PERFUME BOTTLES: The Evolution of Scent and Its Containers

The Perfume Maker by Rudolf Ernst - photo by Wikimedia Commons

Ne te lave pas, J’arrive

These famous words, supposedly written by Napoleon to his flirtatious wife, both warned her of his coming – and also suggests that he likes her own unique smell.

And maybe you yourself have experienced a sense of déjà vu when you have noticed a certain odour, taking you back to a particular past experience?

Why Our Sense of Smell is so Important

Butterfly pin and heart-form perfume bottle, 1977 and 1994, Orient & Flume
and Zellique, DuMouchelles – photo by | Lot 1113

Our sense of smell is 10,000 times more sensitive than each of our other senses. The chemical molecules of the scent, unlike the other senses, connect directly to the brain through sensors beneath the mucous in our noses. They can detect thousands of different senses. And the connections from these sensors go directly to our most primitive brain centres – responsible for emotions, memories and life-preserving behaviours.

It is said you can smell fear.

And we all know how dogs like to sniff – and sometimes – alas – to roll, thus camouflaging their own smell and affording them some protection from possible predators.

Where the Early Perfumes were Found


In 2004, an Italian archaeologist discovered the oldest known perfume factory in Cyprus. Here, they were manufacturing perfume on an industrial scale 4,000 years ago.

Ornate alabaster perfume containers from the grave of King Tut – photo by Death/Scent


An Egyptian lady named Tapputi was distilling flowers and oils to make perfumes in the second millennium BC – thus, she is recorded on a tablet from Mesopotamia. Her scents must have been exceptional for her name to linger on.

Yet, when they opened the tomb of Tutankhamun, they caught a lingering smell of the heavy fragrance used when they buried him, 3,300 years ago. And here, intricately designed perfume bottles lay in the tomb.

How They Contained Scent in the Early Days

In order to preserve the expensive perfumes, the Egyptians designed containers for the precious oils and unguents. And some of the elaborate bottles and jars may be more valuable than the scent itself- and this sometimes continues to this day.

At first, they made the containers of hollowed-out stone, wood, clay or alabaster. It kept the perfume cool and didn’t leak.

The Core Method for Glass Vessels

Ancient Egyptian perfume bottle, amphoriskos, core-formed, trailed – photo by The Metropolitan Museum of Art

But then, they adopted glass to make the vessels. Their early techniques used a process involving a core onto which the vitreous glass was moulded. Then, after the glass had set, the core was scraped out. They decorated the surface with twists of coloured glass and added handles and bases. This work called for a high degree of skill.

They used such materials as cobalt, quartz, rock salt copper and the ash from plants. Colours were often toned to look like lapis lazuli or turquoise.

These glass containers are rare, and it is likely that only very wealthy people could afford them. When found, they tend to be located in tombs and shrines.

Glass Blowing – and Mass Production

Egypt has continued to produce high-quality glass scent bottles, but it wasn’t until Roman times, in about the 1st century BC, that glass blowing was invented. This revolutionised the industry since mass production was possible. During the excavations at Pompeii, both alabaster vessels and fragments of glass ones were recovered (Vesuvius exploded in 79 BC). Many of these were found in what was an open-air dining centre with an altar – and scent would have been an important part of the feasting and also in propitiating the Gods.

The Romans also produced luxury items such as cameo glass vessels – very rare and very expensive! They even used precious stones carved out to hold the precious liquids.

And then the Roman Empire collapsed, about 478 A.D.

The Forgotten Middle Ages

An agate silver-gilt mounted casting bottle, perhaps English, circa 1535-40 – photo by Burghley Collections | Burghley House

Western Europe entered the “Middle Ages”, and many luxury items were no longer made. It took almost 1,000 years before there was a resurgence in the manufacture of luxury perfume bottles in the Renaissance Period.

Again, there was variety in the materials used to make the perfume containers. Apart from glass, they used porcelain, precious metals like gold or silver, semi-precious stones and even shells.

New Centres of Excellence

From Venice to England

Venice became an important glass producing centre – and it still is. Glass-makers in England, Spain, the Low Countries and France copied the Venetian masters, the wares being known as “Facon de Venise”. England, in particular, produced unique glass perfume bottle decorated with enamelling and often gilded. A Chinese influence became popular, as it was in the field of porcelain.

The Secret Passage

The Florentine Pharmacy, serving the Medici – photo by Giulio Ghirardi | AnOther Magazine

Hungary produced “Hungary Water” – scented oils in an alcohol solution. And in Italy, Catherine Medici’s personal perfumer accompanied her to France in the mid-16th century – his laboratory had a secret passageway to her apartments to prevent industrial theft. His influence helped France become a perfume centre, growing flowers especially for perfume in the south.

In fact, personal hygiene was at a low ebb during this period- so there really was a need for masking scents. In 1693, an Italian barber created what we know as Eau de Cologne.

