Women's Fashion

Bagging a gem

Savvy shoppers are plucking discreetly styled and beautifully crafted bags from the most unlikely shelves. Elisa Anniss reports.

July 09 2011
Elisa Anniss

There’s something refreshingly discreet about buying a bag from a fine jewellery house. Famous names at the vanguard of luxury craftsmanship, such as Bulgari, Asprey, Cartier and, more recently, Tiffany, are all lending their cachet to leather handbags. However, none of these names naturally springs to mind when searching for that perfect bag, if only because they don’t sit alongside the usual suspects.

Take the experience of Pilar Cabo Coin, global marketing director at Italian jewellery company Roberto Coin. “I would never have bought a bag from a jewellery label myself,” she says. “I mainly buy from Céline, Lanvin, Chanel and Hermès.” However, when her husband gave her a silk Bulgari evening bag 10 years ago, around the same time her brother-in-law gave her a small burgundy leather bag by Cartier, she quickly discovered the benefits of owning bags that weren’t ubiquitous. “I still wear both of these bags at night, because in Florence, where I live, everyone tends to have the same labels. To me, these evening bags are both vintage and different.”

On a recent visit to Selfridges’ Wonder Room, a destination for fine-jewellery brands away from the hustle-bustle of the bag department, I find some of Chopard’s bags. The Caroline (from £2,090) and the small-enough-for-night Mini Caroline (from £1,470) both have a zipped construction and nod to Chopard’s signature heart symbol on the clasp. They are named after Caroline Gruosi-Scheufele, Chopard’s co-president and creative director. The Mini Caroline comes in crocodile, pony and leather, and colours such as red or ecru fabric with brown leather. The Swiss jeweller has been selling bags since 2006, and its newest offering, in stores next month, is the leather Imperiale clutch (price on request), whose quilting echoes the dial motif of the Imperiale watch.

“Our Wonder Room customers are very discerning and have an extraordinary appetite for well-crafted pieces,” explains Sebastian Manes, Selfridges’ buying director for womenswear and accessories. “When they opt for a clutch from Chopard or a bag from Cartier, for instance, they are seeking a quality in material, know-how and luxury that goes beyond what many ready-to-wear brands can offer. And the demand is noticeably growing.”

Bags from jewellers run the gamut of day to night, classic to casual. The newest brand to join the ranks is Tiffany, which launched its first collection in the US last September. Now, the more casual Tiffany Reversible Tote is available in its Bond Street flagship in black and Tiffany-blue, and in a greater range of colours online (from £305). This soft, tactile shoulder bag can be reversed to show a metallic lining, and features a zipped purse. The full collection is available Stateside and includes the framed Morgan clutch in a woven fabric of copper and 24ct gold threads ($1,595), striking wicker bags (from $495) and fold-over satin clutches ($495).

Employing Richard Lambertson and John Truex as design directors in May 2009 was a clever move on Tiffany’s part. The duo behind handbag company Lambertson Truex, now owned by Tiffany, have an impressive track record. Back in 2000 they were the recipients of the coveted Accessories Designer of the Year award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. The pair might not be so well known outside the US, but this could soon change, as the bags’ clean aesthetic should appeal to Europeans too.

Bags from jewellery houses are not, however, a new phenomenon. Cartier has a long history of producing bags, from turn-of-the-19th-century minaudières to the diamond-encrusted, tiger-clasped bag ordered by Barbara Hutton as a gift for her sister-in-law in 1961, but it is the signature leather hunting bags of the 1970s and 1980s that have had the greatest influence on the Marcello de Cartier collection that launched in 2007. The latest addition is a casual canvas tote with watersnake trims (£6,000), available in red or bronze. Also offering summer luxe is the new Hobo (from £1,125), a slouchy style pulled together with a frame at the top that comes in bronze or black leather.

“We are a jeweller of leather, a jeweller of eyewear; we treat other product sectors as jewellery,” says Cartier’s CEO Bernard Fornas, adding that his approach is to create precious products that echo Cartier’s DNA. His motto is “Timeless, and in tune with the times”, and his goal is to make bags that sophisticated and elegant women are able to carry for years to come, in much the same way as they might treasure their Tank watch.

“There’s a built-in customer devoted to these brands,” explains New York-based luxury consultant Robert Burke, who worked as a consultant on Bulgari’s handbag division for three years. Through this experience, Burke found that jewellery companies operate in a quiet, under-the-radar way, entirely differently to the way clothing companies market and distribute their bags. He also discovered that all of them are faced with a difficult dilemma: on the one hand, the next step is for bags from these houses to become not so “out on a limb”, on the other, they also have to consider, he says, that there is a definite allure to owning a handbag that isn’t widely available.

