Since ancient times, perfume bottles have served to contain the most subtle of mysteries: delightful, seductive scents. Before glassblowing, ancient Egyptian artisans fashioned exquisite containers from alabaster, metals, precious stones, and core-formed glass to hold their highly valued perfumes. When glassblowing was developed under Roman rule, nonporous blown glass emerged as the most popular material for perfume containers. In addition to preventing evaporation of essential oils and fragrances, glass was inexpensive and fairly abundant even in biblical times.
Perfume & the Industrial Revolution
Until the 19th century, perfume was used only by the wealthy. The Industrial Revolution sparked less costly methods of production, and a burgeoning middle class gave perfume makers a vast new market. French perfume became a global commodity. Nevertheless, the perfume bottle remained relatively unchanged through the end of the 19th century. Perfume was sold in generically shaped bottles and then transferred to more elegant vessels by consumers. However, with the rise of department stores and the growing global market, perfume manufacturers began to compete for customers, using aesthetically pleasing labels and attractive boxes to sell their perfumes.
Selling an Image, Not Just a Fragrance
In the early 20th century, the bottle itself became associated with the product, largely because of the collaboration of the designer/artist René Lalique and the manufacturer François Coty. Coty, who was new to the perfume industry, commissioned Lalique to design paper labels for his perfume bottles. Shortly thereafter, Lalique began to design bottles for Coty, revising the classic perfume container into more sculptural pieces. Now, each perfume could have a name, designer bottle, label, and box—a complete marketing package.
In 1911, Paul Poiret became the first couturier to incorporate perfume into his line of designs. Poiret inaugurated a trend. Following World War I, many houses of couture introduced their own perfumes with the total “presentation” of bottle, label, name, and box. Both the perfume presentation and the accompanying advertising were intended to sell an image, not merely a fragrance.
Glass companies such as Baccarat and Verreries Brosse also produced many of these bottles for high-end perfumers such as D’Orsay, Piver, and Guerlain, as well as for the houses of couture.
The Expansion of the Perfume Industry
During the 20th century, perfumes became increasingly affordable for the working classes. Houses of cosmetics such as Avon and Max Factor produced fragrances in abundance. The bottle continued to be an important element in the design and sale of these lower-priced fragrances. Avon perfumes were frequently sold in containers made in the form of butterflies, bells, harps, and other unusual shapes.
As the perfume industry expanded, specially designed perfume bottles continued to be produced as decorative objects for the dressing table by art-glass companies such as Steuben and Baccarat. These bottles were marketed as art objects for sale at department and specialty stores, and they were appreciated for their aesthetic appeal, independent of a particular perfume product. The Rakow Research Library has outstanding examples of these designs in drawings by Lalique and by Frederick Carder for Stevens & Williams, and in many other sketches and catalogs that illustrate the high-end art-glass market.
Today, cultural and social trends continue to influence the shapes and designs of bottles and the advertising and packaging of perfumes, which remain highly marketed commodities. Yet, designs advanced at the height of the perfume industry’s expansion are still notable for their mastery of form, their creativity, and their alluring styles.