How can a (second hand) bag cost £162,500? It’s made from the skins of three crocodiles and boasts 450 diamonds – but that’s only part of the reason this Hermes Birkin sold for record price
How much did you spend on your last handbag? If you blew the budget on a designer number, and are still wincing at the dent in your credit card, take heart.
Your splurge will be loose change compared with the eye-watering cost of a Hermes that went to auction yesterday.
The ten-year-old matte white Himalaya Birkin broke the European record for a bag sold at auction when it fetched £162,500 at Christie’s — beating the previous record of £155,000.
That’s more than the average price of a house in Scotland and Wales. And the bag is not even new.
Encrusted with 450 diamonds and white gold, the distinctively coloured crocodile skin bag is the most coveted version of the iconic Hermes Birkin range: fewer than 50 are believed to exist worldwide.
But can a handbag ever really justify a price tag six times the national average salary? Here’s why devotees say yes…
The ten-year-old matte white Himalaya Birkin broke the European record for a bag sold at auction when it fetched £162,500 at Christie’s
Will the big secret be let out of the bag?
Every self-respecting star, from Beyonce to Mariah Carey, is in possession of a Birkin.
But given that Hermes don’t hand their bags out to celebrities for free in exchange for publicity, it takes a particularly determined — and rich — breed of A-Lister to get her hands on the Himalaya.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Victoria Beckham, 44, who is rumoured to have a collection of 100 Birkin bags worth a total of around £1.5 million, is among the lucky few. Husband David bought her one of the first Himalayas created in 2008 for around £75,000.
She is joined by reality star Kim Kardashian, 37, who was pictured with her Himalaya — minus diamonds — in 2014.
Whether the buyer of yesterday’s Himalaya is now the proud owner of a bag that once graced a celebrity arm — or whether they themselves are a celebrity — is a closely guarded secret.
‘Christie’s takes client confidentiality extremely seriously and does not disclose the providence of these pieces,’ says Rachel Koffsky, specialist in handbags and accessories at Christie’s.
From a quick sketch to a fashion icon
The original Birkin bag was launched in 1984, after Jean-Louis Dumas, the chief executive of French luxury goods manufacturer Hermes, found himself sitting next to British actress Jane Birkin on a plane and overheard her bemoaning the fact that she couldn’t find a decent leather weekend bag.
The result — sketched on the back of an aeroplane sick bag by Dumas — was a 35cm, spacious tote with practical pockets, four studs on the bottom to enable it to ‘sit’ securely, and handles that can be carried in the hand or over the crook of the arm.
Variations in size and skin have emerged and the bag has grown hugely in popularity, largely because getting hold of one proves so elusive.
A starting price for the most basic leather version is around £6,000. And even with finances in place, you will still be ‘interviewed’ by Hermes staff to see if you are a suitable candidate, before being invited to join a waiting list — of several years.
Victoria Beckham’s diamond-encrusted Himalaya was a £75,000 gift from husband David and one of the first to be created in 2008. Since then, she’s become a collector, with 100 Birkins worth around £1.5 million
Inspired by the snowy Himalayas
The matte white Himalaya was developed by Hermes in 2008, its name inspired by the smoky greys and whites of the snow-capped Himalayan mountains.
At 30cm, it is smaller than the original Birkin and made from the hide of farm-raised Nile crocodiles, an African strain of the species that has relatively few bones and is therefore said to have a smoother skin.
The bag’s white gold diamond-encrusted detailing adds to the value, of course, as does the fact so few have been made.
Birkin specialist Michael Tonello, author of Bringing Home The Birkin: My Life In Hot Pursuit Of The World’s Most Coveted Handbag, explains: ‘When the bag first became available, numbers were so limited that a few of the flagship Hermes stores around the world only got one each.’
‘Only one or two a year were manufactured in subsequent years, and now Hermes no longer makes them.
‘Only three of these bags have become available on the secondary market,’ says Tonello. ‘It is virtually impossible to buy one today.’
Which is, of course, a stroke of marketing genius, because the harder the bag is to get hold of, the more the rich and famous will spend to get one.
The world record-holding Himalaya bag, sold in Hong Kong last year for £292,992 was ‘Grade 1,’ meaning it was brand new, whereas the one sold yesterday was in ‘Grade 2’ condition, which means it has been used.
‘A Grade 2 piece could be considered new to someone who isn’t a collector, but at this level differences in condition can mean as much as 20 per cent in value,’ explains Christie’s Rachel Koffsky.
Tamara Ecclestone, the heiress daughter of F1 billionaire Bernie, has a collection of 30 Hermes bags. Still, at least Tamara, 33, has scrimped a little by buying the Himalaya Birkin without diamonds, which sells for around £60,000
Anger of the animal rights activists
The crocodile skin that Hermes uses is thought to come from Africa, Texas and Australia, where the company has its own crocodile farms.
