The symbolic allure of jewellery house handbags

For those who covet a handbag that isn’t easily identifiable, there is a beguiling alternative from an unexpected source, says Lucia van der Post. Photography by Omer Knaz

From left: Chopard leather Oslo mini, £1,230. Cartier crocodile Panthère pouch, £8,450. Bulgari calfskin Serpenti Forever bag, £1,620
From left: Chopard leather Oslo mini, £1,230. Cartier crocodile Panthère pouch, £8,450. Bulgari calfskin Serpenti Forever bag, £1,620 | Image: Omer Knaz

It’s been some time since the apogee of It bag lust. We all remember when the handbag morphed from an essential accessory into something laden with codes and symbolism, when the handbag du jour became the ultimate fashion must-have. Most of these key high-ticket bags have been the output of big-name fashion houses – Mulberry’s Bayswater and Alexa, Chanel’s 2.55, Balenciaga’s Lariat, the Fendi Baguette, the Hermès Birkin – but as tastes changed, a clutch of under-the-radar labels with smaller and more limited editions emerged. And now there are other players in the game, less well known perhaps but offering a tempting alternative. Enter handbags from some of our most historic fine jewellers, whose collections are intimately connected to the codes of the house in subtly different ways.

Take Cartier: while the brand has occasionally made one-off handbags to special order (for US socialite Barbara Hutton, for instance, in 1961), it launched its first accessories line, Le Must de Cartier, in 1973. The notion was to apply the same values of quality and craftsmanship embodied in Cartier’s jewellery to the making of handbags. Each model was to be created from fine leathers in ateliers in France or Italy. Today its squashy Marcello totes (from £1,260) and satchels (from £1,740) feature an oversized double-C logo and are among the brand’s all-time bestsellers, while new this season is a miniature version (£1,300) of another of its most successful designs, the classic C de Cartier tote, in a series of jewel colours (peridot green, spinel red, morganite pink, a yellow resembling the jonquil diamond and metallic gold).

From left: Cartier leather C de Cartier mini tote, £1,300. Bulgari lizard Serpenti Tubogas clutch, £2,680. Chopard leather Siena handbag, £1,250
From left: Cartier leather C de Cartier mini tote, £1,300. Bulgari lizard Serpenti Tubogas clutch, £2,680. Chopard leather Siena handbag, £1,250 | Image: Omer Knaz

This November sees the launch of a small collection of limited edition evening bags inspired by the panther, Cartier’s creative emblem and a constant theme since it first appeared in full on a cigarette case Louis Cartier gave to Jeanne Toussaint (later Cartier’s head of accessories) in 1917. Cartier’s evening bags were often made of spun-gold pleated mesh embellished with wonderful jewels and intricately carved clasps – all the better to display the jeweller’s craft. Some of today’s evening bags are more subtle: an elongated pouch in black calfskin (£1,980) or black crocodile (£8,450) features a golden clasp and chain and a panthère’s head delineated in gold thread. Others are every bit as extravagantly conceived as their historical cousins: an exquisite square clutch (£157,000) in gold mesh is embellished with emeralds and diamonds and has a panthère’s head clasp; while a special, one-off black silk evening bag (price on request) has a crocodile clasp in emeralds, diamonds, black lacquer and gold that detaches to be worn as a brooch.

At Chopard, the impetus to provide customers with bags as well as jewels came from its creative director Caroline Scheufele 10 years ago. The Swiss jewellery house sources the best calfskin – natural, grained, caviare or smooth – and each bag is handmade in Italy. This year’s Happy Vintage mini bag (£800) was designed to complement the distinctive Happy Diamonds jewellery collection, in which diamonds float free – in pendants, watches or rings. Available in many colours, from dove grey to sandy pink, the handbag features two curved hearts coming together to form the clasp, each enclosing a single floating crystal that dances just like the diamonds in the jewellery. New this autumn is the Siena handbag (£1,250) made from grained leather with a clasp echoing the iconic Impériale motif, a key Chopard symbol resembling a stylised six‑sided flower, also found on the Oslo mini bag (£1,230), a charming drawstring design, chicest in tan with a navy strap or emerald with a forest-green strap.

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Bulgari has been exploring accessories, from handbags to silk scarves, since the 1990s, linking each new product to the brand’s DNA and using motifs and symbols familiar to Bulgari fans – references to the classical art so closely associated with Bulgari’s home city of Rome. Clasps might feature double facing lions, inspired by a vintage bracelet from the 1960s, or Bulgari’s well-known Parentesi, reflecting the travertine stones used to pave the streets of Rome, as well as its iconic coin motifs. But Bulgari’s greatest success has been its Serpenti Forever collection, first launched in 2011, its snake-like clasp created in enamel and onyx, amethyst or malachite.

Each year sees glamorous reinventions of the Serpenti Forever, which this season is a viper with two malachite stones for eyes. The bag is available in various shapes and sizes (from £1,380), in glorious jewel-like colours, such as emerald, sapphire, ruby and teal topaz, and in calfskin (£1,620), python or lizard, and has a chain resembling the scales of a snake. There is also an elegant evening clutch, the Serpenti Tubogas, in black galuchat (£2,030) or iridescent lizard (£2,680), each with a gold snake-like chain running around the bag.

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And so we can see, jewellers have a particular take on handbags, using them as a showcase for their craft and subtly weaving their motifs into these most visible of accessories. Each offers an especially beguiling alternative to the once ubiquitous It bag.

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