Hermès, Kelly and Birkin: Three symbols of French savoir-faire


Bonjour les amis,

This week we return to our popular French Icons series. If you thought la baguette, le béret, la marinière, French cafés and la tour Eiffel were quintessentially French, I’ve got another one coming. 

Last fall, while in Portland, OR to celebrate Thanksgiving I spent some time at a wonderful local bookstore, Powell’s Books. As I was browsing the Fashion section, looking for a book on Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel a funny-looking cover and a funny-sounding title caught my eye. That is when I found it: The book that taught me everything there is to know about the most famous handbag in the world, the Birkin, by Hermès.

A must read even if you don’t like fashion

To those readers who are not interested in fashion, handbags, material possessions, or money talk, I apologize, truly, I do. But I had to write this story, and if you stay with me until the end, I hope you agree it was worth it.

When I found that used copy of Michael Tonello’s book a year ago, I had heard about the Birkin Bag, and as a French native, I knew the prestigious Maison Hermès. I have stopped by their flagship store on elegant Faubourg St. Honoré in Paris over the years.

Founded in 1837 and family-owned for six generations, Hermès stands tall and proud in the  high fashion world. A visit to a Hermès boutique is a delightful and unforgettable experience. Most people are not accustomed to living in the lap of luxury. I know I am not. In an age when so many goods are cheaply mass-produced in foreign markets, looking (and if luck strikes) touching objects painstakingly handcrafted (usually by the same highly trained artisan) with the finest leathers, fabrics or hardware available is an incredible and entirely sensuous experience. Hermès’ fine craftsmanship and meticulous attention to detail were on display in major cities last year during the company’s “Festival des Métiers” (Festival of Crafts). The worldwide tour started in Seattle. Many locals (some belonging to the French community) were invited to watch Hermès employees while they created some of the legendary products the company is famous for: handbags, silk scarves, ties, watches, and saddles. You can read more about this unique event here.

From the start, when the company opened as a harness workshop serving European nobility, Hermès has always been associated with quality and luxury. A saddlery line was introduced later on (it still runs today, and the horse motif is represented on many Hermès products, including, bien sûr, the iconic company logo.) By 1914, the company was granted the exclusive rights to use the zipper (“la fermeture Hermès,” “the Hermès fastener”,) for leather goods and clothing, and they introduced the device in France over the next few years. Leather handbags were launched in the 1920s, soon to be followed by a full line of accessories: the iconic “Carré Hermès” (silk scarves) in 1937, elegant and exclusive watches in the 1930s, and the perfume line, in 1949. There are 14 product divisions chez Hermès today!

The legendary Hermès logo and signature orange boxes
were introduced in the 1950s

As Hermès expanded over the world, in particular in the United States through a partnership with Neiman Marcus, the company designs became increasingly inspired by illustrious works of art, books, and themes deeply ingrained in contemporary French culture. These motifs were (and still are) more noticeable in the design of the Hermès silk scarves, often entrusted to French and international artists. It is no wonder, then, that so many Hermès products have become instant collectors’ items while Hermès, to millions of people around the world, has come to represent France and the French culture.

Catherine Deneuve wears Hermès’ most famous scarf pattern:
“Brides de Gala” (Gala’s Bridles),  produced over 70,000 times since the 1970s
Grace Kelly was a big fan of “Le Carré Hermès…”
… as was Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis
A framed Carré Hermès as wall decor

While silk scarves account for about 12% of Hermès sales (the legend claims a Hermès scarf is sold somewhere in the world every 25 seconds,) over 30% of sales are said to come from leather products.

All Hermès handbags are handcrafted with natural products and international symbols of luxury. They are produced in limited quantity and can be hard to come by. In spite of their exorbitant price tags, two handbags are particularly coveted by fashionistas all over the world.

First, the Kelly bag. Launched in the 1930s as “Le Sac à dépêches,” (the dispatches bag,) it became an instant hit when Princess Grace of Monaco used it to hide her first pregnancy in public in 1956. Later on, she was featured carrying a crocodile version of the bag on the cover of Life Magazine. The marketing team chez Hermès promptly renamed the bag: “Le Kelly” as demand soared.

Being a princess has its perks!

