Luxury French brand Hermès is most often associated with two glamorous women – Grace Kelly and Jane Birkin – who lent their names to two of the brand’s most well-known bags. But the house is known for a great deal more than leather bags alone; vintage Hermès jewelry can command high prices at auction, representing the importance the brand places on craftsmanship and style. The house had an altogether more unexceptional beginning when founder, Thierry Hermès, opened up shop in 1837 in Paris. He wasn’t known for jewelry, watches or sumptuous bags – his first products were horse harnesses made for Europe’s nobility. His craftsmanship was highly praised, however, and production quickly expanded to include saddles, golf jackets and leather bags. It took the family-owned company nearly 100 years to start designing and producing jewelry.
Today, Hermès products run the gamut of fine leather goods and saddlery, men’s and women’s ready-to-wear to fragrances, watches, furniture and, of course, jewelry. It wasn’t until the interwar period, with Thierry’s grandson, Émile Hermès, at the helm, that Hermès began to offer leather bags with a novel invention – a zip. Things quickly took off from there. To cater to their customers’ needs, Hermès introduced jewelry in 1927, followed by watches and sandals in 1928.
Hermès is also known for its ties and silk scarf designs: “Jeu des omnibus et dames blanches” was the first of a long series created by Robert Dumas, Émile Hermès’ son-in-law. Dumas, who took over the company in 1951, was also behind the sporty yet chic Chaîne d’ancre bracelet, which was inspired by a ship anchor chain, and what became known as the Kelly bag.
Legend has it that the Kelly bag, designed by Dumas in the 1930s, became a favourite with actress Grace Kelly while she was filming Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief in 1954. Two years later, it caused great excitement when she used it to shield her pregnancy from the paparazzi. The photographs became a sensation, and the house renamed the bag the Kelly in her honor.
From 1978, Robert Dumas’ son, Jean-Louis, diversified the house’s offering even further. Hermès embarked on watchmaking, and made watches under the name La Montre Hermès.
The Birkin is probably the brand’s most fabled item. The bag came about when Jean-Louis Hermès and the actress and singer Jane Birkin met on a flight from Paris to London in 1984. This led to Jean-Louis designing her ideal bag, which is both elegant and voluminous. A new Birkin can fetch anywhere from $12,000 to about $200,000 and is the handiwork of a single craftsman who takes between 18 to 25 hours to complete. In 2014, an extremely rare Himalayan Nilo crocodile Birkin bag sold for $185,000, becoming the second most expensive bag to be sold at auction.
The brand’s philosophy has always been to remain “ultra-premium luxury” – it takes care to nurture its craftspeople and their talents and to manufacture mostly in France. “I think Hermès objects are desirable because they reconnect people to their humanity…” says Pierre-Alexis Dumas, the current head of Hermès. “Our customer feels the presence of the person who crafted the object, while at the same time the object brings him back to his own sensitivity, because it gives him pleasure through his senses.”
Hermès vintage jewelry: key products
Hermès is known for leather goods and silk scarf designs, but the house also excels in elegant jewelry that complements the lifestyle and couture of its exclusive clientèle.
Hermès Filet de selle bracelet
In 1927, Hermès created its very first piece, the Filet de selle bracelet, which referenced the brand’s equine beginnings and consisted of a miniature horse bit on a leather strap. Since then, the harness-making theme has been an inspiration for its jewelry: harnesses, chains and buckles have been rendered in gold and silver in bracelet, ring and necklace form.
The Collier de chien bracelet is an Hermès staple. Introduced in 1923 as a dog collar for a client’s bulldog, Parisian women fell in love with it and initially used it as a belt. It became so popular that Hermès began producing the design as a women’s accessory in 1927. Its popularity convinced the brand to launch bracelets of the same design in 1949. The leather options range from calfskin to crocodile, lizard or ostrich skins.
Hermès ft. Jean Cocteau
In the early 1960s, writer, filmmaker and notorious dandy Jean Cocteau was invited to be a guest jewelry designer at Hermès. Two of his creations were the Cleopatra eye magnifying glass, which could be worn as a pendant or as a scarf ring, and the Mistigri brooch, which featured a gold lion’s head with eyes of marquise-cut emeralds.
The Hermès enamel bracelet made its debut in 1976, featuring iconic Hermès scarf prints. New Hermès enamel bangles, which are gold-, palladium or rose gold-plated, appear every season and still use scarves as inspiration.
French designer Pierre Hardy left Christian Dior to join Hermès as creative director of fine jewelry in 1990. His collection, Enchaînements Libres reinvented the chain. He made it big and bold, harking back to the brand’s history as harness-maker and saddler and referencing the nautical world. “Far from the jewelry of former times, which obstructed movement, these pieces are designed for modern lifestyles. They dance in unison with the bodies that wear them,” he said of the collection. He also created the Haute Bijouterie collection, which referenced iconic Hermès imagery of horse and harness.
One of the most popular pieces has been the Hermès H Bracelet, launched in 2000. Widely known as the “Clic Clac” thanks to the sound it makes when taking it off and putting it on, the bracelets feature a distinctive ‘H’ lock closure and enameling, which they brought out in dozens of colors.
In 2003 Jean-Paul Gaultier joined Hermès and established the brand as the go-to house for discreet pieces, such as fine strands of silver chains worn as pendants or belts. Although he departed in 2010, the brand continues to offer sophisticated, understated pieces that reference its past but look firmly to its future.