The scent of perfume bottles
I don’t wear perfume but I do love the bottles they come in. Many of them are works of art, as refined as some of the fragrances they hold.
I’ve found a few in box lots at auction, but none to compare to the vintage ones I saw last week at an exhibit at Longwood Gardens, a natural paradise. I asked my sister blogger Fatimah Ali, who writes the Healthy Southern Comforts blog, to join me for an early-evening excursion to revel in the smell of lavender. Once a month during the exhibit, Longwood Gardens offers “Fragrant Friday.”
The exhibit is called “Making Scents: The Art and Passion of Fragrance,” which tells the story of what flowers produced perfumes, how the fragrances were created and who made them, some names I readily recognized – Chanel, Schiaparelli, Christina Dior, Lalique, Coty, Lanvin, Guerlain, Jean Patou.
The exhibit has been there since April – and will remain until Nov. 21 – and each month it highlights a particular scent. July’s lavender is one of my favorites. We sampled lavender lemonade – delicious! – made lavender-infused eye pillows for homeless women and pouches for their children, and brought home a small lavender plant.
On lavender-colored paper, we wrote a description of the memory of a scent. Mine: When I was working, a staffer and I would breathe in whiffs of lavender when we felt stress coming on, precipitated by someone in the office who had gotten on our last nerve. It beat counting to 10 or screaming. Fatimah’s: Her grandmother Susie used to scent her linens with lavendar and “it was the best sleep ever,” she recalled.
At the exhibit, we also created our own fragrance: Mine was a combination of aldehyde, jasmine (another of my favorite scents) and vanilla. The scent was captured on a scratch card, which produced only a hint of my first perfume. It’ll take a little while, one of the Longwood people assured us. Three days later, and now I can smell the scent. Still can’t wear it, though.
The most exciting part of the exhibit was a display of beautifully designed perfume bottles. You can see photos in the slideshow below.
One of the names I was looking for and found was the famous fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli. One of her most famous perfumes –Le Roy Soleil, whose bottle was designed by Salvador Dali in 1946 – was not there. But a bottle made in its likeness by Phillipe Romano was (you can see it in the slideshow). Both bottles were based on the Dali painting “Le Roy Soleil” of France’s Louis XIV, the Sun King.
One of Schiaparelli’s most famous perfumes was “Shocking” (1936), the bottle in the shape of a woman’s torso and the box a hot pink. It was said to have been copied from the dummy of Mae West’s tailor (Schiaparelli designed for West), according to wikipedia. I have one of those bottles, got it at an auction as part of a lot. There is some perfume in it and Schiaparelli’s name on the back. The bottom appeared to be missing, along with the flowers covering the cap.
That lot came with several other bottles, most of them miniatures and some unmarked. I have – and have had – a few others that were marked: Givenchy, Bijan, Richard Hudnut, Corday, Lows French cologne, Alfred Wright, Max Factor.
I don’t intentionally collect the bottles, but I have a friend who does. And she’s not alone. Perfume bottles are very collectible, and miniatures are said to be especially enticing. Lalique is considered the most valuable, according to an article on the Telegraph Media Group site, which also quoted a specialist at Christie’s who said that Rene Lalique was the first to design bottles for commercial use.
Individual bottles and collections can be valued into the hundreds and thousands of dollars, but I’m sure most people collect them for their beauty. Lynn Dralle, who calls herself the Queen of Auctions, suggested that you buy a lot of perfume bottles at one time when you’re at an estate or house sale to get the best prices – and remember not to bypass bathrooms ’cause that’s where the bottles are. She has links to ones she’s bought and sold on Ebay (prices were not in the stratosphere, but every little bit adds up, I suppose).
Want to see a really expensive one: Take a look at this 1870 engraved Guerlain perfume bottle that sold this year for $55,000 in France.
I was curious to see if there were any perfumes or bottles made by African Americans. One site said that Madame C.J. Walker sold perfume (among her hair-care products and cosmetics), and another site gave it a name “Floral Cluster” (1925). I wasn’t able to find a perfume bottle, but I did find a 1920 ad for her products, including Floral Cluster talcum powder , described as “exquisitely perfumed.”
Finding one of hers would be fantastic.
Click on the first photo to start the gallery.