Earlier this month, a single handbag sold at a Christie’s auction in Hong Kong for $223,000, breaking a world record for handbags sold at auction. That record-setting handbag was a pink crocodile-skin Hermès Birkin with gold and diamond hardware. Topping the lists of couture with the highest resale value, it’s always Birkin bags.
The cost of new Birkins range from $12,000 to more than $200,000, and they regularly sell on the secondary market for more than their original sales price. Last year, an “almost albino” crocodile skin, diamond-encrusted Birkin sold at auction for $185,000. On eBay, the uppermost tier of the hundreds of Birkin bags currently listed are priced at just under $150,000, with the lowest “Buy it Now” prices at around $5,000. Some consumers are dying to get their hands on one—Birkins can have a wait list of up to six years, depending on the materials used.
For those who are not inclined or remotely able to pay five-six figures for a handbag, the big question is likely, “why?”—possibly accompanied by some salty language.
So as much as one can explain stratospheric couture prices, let’s look at some of the factors at play with the Hermès Birkin bag.
In business since 1837, Hermès originally made award-winning harnesses and bridles for horse-drawn carriages, and soon moved into saddlery. The company introduced handbags, jewelry, and silk scarves in the 1950s, and now makes luggage, ready to wear clothing, footwear, fragrance, stationery, tableware and more. But Hermès has maintained that connection to its saddle-making history, and the Birkin bag’s high-grade leather trades on that heritage.
In the early 1980s, actress-singer Jane Birkin encountered Hermès’ then-chairman Jean-Louis Dumas when they were seated next to each other on a plane. Accounts of the connection vary, but agree that inspired by Birkin’s need for a better handbag that day, the coveted Birkin bag was created.
The bags are repairable for life, and because of their quality, could likely be passed down as an heirloom. “There's more that goes into that price than just paying for the Hermès name,” said Marissa N. Stempien, the fashion editor of JustLuxe.com. “The Birkin is an extraordinarily well made bag. Each one is handmade by trained craftsmen and can take over 18 hours to make, and that number can be doubled if working on exceptional pieces such as those accessorized with diamonds.”
Stempien raises the example of one of the Birkin’s most popular and difficult to source leathers, crocodile skin. “[Crocodiles] require many years to reach maturity, the hide must be untarnished, they must be attended to constantly and the crocodile farms must meet strict ethical standards before they can sell internationally. Even after all this, luxury brands will only take the very best of and priciest of skins.”
Which brings us to the scarcity of this in-demand status symbol. “Because of the slow manufacturing process and difficult task of procuring the best textiles, only a limited number of Birkins are made each year, adding to the exclusivity that can drive up prices, particularly those in the resale market. Rare colors, hardware in precious metals or personalized touches can also add to the high price tag of the Birkin,” Stempien said.
In fact, not all Birkins bring in headline-making resale amounts. Less common leathers, colors, and gold hardware garnished with diamonds tend to add to the resale value. The highest-pulling Birkin listed on eBay, for example, which sold for $99,900, is a Himalayan Birkin in Blanc, made of matte "almost albino" Niloticus crocodile leather.Of the top 10 highest-priced sellers on eBay, eight are crocodile leather, and two are ostrich.
Hermès most famous two bags, the Birkin and the Kelly, are not even listed on the fashion house’s website. But one does not simply buy a Birkin online, or roll into the nearest Hermès retail outpost, although the stores do get a small supply. Connections must be made and brand loyalty displayed before a Birkin is offered. Or, if you have double the retail price to burn, you can hire someone else to source a bag.