On a short flight from London to Paris, in 1983, fashion history changed forever. That’s when Jane Birkin accidentally upended her Hermès datebook, scattering papers everywhere. To her assistance? Only Hermès’s legendary leader Jean-Louis Dumas, who engaged the actress and singer in discussion for the rest of the flight. Dumas asked Birkin: What is your dream bag? He took notes. He then brought those notes to the Hermès workshop. Soon, a legend was born.
A Birkin went for $222,000 in 2015, making it the most expensive bag ever sold at auction. That record didn’t last long. In 2016, it was beat by another Birkin, which sold for $300,168. In 35 years, the Birkin’s value has increased by more than 500 percent. Like a house or a work of art, it has become an object a buyer will fly across the world to inspect before purchasing.
Is it any wonder that counterfeiters love it?
Debra Kent, founder of Mightychic, has specialized in Hermès for nearly two decades and is still moved by the luxury house’s craftsmanship, quality and “world of colors.” Nonetheless, she warns, “some of the bags coming out of Italy are so good that even Hermès has a hard time telling.” To avoid being taken, the first imperative is to “know your seller,” she says. “You have to do your homework. You have to ask questions. You have to see that this is somebody that’s been around for a really long time.” You even need to know who, exactly, your seller is buying from.
And, of course, you must be familiar with the bag itself – especially the details that counterfeiters get wrong (or, worse, get right). Below, we’ve compiled a list of important features to be aware of when considering buying a piece of history.
Beneath the front flap of a real Birkin is the phrase of dreams: Hermès Paris Made in France. Label stamps are lightly pressed into the leather in gold, silver or as a colorless imprint; metallics generally match the hardware. Check that the accent is correct on the è. Check that the stamp is perfectly centered, the correct distance from the top (very close to the top stitching) and that the letters are clear and fine (not heavy-handed). It shouldn’t look engraved, painted on or irregular. The label stamp may have additional markings, such as those indicating an exotic leather or a special order (a horseshoe). By familiarizing yourself with the qualities of an authentic stamp, you’ll be better prepared to win a game of “spot the fake.”
Since 2000, both lock and keys are stamped “Hermès” and numbered; the numbers on the lock will correspond with those on the keys. However, because the style of numbering has changed throughout the years, authenticating through this inconsistent detail is difficult. Instead, consider the quality of the lock and key as well as their engravings. Hardware is primarily in either gold or palladium, which lends a substantial feel. The toggle should move smoothly and all engravings should be crisp and refined.
Keys are enclosed in a leather clochette that loops through the bag’s handle. Hermès attaches keys directly to a leather band; it doesn’t use key rings. And, take a look at the clochette itself. Is the part that houses the keys made of one piece of leather folded at top and sewn at the sides? Or is it made of two pieces of leather sewn together on three sides. If the latter, it’s a fake.
It’s the Parisian equivalent of the royal guard standing outside Buckingham Palace: the “posture” of the Birkin sends a message of status and discipline. An authentic Birkin doesn’t slouch. Or bulge. It’s straight, symmetrical, assured. “It’s perfect from every angle,” says Diane D’Amato, director of luxury accessories at Heritage Auctions. Quality leather enables the Birkin to maintain its impressive form. (It also can’t hurt that Hermès has a spa in Paris dedicated to the upkeep of its classic bags.)
“Your proportions are important,” says Kent. “Does your handle look too tall? Or the face too round?” The most popular Birkin sizes are 25, 30, 35 and 40 centimeters. “Sometimes, you get a bag that’s a little bit oversized, a little bit undersized. That’s usually an indication that it’s authentic because they’re handmade, right, so not every single bag will be exactly the same.”
“One of your first giveaways to an authentic bag is the leather,” says Kent. “There’s just nothing like the smell and the feel and the look of an authentic Hermès bag.” Birkins come in a variety of leathers, including box calf, Chamonix, togo, clemence, veau swift, Epsom and fjord. Exotic leathers include alligator, crocodile and ostrich.
“Each year, Hermès creates different colors in different leathers,” says d’Amato. “We make sure that the leather is correct with the color. . . . Not every bag in every color is made in every leather.”
Done by the hand of an experienced artisan, the stitches on the Birkin are slightly angled, tight and precise. Generally, the thread is the same color as the bag. Since the stitching is hand-done, it may have small inconsistencies — but it will never be messy. Sloppy work such as loose or hanging threads is the work of a counterfeiter, not a lazy artisan. There are no lazy artisans in the world of Hermès.
The Blind Stamp
In 1945, Hermès began dating bags with letters of the alphabet. It began that year with A and ended, 25 years later, in 1970, with Z. Then the cycle began again, with the addition of a new notation. From 1971 through 1996, letters of the alphabet were surrounded by a circle. And from 1997 until very recently the letter has been surrounded by a square. On the Birkin, this information was found on the underside of the tab strap.
This all changed in the past couple of years, when, in its constant battle against knockoffs, Hermès moved these marking to inside of the bag and changed its coding system to one that is less decipherable. While this change caused initial consternation among collectors, just imagine the trouble it’s giving counterfeiters!
On the zipper of an authentic Birkin, the name “Hermès” is engraved on the metal pull with its lower half toward the leather pull. (As always with engravings on Birkin hardware, the final effect should be clean and elegant, not slapdash or thick.) Because counterfeiters have been known to figure this out — although they don’t always — another way of assessing the zipper is by judging the action itself. Zipping a Birkin should be a luxury experience, the motion smooth and uniform. It should convince you that one highly trained artisan sat with that bag and that zipper, tested it for perfection and was ultimately satisfied.
Hermès does not, will not and never has provided an authenticity card with its bags. Counterfeiters do, however. The same goes for hang tags — they don’t exist in the authentic world. Keep that in mind.
Some counterfeit shortcuts may be easy to find, but only if you turn the bag over and look at its base. Do the feet twist off? They won’t on a real Birkin. Are they shorter, wider or even just cheaper-looking than on authentic bags? Be aware. Finally, the leather pattern might offer a valuable clue. For example, the pattern should run side to side, along the length of the bag (as pictured above), not top to bottom. This is the kind of detail that could escape common counterfeiters.
(Article Reviewed on the 15th of September 2020)
About the author: Lisa Santandrea is a New York City–based writer who teaches fashion history at Parsons School of Design.