Have you ever bought something just because you liked the look of the bottle? I leave shops clutching bottles of Orangina – bought not because I particularly like the drink (Club Orange tastes much better in my humble opinion) but because I can’t resist the bottle – that glass ball shape. I know, to buy something just because you like the bottle might sound a bit stupid but I believe (make that secretly HOPE) that I’m not alone?

It’s the unsuccessful perfumes, or bottle designs, produced for only a limited time, which are the most expensive

For serious bottle collectors (fragrance bottles) the fragrance or ‘juice’ as it’s called, (yes I know, Orangina coincidence there) is largely irrelevant: the value is in the craftsmanship of the bottle. On seeing these bottles at Linda Bee’s stand at Gray’s Antique’s market in London yesterday I wanted to wrap up the lot and give them homes in descending order of height, neatly nestling behind each other on my dressing table like a set of rare Babushka Dolls.

I suppose if I were to think about it for a moment, it’s the feminine, sensuous, glassy curvey-ness of the shapes that I like. But some of these bottles looked old but yet kind of familiar, (like the daughter of your Granny’s oldest friend, if you know what I’m trying to say). Linda Bee simplified things and explained why these shapes seemed familiar (thank you Linda)… ‘first thing you need to know…collectors usually start by concentrating on an individual glassmaker (Lalique, Baccarat, Brosse) or on the fragrances of certain fashion house (Guerlain, Schiaparelli, Christian Dior, Coty, Chanel).’

And don’t be mislead by the name, ‘with Chanel No.5, for example, the shape of the bottle (or flacon) has changed so little since its launch that the earliest bottles found in antique stores are a good and affordable place to start collecting. It’s the unsuccessful perfumes, or bottle designs, produced for only a limited time, which are the most expensive. Scarcity equals rarity in the bottle collecting world’.

The original Chanel No.5, bottle design legend has it was inspired by the shape of the pharmaceutical toiletry bottles CoCo Chanel’s lover, Arthur “Boy” Capel carried in his leather travelling case. And although the original small delicate round shouldered Chanel No.5 bottle (or flacon) launched in 1919 is rare (was sold only in Chanel boutiques), the design change in 1924 which thickened up the shoulders to allow Chanel to ship it has changed little since.

The Chanel No.5, stopper however has seen many changes – the original stopper used in 1919 was a little glass plug until 1924 when it was altered to an octagonal stopper shape. Then in the 1950s through the 70’s the stopper became thicker. Finally in 1986 it was slimmed down again to fit in more with the bottle. So the stopper is a good indication to help you put an age on an antique bottle of Chanel No.5.

Speaking of stoppers…..plucking an old Bourjois ‘Kobako’ bottle from the cabinet, (it was inspired by old Chinese snuff bottles) Linda removed the stopper from the frosted glass flask and showed me the etchings on the stopper to match the base of the Brosse glass bottle (picture 3). ‘In France in the 1920’s there were over 400 glassworks (including Brosse) who hand finished their bottles, now there are but two.’

Bottles were hand ground and finished so each glass stopper fitted perfectly into its own glass bottle, (there was no plastic or rubber used then). A little number and initial of the person who ground and hand finished the stopper and bottle helped identify and ensure that the matching two stayed united – an incorrect initial meant an ill fitting stopper and a death knell for a fragrance due to leakage or air. (So romantic!)

Guerlain one of France’s leading perfume houses, (see pictures 1 and 2 above) originally had Baccarat, one of France’s most celebrated glass factories produce their bottles. Baccarat set up in the town of Baccarat in 1764 and their famous flacon with its inverted, heart-shaped stopper, was created for Guerlain’s classic fragrance ‘L’Heure Bleue’ in 1912. The same bottle design was also used for the launches of  both ‘Fol Arôme’ (1912) and ‘Mitsouko’ (1919).

Linda Bee explained that if you’re standing at an antiques fare or flea market in Paris and you have a Guerlain bottle shaped like picture 2. above in your hands ‘check the base of the bottle for an acid-etched identifying mark. Although Guerlain used the same flacons for decades for different Guerlain fragrances, production was given to various glass factories so that Guerlain would not be tied into an exclusive relationship with Baccarat. It won’t always say Baccarat on your Guerlain bottle, but if it does then it’s more collectable’.

