Collecting perfume bottles

From novelty cigarette packets to Lalique oyster shells, perfume bottles exude a powerful allure, finds Emma Longstaff.

Collecting perfume bottles

The 5th of May 2021 marked the 100th anniversary of the launch of Chanel No 5. With it, Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel wanted to create a completely new perfume for the modern woman, a signature scent that would embody her new aesthetic. What made it so refreshing was its mix of 80 different scents including jasmine, rose, sandalwood and vanilla, a combination that was much more sophisticated and complex than the single-note fragrances that had come before.

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Her vision extended to the bottles in which the perfume was sold. Said to be inspired by a whisky decanter or hip flask, the boxy minimalist design anticipated the mood of the 1920s – confident, daring and hedonistic. In the 1980s, Andy Warhol featured the Chanel No 5 bottle in a series of screen prints, confirming its status as a 20th-century design icon.

Perfume bottles have a very practical function – they contain the concoctions used to anoint our hair, bodies and clothes. In the centuries before modern sanitation, for those who could afford them, perfumes disguised the obnoxious stench of unwashed bodies, smoking factories and streets clogged with rainwater and waste. But despite the usefulness of perfume, scent bottles have rarely been straightforwardly utilitarian objects.

For millennia, makers have employed all their skills and artistry to communicate the magic of the bottles’ contents – ornate alabaster perfume jars were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, and the Romans stored perfume in vessels of highly iridescent glass.

What makes perfume bottles collectable?

As perfume bottle aficionado Ken Leach puts it, makers have always tried to ‘seduce the eye and the hand’ before the bottle was opened or the stopper was even lifted. Because of this, perfume bottles are often exquisite examples of particular moments in design history.

From 1907, glass artist René Lalique collaborated with the perfume manufacturer Coty to create a range of stunning glass flacons, which are now considered to be gems of French Art Nouveau style. Similarly, the perfume ‘Le Roy Soleil’ was created by celebrated couturière Elsa Schiaparelli in 1947 to mark the end of the Second World War, with the bottle designed by surrealist artist Salvador Dalí.

Coco Chanel is said to have owned hundreds of perfume bottles. Asked why she had so many on her dressing table, many of them empty, she apparently replied, ‘Those bottles are my memories of surrender and conquest… my crown jewels of love.’ Like Chanel, some collectors are drawn to perfume bottles for emotional reasons – perhaps they collect perfumes they remember their own mother using, which they weren’t allowed to touch.

Others focus on perfume houses they admire (Coty and Guerlain have strong followings) or collect specific makers (for example the French crystal manufacturer Baccarat).

Collecting perfume bottles
Old advertising of Chanel No on postage stamp

Some seek out bottles by iconic fashion houses such as Lanvin, Dior and Paul Poiret, or are drawn to a particular style, such as Art Deco. Many simply buy bottles that will display beautifully. Whatever approach they take, enthusiasts differentiate between two types of bottle: non-commercial (originally sold empty so they could be filled with a scent of the customer’s own choosing) and commercial (dating mainly from the late 19th and 20th centuries and sold complete with perfume).

Despite 20 years of dealing in non-commercial bottles, specialist Richard Hoppé still gets a thrill when he finds a shape he hasn’t encountered before and is often amazed by the bottles’ creative designs and workmanship. Non-commercial bottles were made from a variety of materials, including delicately pierced and engraved silver, hand-painted porcelain, ivory, cut crystal, and even semi-precious stones such as agate and carnelian.

Richard has even come across a bottle made from a carved and hollowed-out nut. Currently, the favourite item in his stock is a c1870 crystal bottle (£355), with a cranberry overlay body expertly cut to reveal the clear glass underneath. It’s double- ended, with a hinged end for perfume and a screw end for smelling salts.

‘The bottle was probably made in Bohemia (part of the modern-day Czech Republic) and imported to England, where the silver tops would have been fitted,’ Richard explains. ‘With its attractive design and deep, skilful cutting to the crystal, this handsome bottle was made by a master craftsman. One can imagine it in the window of a fashionable Bond Street shop, waiting to catch the eye of an affluent buyer.’ 

How much are perfume bottles worth?

Collectors often love commercial perfume bottles because they evoke the sensuality and glamour of a bygone age. Celebrity endorsed perfumes might seem like a recent invention, but in the 1930s film starlet Mae West launched a signature scent packaged in a novelty cigarette carton.

Similarly drawing on the allure of the silver screen, the manufacturer Pinaud shrewdly trademarked the name ‘Scarlett’, releasing new ‘Flirt’ and ‘Bittersweet’ ranges to coincide with the launch of Gone with the Wind. Rare examples of these bottles sold last year in the Perfume Bottles Auction, directed by Ken Leach.

The auction is eagerly awaited by perfume bottle collectors worldwide, since it often features rare commercial bottles. But buyers need deep pockets – at the 2020 event, an example of the Mae West bottle in its mock cigarette carton reached $5,100 and a duo of Pinaud’s Gone with the Wind perfumes sold for $10,200.

While the rarest pieces fetch eye-popping figures at auction, it’s also possible to pick up attractive bottles for a few pounds at car boot sales, online auctions and charity shops. As enthusiast Suzanne Finnegan points out, some of the more unusual modern bottles will be the vintage collectables of the future – just like the record-breaking limited-edition 1936 ‘Trésor de la Mer’, which sold at an auction in 2006 for $216, 000.

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The bottle, a frosted oyster shell by Lalique, was commissioned by New York department store Saks Fifth Avenue to celebrate its 50th anniversary. The vendor recalled that she waited for the $100 perfume to go on sale at $50 – still an expensive purchase at the time, but one that turned out to be a remarkable investment.