Obsessed With Hermès

By Lynn Morgan
Posted July 2015

The Hermès handbag is one of the most passionately adored, relentlessly pursued and hotly coveted items in all of fashion. It’s a timeless icon of status, jet-setting chic and immaculate style, instilling a ferocious acquisitive ardor in its many fans.

Grace Kelly and Jackie Onassis were Hermès lovers. Today, celebrities such as Naomi Campbell, Katie Holmes, Sarah Jessica Parker and former French First Lady Carla Brunei-Sarkozy are all fans, and Victoria “Posh” Beckham is seldom seen without a Birkin on her arm. Even Jay-Z has rapped the praises of “Birkin Bags.” They have inspired countless breathless blogs and Michael Tonello’s witty bestseller, Bringing Home the Birkin (William Morrow Paperbacks, $14.99).

Why all the fuss? Diane D’Amato, director of luxury accessories at Heritage Auctions, says Hermès simply creates an incredible product. “Each bag is a masterpiece in and of itself, handcrafted by artisans in France,” she says. “Wearing Hermès transports you to the rarified air of the effortlessly chic and stylish.” 

When not collecting handbags, Barbara Guggenheim helps private and corporate clients, including Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg and the Coca-Cola Company, build important art collections.

For many fans, an Hermès bag is a rite of passage, a signifier of success and maturity, the symbol of a lifelong goal finally achieved. When Martha Stewart was criticized during her 2004 trial for appearing in court wearing not one, but two Hermès bags—a Birkin and a Garden Party—she explained that the Birkin was an old favorite she had purchased to celebrate one of her earlier successes. It was a kind of lucky talisman for her.

All over the world, Hermès lovers understood how she felt.

Among those was Barbara Guggenheim. In 2002, she penned a memorable piece for W magazine about her love affair with Hermès. The piece has endured on the Internet as gospel for new generations of Hermès bag ladies.

This Hermès (pronounced “air-mez”) Diamond Birkin handbag sold at Heritage Auctions for $203,150—a world record for the most expensive purse ever sold at a public auction. (All photos courtesy of Heritage Auctions.)

“The reason Barbara’s story resonates today as much as it did back in 2002 is the fact that an Hermès bag says you have arrived,” Tonello says. “To this day, it’s how a woman says to other women they have arrived. Like Italian sports cars and Patek Philippe watches are to men, these are for women.”

In the years since the article was published, Guggenheim’s collection of Hermès bags has grown to nearly 50—with no end in sight.

“I noticed them very early,” says Guggenheim, a partner at Guggenheim Asher, an art consulting firm with offices in Beverly Hills and New York. “I became aware of them when I came to New York for school. I had a friend who ‘knew things’ and one of the things she knew all about was Hermès bags. I thought they were very chic, but somewhat remote. I’m from Philadelphia, so of course, Grace Kelly was a style icon for me, and I associated Hermès bags with her, and people like her: very worldly and sophisticated. They belonged to a very different world for a grad student.”

Still, the seeds of obsession were planted.

This Hermès Extraordinary Collection 35cm Diamond, Shiny Black Porosus Crocodile Birkin Bag with 18kt. White Gold Hardware realized $122,500 at a Dec. 2012 Heritage auction.

Hermès extremely rare 35cm Matte Pink 5P Alligator Birkin Bag with Palladium Hardware sold at auction for $104,500 in an April 2013 Heritage auction.

A few years later, Guggenheim acquired her first Hermès bag: a poignant legacy from a dying friend. A former fashion model, the woman bestowed the Hermès on her friend while she could still enjoy Guggenheim’s pleasure in receiving the gift. Guggenheim still has that bag.

“I think there is something about a bag,” Guggenheim muses. “You carry it out into the world and everybody sees it, but what you keep inside of it, the secret part of you, is still a mystery.”

Guggenheim talked to The Intelligent Collector magazine about her collection during a lengthy interview at her Los Angeles home.

What is the appeal of Hermès handbags?
There is no age to Hermès. You can be 20 years old, you can be 80 years old, and the bag will still look right, although younger people are more likely to be interested in the off-beat colors like fuchsia, while my generation wants the black, navy blue, camel—the classic neutrals. Hermès bags are beautifully made, and they age beautifully, developing a gorgeous patina over time. You can spend a huge amount of money on a Coach bag or a Louis Vuitton, and it will last for a season. An Hermès bag will last a lifetime.

Do you have a favorite style?
The Birkin is the most popular, but I’m trending away from it and towards the Kelly, but I love all the styles. I have quite a few clutches, too.

Tell me about the first Hermès bag you bought for yourself.
I was on vacation with my husband in Mexico. I think it was in 1993. We saw a news story on television at 7:30 in the morning that said that the peso has been devalued. I said, “I’ve got to go to Hermès!’ I got to the boutique just after 9 and waited for them to open. I bought four, all Kelly bags. It was a little difficult to explain to the custom officials—my husband is a lawyer, so I am always very conscientious about filling out customs forms. At first, they didn’t believe that we’d spent so much on handbags, so they called over their supervisors and had a huge consultation over it!


Hermès 32cm Shiny Bleu Saphir Alligator Kelly with Gold Hardware sold at auction for $47,800 in December 2010.

Hermès 30 cm Violine Ostrich Birkin Bag with Palladium Hardware, $27,500 at a Dec. 10, 2013 Heritage Auction; 8 x 6 inches.

Where do you find your bags?
I buy them at Hermès. I would buy from a reputable auction house, but I wouldn’t buy on eBay. Merchandise is only as good and reliable as the dealer who sells it. There are two flea market stalls in Paris that sell Hermès bags. I’ve worked with them for years. They really know what they are doing, and I really trust them. You have to know and trust your dealer when you’re buying on the secondary market.

