Why Are Birkin Bags So Expensive? History of Hermès Birkin Bags

Birkin bags are considered the pinnacle of luxury. A number of notable cultural and economic sources, including Time magazine, have determined Birkin handbags are actually a better investment than gold, and certainly less risky than stocks.

The value of a Birkin has been increasing by an average of 14.2 percent each year. The Himalayan bag, so named because its coloring resembles the famed mountain range, became the most expensive handbag sold at auction when it fetched a whopping $379,261 at a Christie’s auction in Hong Kong in June 2017.

Birkins are so in demand that prices on the secondary market can be 50 percent above the original retail value. Birkin bags retail at anything from $12,000 to $150,000 and bag resale prices can be in the region of $200,000.

Why Are Birkin Bags So Expensive?

The Birkin is a status symbol but its also more than this – it is a practical bag made of the highest quality materials by skilled artisans. In part due to the relatively low number of Birkin bags Hermès produces, the value of the product has continued to rise over the last several decades.

Hermès has also kept the price high by maintaining exclusivity. Acquiring a Birkin bag is no small feat. You have to prove your allegiance to the brand by waiting for an undefinable amount of time, finding a connection, or purchasing several other expensive products. The first model, launched in 1984, was sold for $2,000 while in 2017, the most basic version cost $11,900.

The Origin and History of the Birkin Bag

The glamorous Birkin bag came from humble beginnings and still serves a highly practical purpose today. According to fashion lore, the birth of the Birkin happened on a serendipitous plane ride when style icon Jane Birkin spilled the contents of a straw tote in front of Jean-Louis Dumas, a chief executive of Hermès at the time. Dumas was immediately inspired to create a purposeful bag suitable for the modern women and invited Birkin to collaborate with the brand. Four years later the Birkin bag was born.

In an interview with The Telegraph from the Hermès show in 2012, Birkin recalled specifically requesting a larger bag with pockets for all of her jet-setting. She then proceeded to draw her idea on a disposable airplane sickness bag. The practical appeal of the Birkin bag lies in its functionality. It is large enough for travel and seals to avoid spilling its contents on airplanes.

Hermès has a history of partnering with “It Girls” that represent the pinnacle of femininity and success to market their designs. Another of their top-selling bags is commonly referred to as the Kelly because it was popularized by the former Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly. The Kelly evolved from a saddle holder first introduced in 1892. While the bag existed in the Hermès collection prior to Grace Kelly’s association, she elevated its status and popularity. 

Unlike the Kelly, the Birkin has a tote-like silhouette featuring two top handles indicating its practicality. As it was initially created for travel use, all Birkins come with a lock and key so the flap can be completely secured. Inside, the bag has one pocket as well a zipped compartment. The bag sits on four feet, referred to as clou to keep the bag standing straight.

In 2001, after an episode of Sex in the City aired featuring Samantha trying to skip the five year waiting list to get a Birkin bag, the Birkin’s actual waiting list tripled in length – cementing its place as an iconic “It Bag” of the 21st century.

The Anatomy of the Birkin Bag

There are a few key components that make the Birkin bag easily identifiable, which are highlighted below. Note the simplicity of the shape, style, and additions. Each of these elements can be customized allowing for a wide variety in textures, prices, and glamour.

Handles

Made from rolled leather, the handles will usually match the color and material of the bag but, for bespoke pieces, they can be made using other colors and materials.

Flap

The emblematic leather flap is always beautifully crafted and sits snugly on the bag to provide protection for the items inside.

Clou

The four feet in matching hardware help the bag to stand straight and protect the base leather. 

Lock

The ‘H’ padlock will come either in the same color metal as the rest of the bag’s hardware or wrapped in the same leather used to construct the bag.

Clochette

A bell-shaped accessory made from the same leather as the bag and disguises the keys accompanying the ‘H’ padlock.

Popular Birkin Materials

Hermès is known for their quality materials, and their leather is no exception. A few of the most popular materials include box calf, alligator, Clemence, Epsom, Togo, and Ostrich leather. After Jane Birkin made headlines for protesting the treatment of animals in 2015, the company’s ethical standards for the sourcing of materials became even more strict. While Birkin bags can be found in a variety of colors, they are largely made from the leathers listed below.

Box Calf

This is the oldest type of leather available, initially used for the Kelly bags. The smoothness of this leather means scratches are easy to see, unlike many other popular materials used. 

Alligator

This material comes in either matte or lisse, which is shiny.

Clemence leather

This comes from a calf and is scratch-resistant with a grainy, matte look. 

Epsom

This leather is also scratch-resistant, but has much finer grains than Clemence and is known to be easy to clean.

Togo

Also scratch-resistant, is made from a calf and has a soft, pebbled finish. 

Ostrich 

This is an iconic material, easily distinguishable due to the large pores. 

Each Birkin is completely handmade by one artisan and takes at least 12 hours in production, but the time can easily be doubled depending on specialty features. 

The World’s Most Expensive Accessories

In the chart below on the world’s most expensive handbags, note how many belong to the Hermès brand under the Birkin umbrella.

Three of the most expensive Birkins

Himalaya

The Himalaya Birkin, which comes with or without diamonds, is the most expensive handbag ever sold at auction. In 2022, Sotheby’s sold a Diamond Himalaya Birkin 30 for more than $450,000. It is made from Niloticus crocodile skin dyed white and grey to resemble the white-capped peaks of the Himalayas. Its 18-karat white gold hardware is studded with white diamonds.

The Hermès Faubourg Birkin

The Hermès Faubourg Birkin was released in 2019 to celebrate the Hermès shop on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris. This handbag has three windows with orange awnings, a shopping bag clochette, a matte alligator skin top flap, and alligator skin handles. It is one of the most sought-after limited-edition Birkin bags. A white Faubourg is the most expensive Faubourg color, with one selling for more than $300,000 in 2022.

Diamond

This Hermès bag features crocodile skin paired with diamond-encrusted white-gold hardware. These bags come in classic Birkin sizes of 25, 30, 35, and 40cm. Diamond Birkins come in an array of vibrant colors, such as pink, red, brown and more. Secondary market prices can range from $100,000 to $200,000.

Are Birkin Bags Really Worth It?

While all investments have an inherent risk, the Birkin bag shows no signs of decreasing in value in the near future. In fact, the retail price of a base model Birkin bag has gone up nearly $10,000 in the 30 years that they have been in production. Even taking inflation into consideration, this signals a strengthening of the market.

 Hermès keeps the number in production under lock and key, resulting in increased demand and value. While the scarcity requires patience, it also maintains the investment for owners. Keeping your bag in tip-top shape also helps retain its value. To that end, Hermès offers gratis servicing for its valued customers for life.

In 2016 it was reported that the wait list for this exclusive bag was six years. Acquiring a Birkin bag directly might seem like a herculean task, so be sure to keep your eye on auction finds


Sources: Hermes | Time | The Economist | Fashionista | CNBC | The Telegraph | Purse Bop | NPR | Baghunter | Who What Wear

Written by Alexis Culotta View all posts by this author →

Alexis holds a PhD in art history and has enjoyed professional roles across gallery, museum, and academic settings. Thanks to these myriad experiences, Alexis holds a wealth of knowledge across the fields of fine and decorative arts and enjoys every opportunity to share these insights along with the stories of these makers and objects with Invaluable collectors.