The reptiles are kept apart to protect their precious skin from bites. Each Himalaya Birkin bag is believed to use the belly of two crocodiles for the front and back of the bag, and a third crocodile for the sides and handle.
‘The belly is the most sought-after part of the crocodile as the scales are larger and more uniform, and bigger in the centre, getting smaller towards the edge, which is what collectors are looking for,’ says Tonello, founder of luxury footwear brand Respoke.
Once the hide is removed, it is reportedly salted for preservation, packed in crates and taken to an exclusive Singapore tannery called Heng Long.
There, the skins are soaked and treated with chemicals to remove the scales and make them softer. After being shaved and bleached to remove the natural pigments, the skin is ready to be dyed.
Unsurprisingly, animal rights activists are angered at crocodiles being bred for their skins.
In 2015, a damning expose by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) revealed that workers in crocodile farms in Texas and Zimbabwe used by Hermes had kept crocodiles in overcrowded concrete pits and had stabbed the animals to death while they were still conscious.
Jane Birkin, concerned by such ‘cruel practices’, asked the brand to remove her name from the bags, before Hermes convinced her that they had identified an ‘isolated irregularity’ in the slaughter process and warned the farm implicated it would stop using them should it not follow their recommended procedures.
Touched only by experts
Once the correct colour, the crocodile skin arrives at the Hermes flagship workshop on the outskirts of Paris.
A small team of highly trained artisans take around 48 hours to turn it into a Himalaya Birkin: most are graduates of the École Gregoire-Ferrandi — a Parisian school that specialises in working with luxury leathers such as crocodile and ostrich.
Tonello says: ‘In the Nineties, one craftsman would make a Birkin bag from start to finish, but I’m told it is more of an assembly line now to increase production.’
It can take a Hermes apprentice at least two years on the lowly leather benches before they’re allowed anywhere near a Birkin, however. ‘Prices are so high and one mistake could cost thousands,’ explains Tonello.
Celine Dion, 50, has a Himalaya Kelly, a sister of the Birkin, that has just one strap and was made famous by Grace Kelly, who used it to hide her pregnant tummy from the paparazzi
Some very snazzy stitching
The dyed crocodile skin is cut to size by hand, with a knife, by an artisan sitting at a bench. The cut skin is then punched with a tiny metal device similar to an awl, that allows the artisan to insert a linen thread coated in beeswax to make it water resistant.
The bag is held together with a wooden clamp and sewn with a ‘saddle stitch’, a mark of quality, as Tonello explains:
‘The thread criss-crosses to create an X-shape inside the leather so that even if one piece of thread did break, the stitching wouldn’t ever unravel.’
The bag’s lining is made of goat leather and dyed the same colour as the bag. The handle is made using around five layers of the crocodile skin rolled together and placed over the artisan’s thigh to help shape it — a process that takes around four hours.
Blinged up with diamond studs
The lock the Himalaya Birkin comes with is made from 18 carat gold, which, along with the white gold clasps that connect in the middle of the bag, are studded with 450 brilliant round diamonds totalling more than ten carats.
They are closely set together to give the overall effect of one large, glittering jewel.
The keys to the bag come enclosed in a leather lanyard known as a clochette which is looped through the handle of the bag, while the four white metal palladium studs at the bottom of the bag are attached using nails, making them very long-wearing.
Reality television star Kim Kardashian, 37, has a 30cm version of the Himalaya Birkin — for now, anyway. She has previously sold two of her Hermes bags at auction
The fight against fakes
When any Birkin has been completed, a workshop inspector checks every last detail of it before the bag is stamped to identify who made it, at which of the brand’s 15 French workshops, and in what year.
This isn’t just to reassure high-end customers, but to protect against a burgeoning market in counterfeits.
In 2012, the same year French police dismantled an international crime ring producing Hermes copies, Patrick Thomas, the brand’s former chief executive officer, claimed it was an ‘absolute disgrace’ that some 80 per cent of objects sold on the internet under their brand were fakes.
The bag is then sent to the Hermes logistics department in the town of Bobigny for a final inspection before being dispatched to a boutique or VIP customer.
In the unlikely event that an owner does discover an imperfection, don’t expect their unwanted Birkin to pop up in a ‘faulty goods’ sale — Hermes would sooner bin the bag with a perceived fault than suffer the humiliation of it being seen in public.
‘They are famous for destroying bags that don’t meet their quality control,’ says Tonello. ‘I’ve had clients who have sent back a Birkin after a year for repair and Hermes has chosen to refund the bag rather than repair it.’
Why it’s a better bet than gold
While most second-hand handbags depreciate in value, Hermes Birkins are one of the very few designs to sell for more on the secondary market than their original price.
Some generate returns of about 30 per cent a year, and a study by Baghunter — an online marketplace for buying and selling luxury handbags — found Birkin bags have actually outperformed both the American stock market and the price of gold.