Today, a Kelly fetches astronomical prices, in Hermès boutiques or on Ebay: We are talking several thousands of dollars for a basic model, les amis, and tens of thousands of dollars for the most coveted and rarest skins, like crocodile. The average Kelly bag takes 18 hours to make (by a single artisan) and comes with a lifetime warranty. Your bag can be sent back to the Hermès workshops in Paris at any time, and it will be refitted and returned to you like new.

In the movie “Le Divorce,” I was not terribly moved by the ups and downs and break-ups experienced by the leading characters (Naomi Watts and Kate Hudson.) What crushed me was the final scene when Kate Hudson throws the brand-new Kelly bag her (older) French lover gave her as a parting gift from the top of the Eiffel Tower. Silly American girl.

looking at a bag
So you lost the French lover, but you still have the BAG, girl!
Nope, I guess she did not need it. Voilà le Kelly, flying over Paris!

If you think the Kelly has a cult following, wait until you hear about its younger (and larger) cousin, the Birkin, a.k.a. the ultimate elite status symbol, a.k.a. the most coveted handbag in the world!

If you have never heard about the Birkin, do not fret. I did not know that much about the iconic bag until I read that funny little book by Michael Tonello, Bringing Home the Birkin. Then I saw the Light. Watch him explain below how, in the 1990s, he became the saving grace of wealthy women all over the world  (and Hermès’ worst nightmare) when he reinvented himself as a successful high-end merchandise reseller on Ebay. Until Michael, there was a notorious two- to five-year waiting list to get a Birkin bag, or so Hermès claimed. Tonello figured out Hermès boutiques did, in fact, have quite the Birkin inventory in their back rooms. Through trial and error, he came up with an [honest] way of buying the best Birkin bags from said boutiques, and resold them – at a profit – to his ever-growing client list.

A story of creative entrepreneurship, the book is light-hearted, and entertaining. Tonello takes you through the luxury world of the great European capitals, including Barcelona, where he finally settled down and found love. When you close it, you will understand why Sex and the City’s Samantha makes a fool of herself at the Hermès store. You will understand (well, maybe…) why stylish Victoria Beckham is rumored to own the world’s largest collection, with Birkins in every size and color.

Birkin-endowed but sour-faced Victoria Beckham

At the very least, you will laugh at Michael’s on-the-dot descriptions of the Hermès marketing machine and sales staff. You will not believe what some women have done to get their hands on a coveted Birkin. After browsing online, I can officially ask: Which celebrity does not own a Birkin? Voilà some favorite shots…

Renée Zellweger and her orange Birkin
Expensive, but handy: The Birkin as a travel bag
The ever-stylish Sarah Jessica Parker with a striking blue Birkin
Sandra Bullock hangs on to her Birkin in Le Proposal (2009)
Another orange Birkin… for Julia Roberts
(in her best BOurgeois-BOhemian wear) 
What NOT to do to your Birkin: Lady Gaga

Even though every single starlet in Hollywood seems to prance around, a Birkin dangling from her skinny arm, the legendary bag was created for an iconic European star, Jane Birkin, in the 1980s.

British singer, actress, model and activist Jane Birkin is rumored to have met a Hermès executive during a London-Paris flight. After she complained she could not find a good weekend leather bag to carry her numerous belongings, he offered to create one just for her. The Birkin bag was born!

A young Jane Birkin -with a straw bag-
has not met her Birkin yet! (1960s)
“Jane (Birkin) and Serge (Gainsbourg)”:
An iconic 60s couple
Jane was rumored to hide Serge’s beloved cigarettes
inside her Birkin

The legend has it Jane thought the Birkin was too heavy and had contributed to her tendinitis. Hermès probably did not mind, as Le Birkin has since then become their best-selling bag. Last April, following the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Jane auctioned off her (customized) original bag on Ebay on behalf of the British Red Cross and raised over $160,000.

