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Perfume Bottles

Author: Maria Matson
Issue: February, 2013, Page 40
Photos by David B. Moore and Ken Leach

This rose-shaped French porcelain perfume bottle was crafted in the 1920s. It features a gilt metal butterfly-shaped atomizer and is marked Artyse.*



history, Highlights and helpful Hints

The nose knows. At it’s most primal, our sense of smell helps us discern edible from non-edible, sniff out danger, and possibly even find and attract a mate. Noxious odors can send us reeling, while pleasant aromas can make us swoon. Some scents affect our mood, quieting the mind, increasing alertness or promoting a sense of contentment. Still others have the power to increase our heart rate or lower our blood pressure. And, when you least expect it, a specific smell will conjure up a long-forgotten memory. Smell matters.

In ancient Egypt, scented oils were used during religious rites and considered a luxury reserved for royalty and the wealthy. These perfumes were associated with the gods and, on a more practical level, masked body odors in the days before soap. Naturally, such treasured oils needed to be stored in special vessels. This meant storing scents in containers made of clay, glass, precious metals and semi-precious stones. 

As time marched on and the perfume industry grew, glassmakers fell into step, making functional yet highly decorative bottles for the upper crust to store their cherished fragrances. These containers came to be regarded as works of art in and of themselves.

One of the first major changes in the realm of perfume and perfume bottles arose with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution; it brought improved production techniques that made perfume accessible to the masses. But, as it did in many industries, mass-production left design in the dust, resulting in a glut of bottles with little aesthetic appeal. Art Nouveau soon came along and saved the design day with Asian-inspired, organic elements that both enhanced the beauty and embraced the function of the new boom of industrial products.

Photos - From left: Crafted in the 1930s, this Czechoslovakian perfume bottle is made of black crystal. The bottle is topped with a frosted “thistle” stopper, while the lower rim is surrounded by enameled gilt metal mounts.*  • This Czechoslovakian amethyst crystal perfume bottle from the 1920s includes a detailed pink peacock stopper. It is enameled in gilt metal and mounted with faux jewelry accents.*
 
One Highly Regarded Art
Nouveau decorative artist, René Lalique, played a role in a second major shift in perfumery when French perfume maker François Coty commissioned him to make a bottle for one of his scents. The marriage of commercial perfume and artistic, eye-catching packaging soon took off and was such a success that it remains the norm to this day.

A third movement of note was the Art Deco period. “Where Art Nouveau was flowing and romantic and had a lot of elements of nature, the Art Deco period fed on that but also included Japanese and Egyptian influences,” says Tucson collector Susan Via. “The Art Deco period was kind of a sea of change in the way the world looked at design. It was post-World War I, so there was a sense of possibilities and wild abandon after all the privation of war. There was a lot of elegance during that era, and people spent time on design.”

Designed by Julien Viard for French perfume maker Langlois, this bottle is made from enameled glass and was introduced at the 1925
Paris Exhibition.*
While the 1920s and ’30s are a popular period among collectors, examples from that era represent just the tip of the stopper in the world of perfume bottles. There is a long history to explore, not to mention a long list of glassmakers, perfumers and bottle colors, shapes and styles.

“Perfume bottles meet most of the requirements of the collector mentality,” says Nicholas Dawes, vice president of special collections for Heritage Auction Galleries in New York. “If you think of conventional collecting, like baseball cards or coins, people like to know they come with different dates and in different editions, and so do perfume bottles. You can collect all the bottles from one perfumer, or all the bottles from one maker, or you can intermix them.” He also notes that they’re available in a range of price points and are small and easy to display. “And they can be traded, rather like baseball cards, and collectors enjoy that, too. They enjoy being part of a bigger community of collectors who can talk about what they have. This is all part of the collector’s psyche, and perfume bottles work well with that.”

The International Perfume Bottle Association (IPBA) serves as collector central for aficionados worldwide. At its most recent convention in Florida, members from 19 countries met, mingled, and spent in excess of $450,000 during the annual auction of more than 250 perfume bottles and related vanity items.

This black perfume bottle from Antique Gatherings is topped with a burgundy-hued rose.
“There isn’t one single bottle or maker that appeals to every collector,” says Dawes. “There is a whole range of different styles, and people have different interests. But I would say there is a kind of hierarchy; Lalique perfume bottles are really at the high-end level as far as quality and value and general respect among collectors.”

