With their elegant shapes, brilliant facets, and creative presentations, antique perfume bottles evoke the luxury and glamour of a bygone age. It is only within the last few decades that they have become objects of desire for collectors around the world. Once items of only practical or sentimental value, now they are being recognized as items of both artistry and cultural importance. From hand-painted decorative flowers to ornate glasswork, antique perfume bottles come in a variety of shapes and designs for all collectors to enjoy.
The History of Decorative Perfume Bottles
First developed during the late 19th and early 20th century for both advertising and merchandising purposes, antique perfume bottles long ago served their intended functional purpose as containers to hold a woman's perfume. Originally, they were developed to successfully market a fragrance in a very competitive field. In order to do so, highly imaginative elements and shapes were used to decorate the bottles and their wrappings, with the intention of catching a prospective buyer’s eye before they even smelled the scent. Now, they are deserving of their second life as collectible objects of both beauty and historical significance. Not only can they be found in private collections, but the rarest and most important have also taken their honored place in museum collections among the great turn-of-the-century objets d’art.
Just as with perfume bottles today, many of these pieces were mass produced, and generally meant to be discarded once empty. Therefore, they are not always easy to find. What few porcelain and glass bottles remain, however, vary in both value and rarity, allowing for every personal taste and budget. This makes perfume bottles an ideal choice for novice collectors who may not wish to make a large initial investment - it is easy to start small with perfume bottles. Every bottle collection is unique to the collectors' tastes. Whether you prefer hand-painted bottle, silver wrapped bottles, or you go for ornate miniature containers, these gorgeous pieces can create a stunning antique collection for any novice or pro.
Areas of Collecting
Perfume bottles offer a range of collecting possibilities. Some collectors choose to base their collections on specific designers, while others prefer a specific type or color of glass. Collections can also be based on decade of creation, certain styles, or even particular shapes. Read on to learn more about these areas of collecting and discover which most appeals to you.
Renowned for his impeccable artistry in glass design, René Lalique is perhaps the most legendary of the perfume bottle makers. His illustrious career began in 1881 as a designer of jewelry , and he eventually took over the workshop of jeweler Jules Destape in Paris. For nearly a decade, Lalique concentrated exclusively on fine jewelry design, but by 1890 the artisan began his first experiments in designs using glass.
Lalique’s glass items mimicked the natural forms, curvilinear designs, and stylized women of his Art Nouveau jewelry creations. His perfume bottles in particular propelled his reputation as a talented glass designer into an international sensation. He first began to design them at the request of his neighbor, legendary parfumier François Coty, who greatly admired Lalique’s designs. In 1907, Coty commissioned Lalique to first design labels, and then bottles and flasks. These were among the first forays that Lalique made into glassmaking, and today are extremely rare.
Click here to learn more about René Lalique’s legendary perfume bottles.
The English glassmaking company Thomas Webb & Sons was known originally as the "Crystal King of England." They are particularly renowned for their high-quality cameo glass creations, inspired by the ancient relic, the Portland Vase. Cameo glass is created by layering opaque white glass over a darker colored body, and etching or carving through the white glass to create a white relief design. Webb utilized this technique on a number of glass works from jugs to bowls to vases, but it is the firm’s perfume bottles that are perhaps their most charming cameo creations.
For many collectors, the Art Nouveau period (1890-1914) represents the height of perfume bottle creation. The natural forms, curvilinear designs, and stylized women that dominate the Art Nouveau style were the perfect fit for the romantic femininity of the world of perfume. Popular Art Nouveau-era techniques such as pliqué-à-jour enamelling particularly set these pieces apart from bottles of any other style or period.
The inclusion of a silver overlay is particularly appealing among collectors. The graceful, undulating curves that are typical of the Art Nouveau style were particularly well suited to this medium. Most of the bottles with silver overlay were crafted from clear glass, so those examples that feature color glass are among the most sought after of this genre.
Click here to learn more about the history of Art Nouveau glass.
While the Art Nouveau style implied sensuality and femininity, the Art Deco style (1920-1939) burst on the scene with a bold and glamorous modernity. Perfume bottles from this period represent the epitome of Art Deco design - simple, sleek and sexy. Collectors gravitate towards this category because the Art Deco style bottles represent a microcosm of the culture as a whole. Streamlined with an emphasis on structure, Art Deco design was a celebration of technology, modernity, and the return to normalcy after the chaos of war.
The most popular bottles from this age were crafted by René Lalique for Coty, usually incorporating geometric motifs and stylized figures. Between their Art Nouveau and Art Deco creations, this duo forever changed the face of commercial perfume presentation.
During the Brilliant Period of glass cutting from approximately 1885 to 1910, elaborately cut perfume bottles with facet cut stoppers became particularly stylish. These pieces, created in both America and England, were by far among the most elaborate perfume bottles ever made. Many were cut in geometric patterns such as hobstars and crosshatching, while others featured intaglios of motifs such as flowers, birds and butterflies. Remarkably intricate, cut glass bottles required the utmost expertise to create, as popular patterns were cut on the most miniature of scales.
Bohemia has been an important center for glassmaking for centuries, and in the 19th century, Bohemian glassmakers set the standard for quality and artistry in the Western world. They used a technique known as flashing in order to coat their glass creations in a thin skin of color, from rubies to ambers to cobalt blues. The unparalleled beauty and richness of glass form this region has attracted collectors from novices to royalty, including France's King Louis XV and Empress Maria Theresa of Austria.
Where to Start?
Perfume bottles are the perfect pieces for the novice collector - not only do they appeal to a wide variety of tastes, but they can often be easily found. Antique dealers such as M.S. Rau are perhaps the best source for these pieces. Purchasing from reputable dealer means that you can trust the quality, condition and authenticity of your new purchase. If you wish to add a beautiful bottle to your antique collection, M.S. Rau Antiques has a stunning collection from which to choose. Each piece is superbly decorated and reflects its own unique design, highlighting a high level of artistry from each maker. To view our extensive collection of antique bottles, click here and start collecting today!
Sloan, Jean. Perfume and Scent Bottle Collecting. Greensboro: Wallace-Homestead Book Company, 1986.
Leach, Ken. Perfume Presentation: 100 Years of Artistry. Toronto: KRES Publishing Inc., 1997.