Jane’s original, customized, tendinitis-inducing Birkin
“Au revoir, faithful Birkin!”
Jane, autographing her Birkin 

There are people in this world who only hesitate a split second before spending tens of thousands of dollars on a handbag, not any handbag, mind you, a Birkin or a Kelly. Will I ever get one? Non. Even if I could afford one of these beauties, I would be terrified of letting it out of my sight. I am glad they are are out there, though, and as a dedicated people-watcher, I’ve had fun catching occasional sightings of the famed Hermès products on a Parisian sidewalk, in San Francisco or in New York. I honestly would not know what to do with a Birkin, here in my corner of suburbia. Others might disagree. I wonder how many affluent soccer moms show up at their kids’ games carrying gear in their Birkin “à la Renée Zellweger?” Better to arrive on the soccer field with the ultimate status symbol covered in grape juice or goldfish cracker crumbs than show up with a generic carry-on, non? 😉

Moi, I am happy there are companies out there like Hermès, companies who still make quality goods, who take the time to train their employees, and who stand behind their products. I was so impressed with the skills and professionalism of the Hermès craftsmen I met in Bellevue, WA during last spring’s Hermès Festival of Crafts! There is hardly any turnover, as most employees stay with the company for the duration of their career, quite amazing in this day and age.

So let’s wrap up this story with the wonderful skilled artisans of Hermès. Without them, none of the beautiful handbags I have shown today would exist. Chapeau, les artistes! (Hats off to the artists.)

Handcrafting a Kelly bag (Mykonos blue) 
Two master silk printers creating another fabulous “Carré Hermès”
The finished product: the softest, thickest silk you have ever touched. 
The friendly saddle-maker (each saddle is numbered and entered manually in the Hermès register)

A bientôt.

Véronique - France with Véro
Véronique of France with Véro

Véronique of France with Véro

Vero shares her homeland weekly on social media with virtual tours, photo essays, live events and other publications at France with Vero. Learn more.

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  1. Bienvenue chez French Girl in Seattle... on December 5, 2011 at 8:18 am

    — g — Welcome back mon amie. Thank you for your comment, as always. Things have been hectic this fall (there was even some unplanned excitement as you may recall 😉 and I probably was not as diligent as I should have been replying to all comments. I also thank visitors directly on their blogs on occasion. Point noted. Will do better. 😉 To answer your question, we will be having a Pacific Northwest Christmas this year. MIL is visiting. What about you? Will it be the East Coast or an exotic locale? Veronique

  2. Bienvenue chez French Girl in Seattle... on December 5, 2011 at 8:59 am

    — Dear Michael — All bloggers love comments, but I know my blogging friends will understand when I say that your message made me jump up and shout: “Holy Birkin!!!” 😉 Thank you for visiting from Barcelona, oh, and “You’re welcome!” — Veronique

  3. Malyss on December 5, 2011 at 12:40 pm

    Je n’ai pas les moyens de m’offrir quoi que ce soit de luxueux, mais j’aime rever, et là, je suis servie. Moi, si je pouvais , je m’inspirerais de Jackie Kennedy. J’adore son style, sa classe..Mais j’adore aussi son epoque, c’est peut-être pour ça. Je trouve genial que M. Tonello t’ait écrit!Sais-tu que maintenant, j’attends les lundis avec impatience, pour voir de quoi tu vas nous parler?! addict, moi? nooon! :o)

  4. g on December 5, 2011 at 6:23 am

    Well another WONDERFULLY delicious post…the bags are beautiful and the craftsman aren’t half bad either…miss your commentary on the various comments(as a side not) hope all is well as the preparations for the christmas season are underway…are you returning to your other home this holiday season? have a most enjoyable week!

  5. Cherie Moore on December 5, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    Merci for another interesting post. The closest I will probably ever get to something by Hermes are the soap,shampoo and hair conditioner samples from D’Aubusson in Paris that made their way across the ocean to my bathroom! I love the scent of L’eau d’orange verte! Although, maybe on my next trip to Paris I could spluge and buy a Hermes scarf!

  6. Michael Tonello on December 5, 2011 at 8:42 am

    Hola Veronique,

    I’m so pleased that you enjoyed my book. Even more pleased that you took all the time and effort to create such a great blog post about it. You truly made my day!
    Wishing you and yours the best of this holiday season-
    Be well,

  7. Unknown on December 5, 2011 at 9:22 am

    you forgoted the 2CV HErmes…

  8. Olga on December 5, 2011 at 6:44 pm

    Despite the fact that I don’t have a single item from this fashion house, I really respect them, because they have turned craftsmanship into art.

