The top 10 list of most expensive handbags offered at auction is perennially dominated by the Birkin bag. Introduced in 1984 by the famed French luxury goods company Hermes and since produced in an endless array of colors and patterns, the Birkin is an unparalleled status symbol. Collected by celebrities, political leaders, internet influencers and corporate executives as well as those who cherish craftsmanship, rare Birkin bags routinely sell for six figures on the secondary market. Yet its creation came about by chance, arising from an encounter on an airplane.
According to Jane Birkin, the acclaimed British-French actor and award-winning recording artist for whom the bag is named, she had attempted to load a large straw tote bag into the overhead compartment before a flight from Paris to London in 1984, only to watch its contents spill onto the deck of the aircraft. She complained to her seatmate that she couldn’t find a leather tote bag that worked well. Birkin picked the right person to hear her grievance – he happened to be Jean-Louis Dumas, then-CEO of Hermes. Embracing the challenge, Dumas created a supple black leather bag based on an earlier company design. Christened the “Birkin” in honor of its inspiration, it became a runaway hit. In 2020, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Hermes Birkin and the Hermes Kelly handbags together accounted for between 25% and 30% of the company’s sales.
What makes a Birkin bag exclusive is the quality of its manufacture. Each bag is made by hand, requiring between 18 to 40 hours of labor by artisans who apprentice for a minimum of five years. They work with the finest cowhides as well as exotic leathers such as ostrich, crocodile and alligator, and accent them with hardware fashioned from silver, gold, platinum or palladium. Before Hermes reportedly abolished the waiting list around 2010, would-be buyers sometimes had to wait patiently for up to six years before taking possession of a Birkin.
Unfortunately, the Birkin bag’s cachet and exclusivity makes it an easy target for counterfeiters. Indeed, the market for knockoffs is shockingly robust. In 2012 Patrick Thomas, who was Hermes’ CEO at the time, estimated that 80 percent of all products sold on the Internet bearing the French firm’s name were counterfeit, and called the state of affairs “an absolute disgrace.” Few doubt that percentage has changed much since.
So, you want to acquire a new Birkin bag? Well, you can go to the Hermes website or visit a brick-and-mortar Hermes boutique. Unlike in the past, an already-estblished relationship is no longer needed to secure a Birkin and, as noted above, the waiting list is long gone. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you will find the precise Birkin you want,
To ensure you get the bag of your dreams in the color, leather and hardware you want, it might be advisable to turn to the secondary market. Dedicated Hermes resellers will affirm the authenticity of their goods with a written guarantee, something Hermes does not provide with its brand-new ones. Be aware that resellers who don’t guarantee their Birkins may not be stocking original product. Just be prepared to pay a premium above the point-of-sale retail value, even if the bag is in well-circulated condition, as most Birkins increase in value.
Let’s say you’ve found a lovely Hermes Birkin that isn’t new or advertised at a legitimate reseller. How do you know if it’s authentic? According to experts, genuine Birkins share at least seven distinct features that have never been compromised by Hermes during its corporate lifetime.
First, understand that each new Birkin has a distinctive smell. A freshly unboxed example has what can be described as a “new bag smell” emanating from its smooth and supple leather. Bogus renditions have a mass-produced, chemical, “plasticky” odor.
Next, measure it. Each Hermes leather item is advertised by its length in centimeters, from 25 centimeters (9.8 inches) for a small leather change purse to the 55-centimeter (21.6 inches) large travel bag, and those measurements are exact. If the numbers you record are anything less than precise, the bag might be fake.
Look closely at the stitching. If the stitches appear straight and evenly separated from each other, that signals the use of a sewing machine, and suggests the bag might be a counterfeit. Every Birkin, regardless of size, is hand-stitched using two needles. Each stitch is finished at an angle and, while perfectly symmetrical, any given stitch might show some minor imperfections. It’s supposed to be that way, and it’s part of what makes each Birkin one of a kind. There should be no frayed edges, and no glue is used to secure any leather piece.