Case in point: Ten years ago, Dawes, a noted expert on Lalique and a familiar face on PBS’ Antiques Roadshow, received a phone call from a woman in New Jersey. She asked for his opinion on a perfume bottle her mother had purchased for $25 in the late 1930s from Saks Fifth Avenue in New York. “When she started describing it, I knew what it was,” he says. “It was a very rare, limited-edition Lalique bottle. She had been offered $200 dollars for it from a local antiques dealer, but I told her it was worth a lot more than that. I sold it for her at auction; it brought $207,000, which is a record for a perfume bottle.”

Tucson resident Susan Via says she appreciates all styles, but her heart belongs to only one. It all started with two bottles purchased for her by her late husband at a shopping mall. Those two tiny bottles led her to her first IPBA convention and intensive research. Then it happened. “I discovered Czech glass from the ’20s and ’30s,” she says. “I was immediately hooked. That was one of the first expensive bottles I bought, and from then on that’s all I’ve collected. I wasn’t interested in anything else.”

Today, Via’s collection of Czech glass includes more than 300 pieces, of which “an overwhelming percentage are perfume bottles,” she says. “I have some extremely rare pieces, and I love them, but they’re not necessarily my favorites. I’m particularly fond of bottles with animals, and the opaque brown is my favorite color. It’s a rare color, probably because it didn’t sell well, but I like it because it looks like chocolate, and chocolate is my favorite food.”

Photos - From left: This perfume bottle features a mesh atomizer and is flanked by a pair of lounging cherubs. • This tall vintage perfume bottle features a netted atomizer. The glass is a soft shade of lavender.

Likewise, Sue Blue, a fellow Tucsonan and close friend of Via’s, sticks to collecting perfume bottles by DeVilbiss, the Toledo, Ohio, company that invented the perfume bottle atomizer. “I started collecting in the early 1960s,” Blue says. “When I started, I bought all kinds of perfume bottles, but I always loved DeVilbiss and so I settled in on collecting their perfumes and perfume lights.” She’s not sure exactly how many bottles are in her collection, but she says five cabinets are filled with most of the items produced by the company.

“Some people like to collect a little of everything, but some of us, like Sue and I, would rather go whole hog in one very narrow area,” Via says. “It’s just like any other area of collecting ... whatever turns you on.”

Things to Know
For the beginning collector, Nicholas Dawes, vice president of special collections for Heritage Auction Galleries in New York, offers the following advice: “Don’t buy the first thing you see; try and be discriminating. Go about it carefully and take good advice.” He suggests talking to local antiques dealers and joining the International Perfume Bottle Association (IPBA).

• The IPBA offers additional information: Most perfume bottles are made of glass and consist of two parts: a bottle and a stopper. The stopper should fit securely into the bottle and the two parts should be in “harmony,” or look like they belong together. Sometimes, bottles and stoppers get mismatched; collectors call such pairings a “marriage.”

•  There are two types of perfume bottles—non-commercial and commercial. Non-commercial bottles are art objects sold empty so that they can be filled by the individual owner. Commercial bottles are commissioned by a fragrance company and sold with perfume in them. The latter generally have a label and can sometimes be found in their original packaging. “Commercial perfume bottles are very collectible,” says Susan Via, an IPBA member. “Commercial collectors are incredibly interested in both the packaging and the bottle itself. The fragrance is irrelevant. If the original perfume is in there, don’t empty it, but don’t try to use it because it is likely rancid.”

•  Collections can be based on historical eras, bottle material, color, commercial perfumer, glassmaker, place of origin, size, shape and countless other criteria.

•  Buy bottles in good condition; a damaged bottle will always be a damaged bottle.

•  Research, research, research. Read books, go to antiques shows, search perfume bottle websites, join a collecting club or attend conventions and ask questions. Once you’ve done a little research, just start looking. 


Where to Buy Them
Antique Gatherings, Antiques on Central, Main Street Antique Mall.

Also consider attending the annual IPBA convention and auction (perfumebottles.org). And, of course, scour garage sales, estate sales, antiques shows, flea markets and thrift stores, and don’t forget to ask friends and relatives.

This pink perfume bottle appears to be lying on its side. Perfume bottles that once held perfume are considered viable collectibles, whereas bottles designed as gifts,” that have never held perfume,
are not.
From the 1930s, this Czechoslovakian black crystal perfume bottle has a frosted butterfly stopper.*
This multifaceted globular perfume bottle is a rich amber hue. Certain colors in perfume bottles are more valuable than others.


* Images courtesy of the International Perfume Bottle Association (IPBA). The organization’s annual auction takes place in May 2013 in Las Vegas. For information regarding event details and consignment opportunities, visit perfumebottles.org.
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