Antique and Vintage Perfume Bottles

“Two things make the women unforgettable … their tears and their perfume.”

– French actor Sacha Guiltry

For collectors of glass and porcelain, antique perfume bottles hold a delicate refinement that is hard to equal. The field is truly vast, extending from the shadows of antiquity to the modern day. Throughout that history some of the world’s most famous glass manufacturers produced perfume bottles incorporating their most innovative techniques and signature patterns. These items were prized possessions in the hands of their original owners. Today they are highly sought after treasures.

The allure of perfume has been capturing attention since the world’s earliest days, when ancient Egyptians applied scent as daily ritual and perfumes were included in tombs to accompany the dead’s soul into the afterlife.

When she served as Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra sailed aboard a ship with scented sails, an intoxicating image that lingers as long as the aroma of a fine perfume.

So closely intertwined with memory that the fleeting scent of a perfume can instantly bring to mind the remembered wearer, it is no wonder that perfumes – and the often ornate, ethereal bottles in which scents are housed – are considered so precious.

Early perfumes were made of powders, until chemists in Arabia and later France began experimenting with the alchemy of floral notes, resulting in the birth of rose water, peppermint and lavender oil as well as other exotic extractions and emulsions.

The bottles used to hold these lavish powders and potions were initially crafted of porcelain, ebony and alabaster as well as the earliest forms of glass, and were anything but primitive. Instead, the containers were intricate, intriguing vessels, often crusted with jewels to reflect the rarity and exclusive nature of the exotic elixir within.

In the United States, the first perfume bottles to be marketed were called smelling or pungent bottles, and not only held perfumes, but also smelling salts, a common cure from ladies who suffered from “the vapors.” (Those fainting spells were so common an occurrence that many early American homes also included a chaise called a fainting couch, where weary women could rest a spell after being revived by the pungent salts.)

Those bottles were initially imported from Europe, and as such were highly prized, but in the 18th century, the William Henry Stiegel glass company in Pennsylvania began crafting its own version of pungent bottles, tiny containers with sea-inspired designs that collectors now call seahorse bottles in recognition of the shell-shaped, spiral bases.

In the days before the Revolutionary War, Stiegel’s glass company also made traditional perfume bottles, and the brightly-hued vials crafted by Stiegel feature either a distinctive daisy inside a square, or a hexagon to mark his work.

The attention to detail that allowed Stiegel to make his mark in the industry set the standard for American makers of perfume bottles and atomizers, and designers continued to create pieces that were as beautiful and distinctive as the precious scent that they were crafted to hold.

In the 1800s, United States glassmakers including the New England Glass Company (by 1949 the largest glass company in the world) and The Boston & Sandwich Glass Company both crafted perfume bottles, using innovative techniques that made the companies and their products unique.

New England Glass Company gained worldwide attention at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, where it unveiled pieces crafted of diamond-patterned cut lead glass. Later, the company created memorable pressed glass patterns known as Blaze, Washington, New York and Vernon Honeycomb, all with a high lead content that that company considered superior, despite the advent of cheaper production techniques that produced glass without the use of lead.

Also known for creating blown glass with a very high lead content was the oft-copied Boston & Sandwich Glass Company, founded in 1822 and recognized for mold-blown pieces including perfume bottles and wine decanters based on English and Irish designs.

In the 1840s and ‘50s, after patenting several pressed glass techniques, Boston & Sandwich began mass producing pressed glass items including perfume bottles in myriad colors from amethyst and amber to luscious canary yellow and deep blood red.

This was the start of the Victorian era, and both pungent bottles and larger perfume bottles were growing more ornate to reflect the opulence of the time period, appearing in vibrant, multi-hued colors and strikingly intricate designs.

Also during this time, bottles in the shape of figures became popular. ALiberty Bell perfume bottle designed by Samuel Upham attracted attention at the aforementioned Centennial Exhibition and was a precursor of bottle figures to come.Bryce Brothers, created a pressed glass slipper-shaped bottle. Tappan Glass Companypatented two designs - Man on a Tricycle, a small bottle suspended in a metal trike-shaped base, and Street Lamp, a more elegant, traditional bottle.

During the Art Nouveau period (1890-1910), which overlapped the Victorian years and continued the elaborate, ornate design styles, perfume bottles in America became more intricate, especially as glass making techniques changed and improved.

In America, Tiffany was a leader in the perfume bottle industry, and unveiled beautiful iridescent glass perfume bottles crafted of favrile glass. Favrile was made by a technique that introduces metallic compounds to molten glass, a style that was also employed by companies such as Quezal, Stueben and Durand. Tiffany also created Art Nouveau perfume bottles in the millefiori style, a glasswork technique using cross-sectioned glass rods, cut to reveal patterns that are traditionally floral.

Across the ocean in France, designer Rene Lalique was also designing floral-inspired perfume bottles. Designed for companies including Cody, D’Orsay, Estee Lauder and many more, Lalique’s bottles featured ornate lily of the valley and anemone stoppers as well as daisy-patterned bases, and were crafted of cut or blown crystal.

The Art Deco period followed, and as part of the Jazz Age, the perfume bottles became more clean and contemporary with a bold, edgy look that matched the fashions, hair styles and music of the era. Chanel No. 5 and Shalimar by Guerlain were both popular scents among the fresh, modern women of the Roaring Twenties, and each had signature bottles to match the signature scents.

The makers of other perfumes that were popular during this time period commissioned bottles from the luxury crystal manufacturer Baccarat, which created designs for Guerlain (an Asian-inspired bottle for Lui perfume, a scent launched in 1929) and Christian Dior, among others.

Also popular at this time was the famed glassworks company Fenton, one of the better-known art glass studios and highly prized by collectors, which produced perfume bottles and other items throughout the Great Depression and continues today.

The sleek bottles of the ‘20s became a bit more feminine in the 1930s and ‘40s, and among the U.S. companies producing perfume bottles was Imperial Glass, which crafted clear, etched and frosted glass bottles with fan-shaped stoppers that continued the shapely look of the era’s fashions, moving away from the distinctly masculine look of the bold flapper period.

Following World War II, New Jersey’s T.C. Wheaton company manufactured most of the commercial perfume bottles in the United States, and produced bottles for companies such as Max Factor, Estee Lauder, Prince Matchabelli, and Elizabeth Arden.

Because they have so long been a part of history, perfume bottles are an excellent choice for those looking to begin a collection. Their small size makes them easy to house, and with prices ranging from less than $20 to more than $3,500, there are great choice for any budget.

Some lower priced examples include an antique French blue glass perfume bottle from the 1880s, which can be found at antique stores or auction sites for about $50, or luxurious Baccarat crystal bottles with price tags as low as $50.

Other European perfume bottle finds include an 1892 Roger & Gallet Paris Vera-Violetta perfume bottle in excellent condition with label intact, which sold at auction recently for about $55, as well as a Lalique Art Deco bottle, circa 1920 in bold cobalt blue, which could be had for about $50.

Higher priced European bottles include rare Lalique perfume vials, as well as others from Baccarat, which traditionally range in price from $100 to more than $1,000 For those looking for a piece of American history, expect to pay about $300 for a cobalt blue cut glass perfume bottle from Boston & Sandwich, while other, less rare shades like red can be yours for less than $20.

Also, look for Fenton milk glass, hobnob glass and blown glass perfume bottles, which are usually available at prices from $30 to $500.

Too, an iridescent gold aurene bottle crafted for Melba perfume by the New York-based Quezal is priced at about $400, while Steuben perfume bottles - including an iridescent bottle with a jade stopper for just over $1,250 - range in price from $100 to $3,500 at auction sites or antique stores.

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