While it’s true that good things often come in small packages, it’s also true that the package can outlast the thing. This is the case of perfume bottles. Indeed, the whole idea of glass bottles dates back to ancient Egypt and the need to store and transport perfume. The ancient world was filled with foul smells, and the invention of Lysol was still 3,000 years away. If that’s not a pedigree to brag about, I don’t know what is. Let’s take a puff.
In fact, perfume was strongly linked to early Egyptian culture. It was widely used in religious rituals and its keeping gave impetus to the invention of glass around 1000 BC. Over time, the use of perfume spread throughout the Middle East and Europe. In Greece perfumes were stored in heavily ornate containers while the Romans believed that certain perfumes were aphrodisiacs, a fact which did not go unnoticed by later entrepreneurs. With the invention of blown glass by the Syrians at the time of Christ, the modern perfume bottle came into view.
Between then and now, the use of perfume has fluctuated, declining with the decline of Christianity, then increasing in popularity throughout the Middle Ages and particularly in the Islamic world. As the spice trade flourished in the 7th and 8th centuries, merchants introduced perfumes to a series of new markets. In Italy, where glassblowing was embraced as an art form early on, beautifully crafted perfume bottles and ampoules have become centerpieces of the art of the glassblower.
Leapfrogging 1,000 years, perfume bottles reached a peak of sorts in the 18th century when craftsmen of all types took to designing them. Crystal, porcelain and precious metals were the materials of choice, often adorned with polished stones or jewelry of considerable value. The invention of the atomizer in 1870 promoted the usefulness of these bottles, causing the appearance a few years later of the two modern giants of the industry: Baccarat and Lalique. That their bottles contained perfume was something of an afterthought. Lalique and Baccarat creations were to serve as centerpieces in a woman’s boudoir, ultimate symbols of taste and beauty. These names still resonate today.
Since the dawn of the 20th century, cultural icons such as Salvador Dali, Carolina Herrera, Jean Patou and Nina Ricci have all made their way into perfume bottle design. Fragrance advertisements, so ubiquitous this holiday season, cannot convey fragrance through any form of modern communication, so bottles must serve as a placeholder for all the wonderful things their contents promise.
According to some estimates, as many as 50,000 perfume bottles are produced every day in the United States by a wide range of manufacturers. As for vintage bottles, they are widely collected even by many leading art museums. Prices remain reasonable for all, but the rarest examples and antique galleries like ours offer a dazzling array. It is a fragrant category for collectors young and old.
Mike Rivkin and his wife, Linda, are longtime residents of Rancho Mirage. For many years he was an award-winning catalog editor and authored seven books, as well as countless articles. Now he is the owner of the Palm Springs Antique Galleries. His antiques column appears Saturdays in The Desert Sun. Want to send Mike a question about antiques? Write to him at [email protected].