Alluring aromas – vintage perfume bottles
Jul 7, 2021 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
If fashion is a way to convey your mood without words, then perfume is the way to leave a lasting impression. The iconic Christian Dior was quoted as saying “a woman’s perfume tells more about her than her handwriting.” For generations women have told their story through scent. This olfactory operation started in ancient Mesopotamia when a palace official named Tapputi began to extract scents from natural ingredients. Tapputi carefully documented all of her techniques, making her one of the first female scientists on record! With this strong foundation perfumeries expanded throughout the East, eventually making their way to Europe by the 13th century. Perfume (like other exotic imports) became big business in royal circles. Rumor has it that Catherine de’ Medici’s perfumer’s lab was only accessible via a secret passageway from her royal apartment. Forget showing up to a ball in the same gown – Catherine was not about to have any other woman smelling like her! Scent is the sense most closely associated with memory and Catherine demanded to be memorable.
Now, while modern women don’t typically invest in clandestine real estate for the sake of perfume, the sentiment of being memorable translates across eras. Personally I’m much more likely to gravitate to a dress than a perfume bottle while I’m thrifting, so the world of vintage perfume has largely remained a mystery to me. But as I’ve learned more about bottle designs I’ve found myself seeking these little beauties. Join me as we learn more about collecting vintage perfume bottles.
Check out this fun “by the decades” slide show of iconic perfume bottles
There are lots of ways to begin a collection, but I think one of the most enjoyable ways is to collect by era. When you seek pieces from the same generation it’s like having a conversation with history. Plus it’s a great way to earn expert status! As with any collectible, the farther back in time you go the treasures are more expensive and rare. (Which I think adds to the thrill of the hunt.) We’re going to focus on two specific time periods for this article: the late 1800s and early 1900s. But regardless of which era you choose, perfume bottle shapes have always trended toward the whimsical. Most often made out of glass, they are artistic both in their craftsmanship and design. Adding an antique or vintage perfume bottle to your collection is like gaining a miniature sculpture. So let’s hop in the way-back machine to meet our first era…
Bottles from the 1800s also have the distinction of being multipurpose, serving as a fashion accessory or being worn like jewelry. Perhaps because of this alter ego, you’ll can find examples hand-painted with gold. Common themes from this time echoed the broader Art Nouveau movement and savvy collectors will recognize big names like Lalique or Steuben. One way to quickly identify a late 1800s to early 1900s piece is by motif: leaves and flowers being the most popular of the natural themes. You will also find that the cap would often be just as detailed (if not more so) than the bottle itself. Remember, this is the Nouveau age when every flourish was appreciated and designs were elegantly overwrought. You’ll see reliefs and carvings adding depth and intrigue. Another popular technique introduced at this time was sandwich glass, with geometric bottle designs by New England Glass Company and the Boston & Sandwich Glass Company dominating the market. The methods used in sandwich glass paved the way for the next evolution in perfume bottle aesthetics.
Fun fact: the atomizer (i.e. the perfume sprayer) was introduced in 1907.
The power of the Art Deco movement shook the design world in every facet and perfume bottles were not immune to its structural charm. If organic curves were the hallmark of a turn-of-the-century bottle, geometry was the calling card for the 1920s and 1930s. This was also the dawn of Hollywood glamour and designers thought big. Some bottles even played with optical illusions by wildly increasing the size of the cap – distorting the traditional bottle shape. This was also when novelty bottles became big business so you’ll find all manner of playful designs (like this adorable pup). With colossal forces like Coco Chanel debuting her ground-breaking No. 5 scent, perfumers became laser-focused on crafting a bottle that was integral to the overall product story.
The concept of branding may not have been formally defined yet, but it was certainly gaining traction. For Chanel specifically this meant creating a bottle that put her perfume on glorious display, rather than overshadowing it with an intricate container. The legacy of this bold decision lives on today in the simplicity of Ralph Lauren or Dolce & Gabbana offerings. As you travel through the rest of perfume bottle history, you will find that the designs echo the artistic and cultural temperament of the time. My recommendation to first-time collectors is to brush up on your art history before you hit the shops – it will help train your eye to find the perfect treasure for your collection. I’ll leave you with a quote from the amazing Estée Lauder: “perfume is like a new dress, it makes you quite simply marvelous.” As we approach the height of Summer and the midpoint of our year, let’s go out there and be marvelous dear readers!