Of scents and sensibilities

Salvador Dali's `Sun King' perfume bottle or Jean Paul Gaultier's Madonna-style scent flask complete with metal corset may not be to everyone's taste. But, as Madeleine Marsh reports, keen collectors pay big prices for little trinkets

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The Independent Culture

For Proust it was taste, a Madeleine dunked in tea, that recalled the remembrance of things past. For Baudelaire it was smell, sensuously celebrated in his poem "Perfume":

Reader, have you sometimes breathed in

Drunkenly and with slow gourmandise

Picks the exquisite flower of memory.

Perfume is enormously evocative: who can forget the scent their mother wore, or the perfume or aftershave worn by a lover? A single sniff can transport the mind over years and miles. Russian astronauts went into space with phials of essential oils to remind them of earth, and from its earliest recorded use perfume was believed to put man in touch with the heavens.

The word perfume comes from the Latin per fumum, "through smoke". The ancient Egypt-ians and Greeks burnt aromatic substances in their temples to please the gods and counteract the offensive smell of burning flesh during religious sacrifices. The dead were wrapped and heavily scented both as a symbol of eternity and for reasons of preservation and hygiene. Perfume filtered into secular life; the Romans created glass bottles for cosmetic oils and the emperor Nero had silver pipes installed in his palace so that his dinner guests could be sprayed with rosewater.

With the spread of Christianity, perfume for personal use was discouraged, until it was reintroduced into Europe from the east by the Crusaders. It became popular both as a cosmetic luxury and for medicinal purposes. The Tudors dusted their hair with powdered love-in-a-mist seeds to smell sweet and drive out lice, and during the great plague of 1664-65 silver pomanders filled with solid aromatic creams were worn to ward off contagion. By the turn of the 18th century, however, pleasure came to dominate over medicinal properties; the art of the perfumer flourished, France established itself as the centre of perfume production, and we haven't looked back since.

"Heavenly Scent", an exhibition organised by the Comit Franois du Parfum and opening in London next Friday, explores the history and manufacture of perfume and the mysterious power of olfaction. It promises two Odoramas - "a three-dimensional experience of sound, images and smells" - computer games to reveal the perfume best suited to each personality, electronic fragrance organs to test the recollection of everyday smells, and a historical collection of scent bottles from BC oil jars to modern packaging.

The charm of perfume is fugitive. All we have left to remind us of early fragrances is the bottles, which are highly collectable today. It is not just the smell of a scent that can trigger memory, but also the image of its container, most famously, perhaps, the Chanel No 5 bottle created by Ernest Beaux in 1921, which has become an icon of 20th-century design and a symbol of elegant luxury across the world.

It was not until this century that it became commonplace to buy fragrance and bottle together as a single package. Before this, a lady would have her own personal bottle into which the scent she brought from the perfumer or mixed for herself was decanted.

Rose, a 74-year-old antique dealer, purchased her first scent bottle for a few shillings at the age of 15, and has been collecting Victorian perfume bottles ever since. "Please don't mention my last name or address dear," she begs. "In the last two years I have had six burglaries including two ramraids and I really don't want the publicity."

Her collection chronicles the fashions and tastes of 19th-century women. Silver-topped double-ended bottles, in coloured glass, cranberry, amber and amethyst, shine richly on her shelves. "One end was used for perfume, the other contained a sponge soaked in aromatic vinegar," Rose explains. "Victorian ladies were so tightly laced that they often felt faint, and they used these sponges to revive them." Today, such bottles are worth between £100 and £200 and Rose warns that we should beware of "unscrupulous people" who cut them in half, selling the same bottle twice.

Alongside the coloured glass, there are clear cut-glass bottles. With silver collars these sell for £60-£70, without they can fetch as little as £20. "I think people are very silly not to appreciate these more," says Rose firmly. "They are beautiful objects. A lot of them would have come out of crocodile travelling sets."

Women in the 19th century liked to take their perfume with them when they went out. "You have to think how smelly the streets must have been," says Rose, displaying her collection of tiny bottles designed to hang from a chain or chatelaine and made from glass, ceramic and various metals. "It was silver for the mistress and brass for the maid," she explains, "some of these would have only cost a shilling or so." Even cheaper in the 19th century would have been her collection of so-called "Oxford Lavenders" or "Throwaways", long slim glass phials, roughly painted and moulded. "When you had made your choice at the perfume maker, if you hadn't brought your own bottle it would have been decanted into one of these, a free disposable bottle. When I started collecting them, they still only cost about £5, now they are worth £60-£100 each."

By the end of the 19th century, customers were already giving up mixing their own perfumes in favour of buying named brands. The 20th century saw the enormous commercial expansion of the perfume industry, dominated by the French couturiers. What the collector of 20th-century scent bottles wants is the whole marketing package: the specific bottle designed for a named scent, complete with stickers, labels and box, and ideally still containing some of the original perfume (known as the juice), to summon up the full and heady fragrance of past glamour.

"Some bottles just don't look right without the perfume inside them," says Gayla Aytac, proffering me a sniff of 100-year-old "Essence Floramye" by Piver of Paris, which she sells in its flowery Art Nouveau style box for around £l00. The bottles lining her shop in Kensington Church Street are a tribute to both the imagination of 20th-century designers and the fierce if sweet-smelling competition between the perfume houses, battling for a share of this hugely profitable, luxury market.