  9. Katelyn @ Pure Panache on December 5, 2011 at 10:08 am

    What a great post, Veronique! I love learning about these luxurious, quintessentially French items! I too do not know what I would do with a Birkin or Kelly bag…I’d be too afraid to get it dirty to ever use it! Still, it’s fun just to look! 🙂

  10. Bienvenue chez French Girl in Seattle... on December 5, 2011 at 7:15 pm

    — Georgio — Your verb conjugation in English is a bit iffy, petit frère, but you do know your cars! Do not despair: You will find photos of the fabulous Hermès-clad 2 CV in this post:http://frenchgirlinseattle.blogspot.com/2011/09/la-deux-chevaux-2-cv-french-legend.html– Katelyn — Thanks for stopping by. Fun to look at indeed. Even better to t.o.u.c.h.! — g– You came back! Merci for your undying support. Love that you got the book. Let me know what you think!– Malyss — Tu es accro à mon billet du lundi et moi je suis accro à tes superbes photos quotidiennes de ma chère Nice. Nous faisons la paire!– Heather — Thank you so much for your message. I enjoyed researching this story and I am so happy you got a kick out of it. Your friend Sonny is lucky. I am getting a Hermès scarf (from the Faubourg St Honoré boutique bien sûr,) for my 50th birthday!– Cherie — Thank you for your comment. Hermès samples are good, Cherie, and probably better than most products out there in their regular size 😉 Hôtel d’Aubusson is not too shabby either!– Olga — … and that is really saying something, for an artist like you! Thank you for stopping by!

  11. g on December 5, 2011 at 10:30 am

    well -well- well SO VERY HAPPY FOR YOU that the author commented….i knew you’d be making the big time…. each day new followers…soon you will not be able to comment(too many); personally i dread that day— love your responses to us your readers, followers, posse, whatever our title. East coast christmas.new year’s eve at the shore house, where on a clear night you can see any fireworks in atlantic city although we are a good 45 minutes to an hour south…and spain for some sun and warmth in feb., Happy that mutti is coming for a visit…still a family christmas indeed!!Right after i read/commented i headed to amazon to purchase a copy of the book…did you read HOW LUXARY LOST IT’S LUSTER…very interesting about status brands craftsmanship-manufacture.Thanks v for all the time and effort with every post SURELY IT SHOWS.-g for a 2nd time!!!

  12. Lost in Provence on December 5, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    How much did I love this post? Let me count the ways! Like you, I truly appreciate the world of Hermes. Yes, it is for the 1% but as you mention, those that work there mainly do for life, so…that does balance things more than a bit. I am grateful that they are actively fighting off the LVMH achat. My dear friend Sonny wore an Hermes scarf when we got together the other day. She told me that she had bought it 40 years ago and I promise you I never would have known. Things that are handmade, that last, with quality and thoughts behind them…perfect!

    Merci pour cette poste splendide!

  13. miss b on December 6, 2011 at 2:01 am

    What a wonderful post – I thoroughly enjoyed it from start to finish – the video clips, photos, history of Hermès etc. etc. Michael Tonello’s book is now on my must-read list. How lovely to have a comment from the author.


  14. Owen on December 6, 2011 at 8:17 pm

    Did you know the Hermes family has a domain in Chantilly, actually Vineuil St Firmin, just across from the Chateau de Chantilly, where they keep some of their horses, which they exercise on the world famous polo grounds of Apremont ? Silk scarves and leather bags, to line the lap of luxury.

  15. Mouthwash on December 6, 2011 at 1:07 pm

    Now what we need is a Hermes bag, made out of their scarves…

    I remember that SATC episode! Poor Samantha. And, I also remember the movie Le Divorce. I loved that movie. Oh and that bag..oh. It was so perfect. So red, so lovely, and such a better deal in itself than the guy! haha


  16. martinealison on December 7, 2011 at 12:24 am

    Un blog où je me sens bien… Un blog où j’ai eu plaisir à me promener et que je reviendrai visiter… Gros gros bisous…
    Ah les sacs kelly!…

