an accompanying shape)|
On the front exterior of the Kelly and the Birkin, you’ll find a foil stamp that reads: “HERMÈS PARIS MADE IN FRANCE,” though vintage bags might have some slight variations of this. Bags made from exotic skins and other custom orders will have symbols such as these next to the stamp:
|Lizard||A dash (-)|
|Crocodile Niloticus||A double dot (..)|
|Crocodile Porosus||A caret (^)|
|Alligator||A square (☐)|
|Special or custom order item||A horseshoe|
|Craftsman’s own item for personal use||A shooting star|
Hermès uses gold-plated or palladium hardware for most Kelly and Birkin bags. The hardware should feel heavy and should never show any signs of peeling. The hardware on the front straps should have a laser engraving that states: “HERMÈS – PARIS” in the evenly-spaced font. The clasp and turn-lock should always feel smooth upon opening and closing. The signature lock and keys in bags made from 2000 onwards are engraved with numbers that should correspond to each other. Any stiffness or signs of struggle with turning the key in is a red flag. Finally, zippers should not be shiny and have matte finishes.
The Kelly and the Birkin are made by hand, including the stitching of the bags. If the stitching of the bag looks too perfect, then it’s likely a fake that was done by a machine. If the stitching comes undone or there are any loose threads, this is a definite sign that it is a counterfeit bag as Hermès craftsmen have perfected the signature saddle stitch to ensure that the stitching should never unravel.
The Kelly is available in two styles: the Retourne and the Sellier. The Retourne means that the bag was turned inside out so that all the stitching is visible inside, resulting in rounder exterior edges. The Sellier is the opposite, with all stitching visible on the bag’s exterior so it has a more rigid appearance and sharper edges. The Sellier should always stay upright and should never show any signs of slouching.
Which Hermès bag should you buy: the Kelly or the Birkin?
If you’re fortunate enough to get the chance to own an Hermès bag, consider yourself one of the very lucky few! When it comes down to choosing between the Kelly and the Birkin, there are a lot of things to consider, such as how regularly you’ll use the bag or if you’re buying it like an investment piece. At the end of the day, it all comes down to personal style: the Kelly is a ladylike icon, while the Birkin was designed as a functional bag that could fit daily and travel essentials. It’s also important to think about the versatility of the bags: the Kelly has one top handle and a crossbody strap so it can be carried by hand or slung over the shoulder, while the Birkin has two handles that is meant to be carried over the crook of the arm.
How and where to buy Hermès Kelly and Birkin bags
As mentioned, Hermès has made it very difficult for their clients to purchase Kelly and Birkin bags. While it won’t hurt to order from Hermès and get yourself on a waiting list, this could take many years while the price of the bag increases. In the rare event that you are offered a bag or there’s availability in a boutique near you, you won’t be able to choose the color, size, or the leather type that you prefer. Fortunately, there is another equally popular way to get your dream Hermès handbag: buying from a reputable luxury seller like Label Society, where there are no waiting lists and you have the ultimate convenience of ordering a bag online.