Are counterfeits a problem?
Absolutely! There are appraisers who specialize in identifying fakes. Counterfeits are everywhere, and some of them are such accurate copies that it takes an expert to identify them. That’s why it’s essential to know what you’re buying and who your dealer is.

Do you put your collection on display in your home?
Not really. I wear them. They are a part of my wardrobe, not art objects. But they do have their own separate rider on our insurance policy. We weren’t sure our homeowners’ policy covered them, and I wanted to make sure they were properly protected.

Hermès Matte Mimosa Alligator Kelly Cut Clutch Bag with Gold Hardware, sold on Dec. 8, 2014 for $27,500 at a Heritage auction; 12 x 5 x 1 inches.

What is the appeal of vintage bags?
When I was young, “vintage” meant that something was 50 years old. Now, it means it’s four years old! I like the patina of wear, the way the bag has been used and cared for, the way it has aged. Hermès bags develop a unique personality and become more singular over time. Because they are so well-made, time just burnishes them and signs of wear are just added character.

The “waiting list” for a new Hermès bag is notorious. How do you navigate it?
You have to cultivate relationships, get to know the manager at Hermès and the sales staff. I visit the Beverly Hills store every week. When I am in another city with an Hermès boutique, I stop in to investigate. I enjoy the hunt. I have preferences. In Paris, I think the Georges V store is actually better than the flagship on rue du Faubourg. There is also my informal network of fellow travelers—friends who love Hermès and keep an eye out for themselves and their pals and pass on the latest information: “There’s a gray ostrich Birkin in St. Bart’s!” or “I saw the red alligator you like in New York.” We know each other’s tastes and call or text when we spot a great find.

Is there “one that got away”?
I saw an all-black one once. Very rare. There were only two or three of them in the whole country, but it was a Kelly, and not really for me, I thought at the time, so I called a friend about it. She bought the bag, and now I regret it. I don’t have any other major misfires, though. I regret letting a 40cm taupe Birkin go because I already had a 35cm. I should have sold the 35 and bought the 40. Thirty-five is the “lady who lunches” bag, but a 40 can be used as a briefcase. There’s enough room for my files as well as my makeup and stuff, and it’s much more chic than an attaché case.

What do you find most rewarding about your collection?
I don’t think of it as a collection. I buy what I want to wear and enjoy. You don’t consciously start collecting anything. You buy a couple of things because you love them, and then you buy a few more, and then you find you now have several, and suddenly, it’s become a collection.

With your story for W magazine still appearing on the Internet, do you feel like an Hermès guru, a spokeswoman for people attracted to the magical aspect of Hermès handbags?
I’m sure there are more people with more bags. When my article for W was first published, I received incredible responses, good and bad. One lady said, “Thanks a lot. After reading your story, I had to run out to Hermès. You cost me $8,000.” Another lady said she felt the same way about her Coach bag. People have a real connection with their pocketbooks. There’s something about a woman’s purse that’s very secretive and personal. No man goes into a woman’s purse. I take my pocketbook with me to bed every night.

What’s your advice for fledging Hermès collectors?
You have to approach it like anything else: learn about them, learn to appreciate them, what makes them special, and know what you’re paying for, just like buying art. Haunt the stores and the auction houses. Don’t go the safe route and buy a black bag. You’ll have more fun with one of the colors. After you’ve done your homework, buy what you love because you love it.

I have to ask. Are you related to Peggy Guggenheim, socialite and niece of philanthropist Solomon R. Guggenheim?
No! If I were, I’d own a lot more Hermès bags!


Lynn Morgan is a Los Angeles journalist who writes for The Intelligent Collector magazine.
Reprinted with permission from The Intelligent Collector Magazine and Heritage Auctions. ©2013 Heritage Auctioneers & Galleries Inc.

Hermès Allure Grace Kelly, Jane Birkin
Forever Linked to ‘Flawless’ Bags

Each Hermès bag is meticulously handcrafted by artisans who have studied for four years at one of Paris’ arts and crafts schools before beginning the lengthy apprenticeship at Hermès that leads to a spot on the company’s workbench.

Production proceeds at a stately pace, with each individual bag taking up to 19 hours of painstaking work to complete, says Diane D’Amato, Director of Luxury Accessories at Heritage Auctions. Each bag must be flawless. Any piece deemed defective is promptly destroyed. There are no Hermès factory seconds.

This labor-intensive process contributes to the maddening scarcity of the handbags. The company does not release figures on how many bags are produced each year, but every season, every style and every new color creates such an avid demand that wait lists can be months or even years long.

Over the years, two Hermès bags have become closely associated with the celebrities who carried them:

- The Birkin Bag is named for actress and singer Jane Birkin (b.1946). According to fashion lore, the company’s chief executive created the bag in the 1980s after meeting Birkin on a flight from Paris to London in which she said it was difficult to find a bag she liked.

- The Kelly Bag is named for Princess Grace Kelly (1929-1982) of Monaco, who was one of the world’s most famous style icons. Kelly was frequently photographed with a large, crocodile Hermès, and after the bag became a hit, it was renamed after the princess.

Each of these handbags retails for between $5,000 and $300,000.

Photo: Jane Birkin. (Photo, Roland Godefroy.)




 Show & Auction Almanac

Antique Shop & Mall Directory



Internet Directory



Contact Us

Advertising Rates

 Privacy Policy

Web Links

2000 - 2017  Norton Printing and Publishing, Inc. - All rights reserved.
No portion of the Southeastern Antiquing and Collecting Magazine may be reprinted or reproduced without express permission of the publisher.