  17. Virginia on December 7, 2011 at 9:55 am

    WEll that does it. I’m heading to Hermès my next trip. I’ve always been a bit intimidated to even walk in but I feel empowered now. I want to touch one of those wonderful scarves (Will they allow it?) and maybe fondle a Birkin! :)V

  18. Bienvenue chez French Girl in Seattle... on December 7, 2011 at 10:03 am

    — Miss B. — Thanks for stopping by. Let me know what you thought about Michael’s book!– Amber — Creative as always, and what daring fashion sense: A Hermès handbag made out of Hermès scarves. I liiiiiikkkkeeee it!– Owen — Excellent information. I have always loved visiting Chantilly. Another reason to return. Merci, mon ami.– Martinealison — Merci, et tu reviens quand tu veux!– Catherine — Great to hear from you. Pétanque… what an excellent idea. Hmmm… I think I could have fun writing this one! Merci!– Virginia — Just check out that blog post I mentioned at the beginning of the story and you will know what to expect when you arrive at the Faubourg St Honoré boutique. Less intimidating that way. By the way, you don’t have to splurge on a “carré” Hermès. Le “Twilly” is also a great accessory and it is a lot cheaper. Same patterns and colors as the scarves I believe. I love mine, a gift from my mother-in-law 😉 — Veronique

  19. Catherine on December 7, 2011 at 9:46 am

    what a fascinating case study – fantastic – what about boules and petanque as another icon for the series. I also spent a huge amount of time in Powells when I visited Portland last Easter….

  20. Ange on December 7, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    I’ll go for an orange Birkin and risk the tendinitis. I’m most likely to get one too given the amount of stuff I can get into a bag.
    Ca m’a fait super plaisir d’avoir ton commentaire Véronique et je suis ravie de pouvoir suivre ton blog aussi.
    A bientôt


  21. designchic on December 7, 2011 at 9:51 pm

    What a world of information in this post…dreaming of an Hermes tray!!

  22. French Heart on December 7, 2011 at 10:14 pm

    Thank you, Veronique, for the intoxicating post.

    I’d written an oath in blood, after crossing my eyes & kissing my elbow (I think is how Audrey Hepburn said it)–that I would NOT order even ONE more book from Amazon. And just ordered this one in the MIDDLE of reading your post!! (Is there a 12-Step program for Francophiles?!)

    This made me want to march into the Paris boutique, throw down a credit card, and say, ‘Hermes me!’


  23. Genie -- Paris and Beyond on December 8, 2011 at 7:45 am

    On my first trip to Paris, I walked right in to that flagship store, spent an hours nosing around and bought my husband a tie. I have since bought several but never a “Carré Hermès” pour moi. Their silks are to be coveted and I am going to stay away from the Kelly and Birkin – yikes!Lovely article and I had already decided to get the book. Now, Michael has so kindly commented on your excellent post. Parfait!Bises,Genie

  24. Richard Moisan on December 7, 2011 at 11:24 pm

    C’est bien vrai que tout ça, c’est la France qui fait rêver les étrangères!…
    Bonne journée, Véronique!

  25. Bienvenue chez French Girl in Seattle... on December 8, 2011 at 8:34 am

    — Ange — Merci de m’avoir rendu visite. I see you were inspired by Renée Z. and Jane B.’s use of the Birkin. I guess if you are going to spend that kind of money, you might as well make the most of your handbag, eh? ;-)– DesignChic– Congratulations for being the ONLY person who mentioned a Hermès accessory other than a handbag or a scarf! You’re right, we should not forget the other lines of products– They are gorgeous!– French Heart — Welcome, and thank you for becoming a Follower! Michael Tonello will be very pleased by the number of readers who have decided to read his book. You won’t regret getting it! “Hermes me!” – Love it!– Richard — C’est ce qu’on dit, c’est ce qu’on dit…– Genie — You are fearless that way! 😉 As I mentioned to your “twin” Virginia, did you ever look at the Hermès Twilly? It’s a fun little item!– Arabesque — Absolutely. I do not need to own a Birkin or a Kelly (well…) Knowing that they are out there and being able to see one here and there makes me happy enough 😉 — Veronique

  26. arabesque on December 8, 2011 at 8:15 am

    visiting your blog, i can’t help but reading this post and put a smile on it. ^0^
    like you, as much as i want to have a Birkin bag or any Hermes bag for that matter, i think it’s just too much for me.^0^
    i don’t even think i have that “momentous” occasion to use it. ^0^
    regardless though, it’s these talented designers that inspires us and let us dream.
    informative post btw.