Also check that the stopper and etchings at the base of your Guerlain bottle to see if they match (hand finished) and look at the glass. Is it thick? It becomes thin in modern Guerlain bottles.

Picking out the curvaceous 1930’s Schiaparelli bottle  from its cabinet next I was very intrigued by how much it reminded me of the current Jean Paul Gaultier factice bottles which are said to have been inspired by Madonna’s silhouette. Subsequently the  Gaultier male bottle throughout the 1990’s I believe was modeled on Gaultier’s own silhouette, a self-portrait of the French matelot (‘sailor’) in his blue and grey sweater that has become Gaultier’s trademark. But the story attached to the Schiaparelli bottle is equally as um, fascinating.

Italian born couture designer Elsa Schiaparelli was commissioned to design some costumes for American based actress Mae West, who couldn’t due to scheduling problems get to Paris for couture fittings. Instead she sent a plaster statue of herself in the pose of Venus de Milo so that Schiaparelli could make her a dress.

Schiaparelli  worked with artist Elanor Fini to create a bottle for her ‘Shocking’ fragrance based on the silhouette of the tailor’s dummy of Mae West she had in her studio. Covered with a glass dome, she put a tape measure round the neck of the bottle to allude to this and launched it in 1936. For the fragrance box Schiaparelli created a new colour, Shocking Pink which later became Schiaparelli’s trademark colour.

Of course, Christian Dior needs no introduction, especially if you’re a fashion fan but for most of the 1940s, perfume production in Europe was hampered by wartime restrictions (1939 to 1945) and so Christian Dior (1905-57) didn’t introduce his own version of the hourglass silhouette into fashion, until just after World War II in 1947. Emphasising the bust, cinching in the waist and with long, flowing skirts, he launched the ‘Miss Dior’ fragrance to coincide with his idea the same year and named it after his sister. The curvaceous bottle (picture 5) created by Baccarat mirrored Dior’s designs.

Likewise Prince Matchabelli (1885-1935) escaped the Russian Revolution and moved to New York where in 1926 he established a fragrance company and in 1927 he patented the firm’s famous crown-shaped bottle, based in his family crest (picture 6). He gave his fragrances names like ‘Katherine the Great’ and ‘Duchess of York’.

To finish up… another way to get our hands on a vintage bottle is to opt for 1930’s Czechoslovakian glass bottles which look like Lalique but are much less expensive and have atomizers attached. The only problem here is that antique atomizers can sometimes harden up so thanks to Linda for her diligent check list….

‘Test an antique atomizer before buying a bottle at a fair, store or auction’ by squeezing the puffy thing. A gust of air should come out. Sometimes fragrance can lodge in the puffy thing and make it go hard and it stops working and won’t spray.’ Linda replaced ‘the atomizer on this bottle with a new atomizer’. I have to say at this point that Linda Bee is really rather brilliant (and knowledgeable). Don’t worry about asking her about her bottles, she doesn’t force you to buy anything…. she just wants EVERYONE to adopt a little antique gem so…..

fortunately and finally, here come the miniatures – known as ‘echantillons’ in France where they were developed as testers and sample bottles in the 1950’s. This ‘Muguet’ by Coty miniature (1950’s) is a dinky little example. Tiny, really tiny and so, so beautiful – like sweets… or gems and they’re affordable. Can we justify spending £10?

Overall, I think there’s a lot to be said for sensual bottles (and I think in this gargantuan post, I’ve said it ALL). The one thing that these bottles have in common is that they have a beautiful story attached to each which allows me to feel as if I could own something rare and special and pass the story and the bottle on someday. There’s a lot to be said for heritage and it’ s a million miles away from rushed duty free shopping.

Oh and P.S. Does the bottle shape matter to you at all when you go fragrance shopping? I’m wondering if it’s only me?  Now which one shall I bring home?

Linda Bee, Stand L18-20,Gray’s Antique’s Market, 58 Davies Street & 1-7 Davies Mews
London, W1K 5AB (Tel: 020 7629 592).