The art of the perfume bottle
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They say it’s never good to judge a book by its cover, but can you judge a perfume by its bottle? Should you? The original Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, in its blue, black and silver atomiser, to me smells nothing like the scent that’s inside, while its 1970s sister scent, Opium, smells exactly as it looks. CK One, with its screw top and “hip-flask” shape, smells as clean and youthful as you’d expect. But Thierry Mugler’s Angel, with that iconic blue star-shape, couldn’t be less representative for me of the warm, chocolatey-vanilla scent.
It’s hard not to be swayed by a beautiful bottle, or repelled by an ugly one. But for the perfume houses who would like to entice customers both in store and online (despite a surge during the pandemic, perfume sales still account for less than five per cent of online beauty sales), creating a bottle that’s as desirable as the scent inside it has once again become important. Bottles have colour, texture and even print. Collaborations go beyond the usual holiday-season limited editions, while artists, architects and master glassmakers are being called upon to reinvent the form.
“It’s part of the meaning,” says Christine Nagel, in-house perfumer at Hermès, of a bottle’s design. “For me, with scent, there is always meaning.” The two elements aligning is imperative; when they don’t, “it’s horrible”, she says. “It’s like… your great aunt knitting a terrible outfit for your lovely little baby, and you have to dress her up in it to keep everyone happy.”
Historically, the relationship between scent and bottle has ebbed and flowed. At the turn of the last century, when the twin revolutions of manufacturing and marketing meant that a new bottle could be designed for every new creation, a perfume bottle was less a work of art, more a curiosity, a gimmick. Examples included lucky horseshoes (for Cherigan’s Chance) and an Eiffel Tower (Soir de Paris by Bourjois).
Then, in 2000, Frédéric Malle changed the game with his “anti-marketing” approach: by keeping his chic glass bottles and distinctive black-and-red labels identical, the emphasis became solely on what was inside. It was replicated by many perfume houses for their higher-end lines – and it has meant that at the more sophisticated end of the perfume world, the simplest of glass bottles has been the de facto signifier of good taste.
One reason for the current re-emphasis on form is sustainability. The joy of the refill – and of having a small but perfectly formed work of art on your table – is coming back. It’s this spirit that perfumer Lyn Harris wanted for the exquisite refillable glass bottles (from £350) she commissioned from glassmaker Michael Ruh for her fragrance line Perfumer H. Each is free-blown and shaped by hand, and takes between two and three days to make, with two other people involved in the finishing and engraving, and “multiple interventions”. Echoing Perfumer H’s in-store workshops, the heavy coloured-glass bottles have, says Ruh, “the sense of a laboratory; something slightly alchemical” (he especially loves the ones in dark grey and moss green).
Throwing shapes – three artistic perfumes
The 10 fragrance bottles in designer Dries Van Noten’s new beauty line are also refillable (from £195). Much like his fashion, Van Noten’s wish was to “celebrate craftsmanship and industrial innovation”, and by doing so he has set a new template for design. Each scent is centred around two olfactory ideas, and the bottles reflect that contrast: Cannabis Patchouli is crafted half from bio-sourced wood and half from forest green glass. Soie Malaquais combines Delft blue porcelain with dark burgundy glass. What’s refreshing, and exciting, is seeing different colours and materials being used for perfumery.
Also pushing boundaries is Guerlain, which has collaborated with the Yves Klein Archives to create a 110th anniversary edition of its L’Heure Bleue perfume (€15,000). Its iconic “inverted heart” Baccarat-crystal bottle has been recreated by Waltersperger glassworks, handpainted in International Klein Blue, a colour and pigmentation process patented by the artist. Each of the 30 pieces, holding 1.5 litres of extrait de parfum, comes with a signed and numbered certificate of authenticity – like an artwork.
Amplifying the art of the bottle, American artist James Turrell has created two limited-edition bottles (there are 100 of each, from €25,000) in association with Lalique. Turrell has brought his vision to both scent and bottles: both Range Rider (for men) and Purple Sage (for women) evoke the scents of the Colorado Plateau, and the purple, sapphire-blue and clear crystal bottles take inspiration from Asian stupa shapes. “Their architectural structure, like that of the pyramids, makes them monuments of high spiritual value in which light plays an essential role,” says Turrell, who has long been fascinated by the play of light on surfaces. “I used this as inspiration for the design of the bottles, which had to contain the light and yet allow its slight colouring to shine through.”
At Louis Vuitton, Pritzker Prize-winning architect Frank Gehry plays with colour and light in a collaboration with Simone Cenedese, a master glassmaker from Murano. The once- aluminium flowers that seem to burst forth from the bottle are now blue, red, green and gold clusters of coloured glass. Bottles will be a limited edition of 40 (€5,000), signed and numbered by Gehry; in addition, there will be made-to-order “masterpieces” (€50,000).
More colour can be found at Gucci: the brand’s Alchemist’s Garden perfumes (£255), which come in lacquered or transparent glass bottles of green, blue, pink, red, white and black, are bedecked with flowers or decorative gold foliage. And Dior has also looked to Murano for its collaboration with French architect India Mahdavi to reimagine the famous J’Adore bottle in a swirl of glass and handpainted gold thread. Only a thousand bottles will go into production (£1,200).
For some houses, reinvention means delving back into the archives. Leather-rose perfume Galop d’Hermès’s stirrup-inspired bottle (£196) is a near-exact replica of one given at the opening of New York’s first Hermès boutique in 1930 and rediscovered in a museum many years later. It has 13 different parts, each of which is polished by hand. A limited number are available at outlets including Harrods and Selfridges.
Does wearing a scent dispensed from such a rarefied holder feel somehow different? Impossible to say, but does it remind us that perfumes – at least the great ones – deserve to be thought of as works of art? On this I would say absolutely, resoundingly, fragrantly yes.