Now examine the heat-stamped words “Hermes, Paris, Made in Paris,” located above the locking mechanism. The legend should be rendered in sans-serif block lettering and should be perfectly centered and crisp and clean, with no flaking. In addition, those words should be stamped in the same color as the bag’s hardware, which is usually gold or silver. A symbol next to the lettering represents a code indicating which type of leather was used and if it was custom made.
Check inside the bag and try the zipper. It should glide, without any stops or stutters. A metal “H” should appear at the end of the zipper signifying it is an official Hermes product (although beware; fraudsters have reproduced this detail). The zipper should be free of tarnish, with the company name stamped on the zipper handle. Also, the handle should have a one-piece attached leather strap that lies completely flat horizontally when not in use. If it rests vertically, it could be a counterfeit.
All Birkins are fitted with a lock that is specially constructed to be heavier; counterfeit locks usually lack heft and come with standard commercial keys. Authentic locks sport either one or two numbers under the stamped Hermes company name, depending on when it was made. Turning the key in the lock should feel smooth, not difficult to open or close. In addition, a true Birkin key is secured with leather straps and is not on a ring. When the bag’s keys are enclosed within its one-piece, sewn leather clochette, they lie evenly flat. If the clochette is sewn from two pieces of leather, that’s a sign your bag is fake.
Also, know that Hermes Birkins come with their own dust bags. Initially orange, the dust bag was changed to a beige herringbone-patterned heavy cotton material sometime in 2007. Vintage dust bags feature an image of a well-defined 19th-century Le Duc carriage and horse enclosed in a circle, plus an “H’ for Hermes. If the dust bag is newer, there should be two circles surrounding the logo and two lines under the carriage, and it should be crisp and unbroken, never blurred. Also, Birkin dust bags are woven from a heavier cloth; counterfeits have bags composed of less-substantial material. Another telling detail is the stitching for the drawstring sleeve, which should be folded over by exactly two centimeters, or about three-quarters of an inch. If you spot any deviation, your Birkin may be bogus.
Using these seven key identifiers can help you identify a legitimate Hermes Birkin, but it is always advisable to have an expert verify it, just to be sure. Those schooled in the ways of Hermes can tell you when a Birkin was made, and by whom, from the die-stamped number emblazoned either on the reverse of the closing strap or, for those bags made in 2016 and later, on the right side of the interior – but keep in mind that skilled counterfeiters are aware of this fact. Consulting a reference guide to all Hermes symbols and stamps – there are many such resources online – can aid in attempts to assess and authenticate your Birkin.
Owning a genuine Birkin bag is more than just owning a functional status symbol; many have come to view it as an investment. According to a 2021 Art Market Research study, the value of a Hermes Birkin increased 42% at auction during the previous year within the luxury goods market. That represents a much better return than even stock market gains for the same period. To reap the full value of a Birkin, though, be sure to keep everything that was issued with the bag when it was new. That includes the orange store shopping bag, dust bags, the wrappings, its box, the care instructions and any stuffing that might have been tucked inside. The more complete it is, the higher its price will be when offered on the secondary market at auction.
Although it is fundamentally an item of fashion, the Hermes Birkin has survived nearly 40 years of fads, a truly staggering onslaught of counterfeiting, and Jane Birkin’s own mixed signals about her namesake.
After relying on Hermes Birkins for years, Birkin told the BBC in 2017, “Now I fill my pockets like a man, because then you don’t actually have to carry anything.” Two years earlier, she had asked Hermes to remove her name from Birkins made from crocodile leather until the harvesting process could be made more humane. The brand subsequently investigated the matter and addressed her concerns. But Birkin bags endure because Hermes backs, and places its full faith in, its artisans. Birkins are heirloom-quality and regarded far and wide as being of investment quality. There can be no greater status symbol than that.