  27. altadenahiker on December 8, 2011 at 8:44 am

    Very entertaining! And now I have plenty of fodder for this weekend’s cocktail party.

  28. Peter on December 8, 2011 at 3:26 pm

    I thought my posts were fairly complete…; nothing compared to this one!! 🙂

  29. Castles Crowns and Cottages on December 9, 2011 at 4:27 am

    WOW. Quel billet plein d’histoire et la mode française!!! J’aime bien voir les MAÎTRES de cette entreprise planifier, travailler et créer ces sacs si élegants! Oh, Veronique, merci pour tes commentaires chez moi! Je suis tout à fait d’accord avec toi; les photos que je préfère sont celles de la Tour Eiffel…Ahhhh, Paris en hiver, c’est génial!GROSSES BISES MON AMIE! Anita

  30. marjorie on December 9, 2011 at 7:35 pm


    I so enjoyed reading this, and I look forward to reading your past and future posts. I laughed thinking of my trip to a market in Shanghai, where I was offered an orange “Barking” bag.


    P.S. Thank you for stopping by my blog, and leaving such lovely comments.

  31. Jennifer Fabulous on December 10, 2011 at 8:02 am

    It’s official. I have to read that book!!!This is an awesome post! I love it. 🙂 I knew bits and pieces of the Hermes story, particularly the Grace and Jane aspects. I was a little shocked to see Jane’s iconic bag as it is today. I mean, it’s in great condition and all but it looks like a bag I would see for $5 at a garage sale! Lol.I’m not sure I could justify spending that kind of money on a Hermes bag, even if I had the money, to be honest. I would actually prefer to spend the money on one of their gorgeous scarves. 🙂

  32. Bienvenue chez French Girl in Seattle... on December 11, 2011 at 10:28 am

    — Altadenahiker — Thank you for stopping by. How did the cocktail party go?– Peter — Master, coming from you, this is a BIG compliment!– Anita — Merci de ta visite!– Marjorie — I am happy I have found your blog. Who knows, maybe that “Barkin Bag” in Shanghai was the real thing?– Jenny — Hint, hint: Wait until tomorrow morning’s giveaway before you buy the book 😉 Yes, Jane certainly personalized the heck out of her Birkin, but she was still conservative compared to La Gaga! — Maria O. Russel. Merci for this interesting comment. I have always admired Eugenia (or as the French called her, “l’Imperatrice Eugenie”,) as she did so much for France as Napoleon III’s wife. I have no doubt the Hermes designers found their inspiration in the street when they launched their handbag line. What they did brilliantly, though, was to make bags easy for women to transport during car or train travel… and Grace Kelly and others noticed 😉 — Veronique

  33. Maria O. Russell on December 11, 2011 at 7:50 am

    During the reign of Eugenia de Montijo, what today is called the Birkin bag was a common, very popular briefcase, business bag for men…

  34. ourlifeinaclick.blogspot.com on December 11, 2011 at 1:44 pm

    Wow this is really fascinating! I heard of the Birkin from The Shopaholic books but now I feel like I know so much more. Thanks for stopping by and for your kinds words!! I am following you back and I will be back! 🙂


  35. Susan S. on December 11, 2011 at 6:22 pm

    Bonjour! Thanks for dropping by and leaving me a sweet comment. I LOVE your blog and have added myself as your newest follower. I’m excited to go through….I’m already loving all the information about Birkin and Hermes.

    Merry Christmas from Houston,TX

  36. Sedulia on December 12, 2011 at 1:53 am

    How fun! I loved all the pictures and learned a lot! My daughter went to an Hermès atelier with her school once and said it really gave her an appreciation of the bags. Unfortunately I want one now…. maybe some day!

  37. ELFI on December 12, 2011 at 1:29 pm

    de tout ces sacs..je préfère le petit panier de jane birkin..:)

  38. Hands to Work, Hearts to God on December 22, 2011 at 5:01 pm

    Interesting! A blessed Christmas to you and your family! Patsy from

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