The Industrial Revolution and the Glass Making Revolution

In the 1800s, came the Industrial Revolution and a revolution in glass vessels for perfume. They used a mechanical press to mass-produce the bottles – cheaply and economically. And the packing was important, adding to the appeal – and cost. In France, Rene Lalique designed glass containers for such well-known perfume makers as Francois Coty.

A Range of More Modern Manufacturers

Monsieur Marquay bottle, design by Salvador Dali, 1953 – photo by Jilly E | Pinterest

Other manufacturers were making sure the working classes also had attractive containers for their perfumes, companies like Avon and Max Factor – well-known names today. We now have a huge range of perfumes, their containers and prices – and perfume continues to be a prestigious part of a woman’s wardrobe – and more and more our men, too – with their own designs of bottles and wrapping, are finding that they, too, like to smell sweet.

America contributed high-grade crystal Baccarat bottles in the 1920s and after WW2, Christian Dior and Nini Ricci vessels were works of art! Even Salvador Dali designed a bottle – depicting a man in a top hat and bow tie.

Today in Egypt

One of the most well-known places to buy beautiful glass perfume bottle is from the Khan-el-Khalili market in Egypt. They use a technique passed down through families since the early 19th century.

Set of 12 Mouth Blown Egyptian Perfume Bottles Pyrex Glass – photo by Egyptian Jewelry | Egyptian papyrus

To make these vessels, they import glass pyrex tubes from Europe. The artist draws a pattern on the tube which can then be cut into pieces which are fired and shaped. The firing uses very high temperature (around 1000 degrees centigrade), to make the glass more flexible and almost runny. It has to be constantly rotated as the artist blows air through it to shape it.

Then another artist with different skills engraves the pattern – being careful not to cut too deep. Generally, a third-person applies the colouring, often on a rotating wheel, or maybe painted on by hand. And the best are gilded with 12ct liquid gold. A cheaper version of a gold application might be gold paint, which still looks very fine, tho’ a little less brilliant. Finally, the piece is baked at 500 C to set the colours for around 30 minutes, depending on the size.

What should the collector look for?

Antique Perfume Bottle with Metallic Lace, Stumpwork and Wire Grapes, Ribbon Work Decoration, and Pleated Chiffon – photo by Ruby Lane

1. Check the thickness of the glass. Although most vessels are made from the pyrex tubes some others might come from recycled light bulbs when the glass is thinner, more fragile and usually less elaborately decorated. If you tap the vessel, these thinned containers produce a higher sound.

2. Some bottles are less than perfect! They may lean to one side and stand unevenly. Seeing is believing – so if you buy online, go through a reputable dealer!

3. Is the gold paint or the genuine guided 12ct article? Price may be a guide but so is the brilliance of the gilded and burnished gold. There really is nothing quite like it.

4. Check the stopper. The original purpose of scent containers was to stop the perfume evaporating away – you don’t want leaks. Damage during transit is not uncommon, so do check for chips or splinters, especially at the very top and the bottom and look carefully at the plunger.

5. But there is such a huge variety that you will probably be mostly looking for, something you personally find especially attractive.

Some of the Items Recently on Offer

Prices range from less than a dollar to thousands. Most collectors are interested in the nineteenth and twentieth-century bottles. Although porcelain was used in the eighteenth century now it is almost exclusively glass that is used. The atomiser is often marked DeVilbiss after the company used to make them since 1888.

7316 AUD

1912 Antique Sterling Silver Enamel and Glass Scent Bottles – photo by 1stdibs

For 7316 AUD (£3,950), you might have been able to buy this magnificent set of English George V scent bottles in the case shown. Date 1912.

They are adorned with a very pale blue guilloche enamel with delicate violet garlands above a narrow band which has tiny floral motifs. The upper part has a purple scrolling trellis border.

The upper plateau of the cover is encircled with further enamel ornamentation reflecting the design to the lower portion of the body. The original silver gilding remains.

When you open the container, you can see the three sections, one for each bottle with its stopper. Each has a silver mount decorated with a pale blue enamel band.

The original box is of leatherette, with hinged lids and lined with velvet and satin. The retailer’s mark ‘Diamond Merchants, Searle & Co Ltd, Goldsmiths & Silversmiths, 79 Lombard St, London’ is there. The box has a trefoil catch to fasten it.

The item weights 204 g – 0.45 lb and the container is 9.6 cm/3.8″ tall. The bottles ore 3.4 cm/1.3″ long and 2.1 cm/0.8″ wide.

Impressive Victorian Perfume Bottle – photo by

They are stated to be in excellent condition, with hallmarks and some very slight wear.

And for 1473 AUD

Or perhaps you would fancy this genuine Victorian cut crystal glass scent bottle, dated 1900?

The sterling silver collar and lid have flower decoration and the hallmarks, for Birmingham, are present. 1473 AUD (£795) is the price quoted.

Final Thoughts

These are just two examples of highly collectable items at the upper end of cost. But collecting scent bottle can appeal to all ages, experience and fortune. They can be a fascinating glimpse into our past history as well as visually attractive and transportable. They can also be seriously addictive!