There are perfume collectors, and then there are perfume bottle collectors. As a member of the former category, I was glad to have an opportunity to focus on the vessels that contain my beloved scents by attending the New Orleans Museum of Art's exhibit "Scents and Sensibility: Celebrating the History of the Fragrance Bottle."
By spanning from 1100 BC to the present and displaying the perfume bottles achronologically, the exhibit succeeded in showing the real diversity in perfume bottles through time. You might think that bottles started off with simple designs, and eventually got more elaborate — but you'd be wrong.
Take this charming little pig-shaped flask made of nonlead blown glass.It almost looks like something the Italian designer Alessi, purveyor of whimsical kitchen utensils, might sell today as a salad dressing dispenser. Well, it is from 100 - 300 AD (Roman Empire/Syro Palestine). Cute little fellow, no?
In a brief talk during the exhibit's opening night, curator John Keefe explained that the Industrial Revolution's new technologies created an affluent middle class that was able to indulge in luxuries like perfume, which was once associated with the aristocracy.This desire, along with the technological ability to indulge it, meant a flowering of the perfume bottle form into ever-more dazzling designs and colors.
Few bottles in the exhibit were more dazzling than the giant Lalique-designed crystal flacon for L'air du Temps, released by Nina Ricci in 1947. (Shown supersized, above.) When filled with perfume, this stunner went for about $4,700, or the equivalent at the time of a modest house! For the unwashed masses, smaller bottles of L'air du Temps were available with the iconic twin doves — in plastic. (Hey, we perfume lovers take what we can get!)
Although Chanel perfumer Jacques Polge has said that Chanel was the first significant designer to link perfume to couture (and who wouldn't recognize No. 5's modernist-chic bottle?), John Keefe reminds us that it was actually the English design house headed by Charles Worth (1825 - 1895) that believed a woman needed a perfume appropriate to her "costume," and designer Paul Poiret (1879 - 1944) who first suggested that every design house needed a signature scent that embodied its aesthetic.
Speaking of Chanel...the perfumaniac in me couldn't resist being pulled to the shelf with perfumes I knew and loved. For every gorgeous, Art Deco Seated Nudes bottle (1926, transparent amber glass) or ornate precious materials-encrusted perfume bottle (see below), there was a Bal à Versailles I wanted to open to see if it was sweatier or more animalic than the Eau de Cologne I owned, or an Edmond Roudnitska-composed Dior Eau Fraiche I wanted to crack out of the museum glass and spritz to my nose's content.(In the '90s, Roudnitska himself said that Eau Fraiche was the only true chypre on the market.)
It's a testament to the design-lust that the show awoke in me that I would have wanted to see a bit more of the 20th century's most gorgeous perfume bottles and to hear more about how form followed content. For example, I was craving a peek at Guerlain's simple but grand Shalimar bottle or Elsa Schiaparelli's bottle for the perfume Shocking, which was in the form of a surreal tailor's mannequin with flowers sprouting from its head. (Incidentally, I'm sure it was the latter's inclusion in a recent eBay vintage bottle collection auction that inflated the winning bid to an amazing $152.)*
But this is probably me being a little greedy, or a sign of how much this exhibit made me think about perfume bottles, which I don't usually give much thought to. (OK, maybe I've given some thought to it.) If you're in New Orleans and you love perfume and design, you should definitely check out Scents and Sensibility. (This exhibit runs through October 24, 2010). I dare you not to fantasize about getting into those glass walls to get your dirty little paws on Bal à Versailles, though. Just don't actually do it.
(NOTE: With the exception of the Guerlain and Schiaparelli photos to your left, all the photos in this post were taken by the wonderful John d'Addario, whose other photos you can see here on his Flickr account. Jonno also just happens to be the Associate Curator of Education at NOMA and a fan of animalic perfumes.)
* This next paragraph used to be part of the review, until I discovered my mistake. Although I quibble with what I thought was the choice for the last contemporary perfume of the exhibit, I was wrong about what that was — 1998's Lolita Lempicka and not 1981's Must de Cartier:
"In another minor quibble, I thought it was odd that the show's last contemporary perfume was 1981's Must de Cartier. This might indicate that "simple" is the reigning aesthetic for commercial perfume bottle design. Simple design is certainly still an aesthetic, but there are some over-the-top presentations out there as well. (Anyone seen Thierry Mugler's latest bottle for Womanity? Or Kilian Hennessy's black perfume bottles in lacquered black boxes that come with lock and key?)"