There are bottles in every conceivable form: birds, hearts, human figures, Egyptian sphinxes, 1930s liners. A 1918 bottle of Bryenne "Chu Chin Chow", modelled in the form of a gilded Buddha, is priced at £900, while "Golliwogg", a fragrance produced in 1919, with a golly head stopper complete with fluffy hair, sells for around £300, presumably to the customer untroubled today by thoughts of political correctness.

According to Aytac, some enthusiasts collect bottles for their shape, others concentrate on a particular perfume house - Guerlain, Worth, Schapiarelli - and almost everybody wants the perfume bottles designed by the great French glass manufacturers of the period, Lalique and Baccarat.

In the collecting field, as in today's perfume industry, France dominates market and certainly, for us, it's not just smell or packaging that give perfume its romantic appeal, but a sense of foreignness. "Ma Griffe" (introduced by Carven in 1945) and Balmain's "Vent Vert" both lose a little of their magic when translated as "My Claw" and "Green Wind".

At the top end of the collector's market, 20th-century perfume bottles can fetch thousands of pounds. Sold at auction by Bonhams in 1990, "Bouchon Mures", an electric blue and clear glass scent flacon by the great master Ren Lalique, made a record price of £38,000.

"The major collectors are often men," reflects Aytac, a little glumly. "Women tend to go for the miniatures that are still given out free today when you buy a full-sized bottle of perfume. But when big money is involved, it always reverts to men."

David Newman has a large private collection of commercial scent bottles, although he has never paid more than £60 for any individual example and spends on average between £5 and £25. "I buy from car boot sales and street markets. People give bottles of perfume to me rather than my wife and I always try to pick them up when I am abroad." Newman is employed by Quest International, one of the world's leading manufacturers of fine fragrances. His work takes him to the former Soviet Union, now a land of opportunity both for perfume producers and, seemingly, scent bottle enthusiasts. "Before the fall, Eastern block perfume wasn't considered particularly acceptable, and I've come across bottles and boxes that have been hidden away in a drawer for years, some really unusual things. It's not the instantly recognisable bottles, like Chanel No 5, that collectors want. What I'm looking for is unsuccessful perfumes that were only produced for a short period, and whose bottles are therefore rare and interesting."

As well as rarity, what Newman looks for is condition: "The bottle must be perfect, without chips or torn labels," he stresses. "If it is still sealed and has the fragrance inside, that's an added advantage, but perhaps the most important thing of all is the box. Ideally, what you are searching for is the luxury gift that was too pretty to use and so was put away and forgotten about."

Much of Newman's collection is the result of old ladies turning out their cupboards, and not all is exotic or foreign. At the office he keeps a "fun" display of some 50 novelty Avon bottles, sold door to door - "Avon Calling!" - in the Fifties and Sixties. Shapes range from puppy dogs to gramophones and windmills and prices begin at 50p. "They are very cheaply made and tacky," Newman admits fondly, "but in their own way they are as inventive as the bottles for expensive fragrances."

Entering the perfume hall at Harrods, perhaps the ultimate experience in olfactory luxury, it is obvious that expensive bottle design is alive and well in the 1990s. Many of today's bottles are marketed as instant collectables. Jean Paul Gaultier sells his perfume in a torso-shaped bottle, dressed in a metal corset. Each year the metal changes to inspire customers to buy a new bottle at £95 for a mere 30mls of liquid. Though the Madonna- style attire and tin can packaging might characterise postmodernist glamour, the figurative shape of the bottle harks back to the Thirties and Schiaparelli's "Shocking", modelled like a dressmaker's dummy and inspired by the ample figure of Mae West, the Madonna of the Thirties.

Bottle design in today's perfume industry encompasses both old and new. Chanel have maintained the famous Twenties design of their lead crystal bottles and the assistant at their counter proudly explains how stoppers are traditionally sealed with animal intestine to guard against forgery. In contrast, the saleswoman promoting Thierry Mugler's "Angel" enthuses that the star-shaped containers are "ecologically sound and made from recycled glass that is entirely lead-free", a suitable receptacle for a very Nineties scent that smells rather like a pudding.

"It's not just the fragrance that we are selling but the image of the designer," explains Jenny O'Donoghue, the section manager for perfumery and men's grooming at Harrods, who nominates Issey Miyake's elegant, conical bottle as the design classic of the Nineties.

All the assistants I talked to stressed the importance of bottle design in attracting customers and also noted, with some bemusement, how scent bottle collectors would spend up to £100 or so on a large bottle of perfume in order to obtain the free miniature. Contem-porary bottles can be as expensive as antique ones. "Amouage", billed in its leaflets as "the most valuable perfume in the world" and clearly aimed at the Arab market, offers a bridal set of spectacularly ornate flacons, dagger-shaped for him, mosque- shaped for her, selling for £4,600 the pair.

The perfume industry is hugely valuable. According to the "Heavenly Scent" catalogue, in 1993 retail sales of men's and women's fragrances in the UK reached £437 million while the export sales from France total over £3 billion per annum.

Throughout this century untold amounts of artistry, labour and money have been expended on designing enticing bottles and packaging for perfume. It therefore seems ironic that the best place to keep your perfume in order to maintain its magical fragrance is not proudly displayed on the dressing table, but shut up in the fridge. !