There was a time when ladies had dressing tables, ostensibly for applying makeup but also to display a collection of perfumes. Which rather explains why the perfume bottles of old were staggeringly beautiful -- they were meant to adorn, not just function as containers.
In this day and age of 3-1-1, we have stopped thinking of perfume bottles, mainly because they have become an encumbrance. Who hasn't skipped buying scent because decanting it into a travel atomizer would be too much trouble? Who hasn't sighed and said 'I wish my scent was a solid?'
Hence the flacon in the main photo, Rene Lalique's sumptuous Oiseau de Feu (French for firebird), would never be produced today. We do not consume that much perfume to justify an enormous container, much less want to pay for a bottle. Created in 1922, Oiseau de Feu was the embodiment of perfume bottle as art with its delicate etching on the exaggerated stopper. One such bottle was auctioned in recent years for $42,000.
Perfume bottle craftsmanship came into its own in the 13th century with the ascendance of Venetian glass artisans. Scent bottles from the 16th to the 18th centuries were gem-like in construction, with elaborate -- and expensive -- designs and finishes. This tells us that fragrance at that time was a phenomenon reserved for the aristocracy.
The perfume bottles above were constructed from labradorite or agate and finished with gold. The bottle on the far right may have been a lover's gift. Along the belly is the inscription 'Eloignez de vous rien n'est agreable' which translates to 'Away from you, there is no pleasure.'*
Perfume bottle artistry faded somewhat in the 19th century, only to be revived in the Jazz Age. Lalique, a jeweler by trade, had been experimenting with glass and entered into a profitable collaborative partnership with perfumer Francois Coty. Lalique's molded glass, with details highlighted in relief or frosted for stunning contrast, were revolutionary for that time.
The desire for bottles as beautiful as the perfumes they held inspired showstopping creations. This circa 1930s green malachite bottle is attributed to Rudolf Hlousek Eisenbrod**, a Czech artisan whose company specialized in deep sculpted art glass.
The arrival of Chanel No. 5 and its square, minimalist bottle was the antithesis of the highly stylized container. A 1924 marketing brochure for Parfums Chanel said, 'Why rely on the art of the glassmaker ... Mademoiselle [Coco Chanel] is proud to present simple bottles adorned only by ... precious teardrops of perfume of incomparable quality, unique in composition, revealing the artistic personality of their creator.'
We may have lost something in relegating perfume bottles to the bric-a-brac of history. There is the pleasure of looking at exquisite examples of glass workmanship. There is the joy of displaying scents that are ingrained in our lives, scents that serve as chapter markers of sorts. Thankfully there are still collectors who value perfume bottles, both for sentimental value and the artistry they represent.
*Photo courtesy of Rococo Revisited
**Photo courtesy of Richard Hoppé Antiques