To buy a bag from any one of these names, it’s best to head straight to a flagship store, or the fine jewellery area of a department store, as these tend to be the only places you’ll find them. Latterly, I’ve realised that spotting a Cartier Marcello handbag at the chi-chi Quartier 206 store in Berlin’s Mitte was out of the ordinary, as typically Cartier only sells its pieces through its own flagships and department-store concessions.

Like Cartier, Asprey has a history of making handbags; and like Tiffany, it also now has a handbag pro. Bruce Hoeksema, who also runs accessories brand VBH, was appointed Asprey creative director in June 2010 and is quite vocal about not wanting Asprey to become more widely available. His success so far – sales of handbags are up 50 per cent on the previous year – is down to beautifully crafted, thoroughly British bags such as the casual Notting Hill tote (£3,825), with its single knotted strap, and two new interpretations of the classic steamer bag in the Belgravia Darcy (from £8,000) and the 1781 (from £2,000), based on a design plucked from the archives.

Asprey is always on the lookout for its heritage pieces at auction, among them Margaret Thatcher’s faithful black Asprey handbag from the 1980s, which fetched £25,000 at Christie’s on June 27. But Hoeksema recently “tweaked” and “improved” the construction of the Darcy bag, widening the base and changing the lining to goat suede. Overall, he’s doubled the bag collection, introducing softer, casual models such as the Crescent shoulder bag (£1,850), its supple leather curving up into the strap, as well as the Hanover Mini (£1,000), inspired by the traditional men’s Hanover Briefcase and fashioned from traditional English saddle leather. It can can be worn with or without the shoulder strap, making it perfect for both the office and the weekend.

Bulgari, meanwhile, has channelled its heritage into the popular Leoni collection, based on a 1960s gold bracelet. This season’s Leonis (from £980), all with the same fold-over shape and distictive lion clasp, come in satin, canvas and leather, ostrich, lambskin and python. Other striking designs include the Isabella Rossellini, in a green chevron pattern (£1,860), and the hexagon-embossed Matthew Williamson collaboration (from £1,250). Indeed, Bulgari could soon be stepping up its handbag offering even further, thanks to the recent €3.7bn takeover by LVMH.

And it’s not just jewellery houses that are diversifying. Since stationery and pen labels such as Smythson and Montblanc are as well known for fine craftsmanship as the above jewellery houses, and tend towards a similar focus on classics and discreet distribution, it follows that they too have plenty to offer the bag market.

Although better known for its writing instruments, Montblanc became a fine jeweller in 2007, even adding a patented star-shaped diamond to its collection in 2010. Before this, however, in 2005, the company added ladies’ bags to its repertoire. Each bag is subtly branded with the Montblanc star, and the emblem is interpreted in a more contemporary way this season on the Lady Starisma Pamina tote (£645), a canvas bag with an alligator trim; the star is stitched into the fabric, producing an eye-catching ripple pattern.

Peek at Smythson’s archive and it’s plain to see that bags are nothing new for the British stationery company, rather something that is gathering steam. The Nancy bag (from £700), for example, takes its inspiration from Smythson’s 1905 Monitor Bag, while this season’s framed Agatha bag (from £700) borrows its “bag within a bag” concept from the original 1909 Bridgewater model and features a distinctive closure inlaid with shagreen – certainly helping to identify it as a Smythson creation. Colour is also central to each collection, and this season’s vibrant shades are hibiscus, jade and citrus.

“Our handbags are not fast fashion, and we agonise over details and functions as much as we do the seasonal colours and styles,” says Anna-Lisa Froman, Smythson’s senior vice-president. It was the bright hues that caught the eye of Hong Kong resident Audrey Savransky, the jeweller behind the niche AS29 label. She says she knew Smythson for its stationery and discovered its bags while shopping in Harvey Nichols in Hong Kong. There, she bought a jade green clutch, which she now uses to store her passport and documents while travelling.

The only problem with all this jewellery-stationery-bag crossover is that you really do have to know where you’re going. This became apparent on a recent visit to Harrods’ fine jewellery department, where I found bags by Cartier at Cartier, Tiffany at Tiffany and Chopard at Chopard. But when I reeled off a list of all of the above to an unsuspecting assistant in Harrods’ adjacent handbag department, their conspiratorial comment was, “I wish these brands were here, because I get asked about them all the time.”