The history of scent is largely ephemeral. After all, the aromas of pressed lilies from the Nile banks or the precious ambergris, once worth more than gold, are hard to imagine if you’ve never smelled these rarities.
While the scent of these delicate perfume ingredients vanishes with time, countless examples of exquisite perfume bottles and containers remain to remind us of the history of the most-neglected sense. From ancient Egypt to modern Paris, the history of perfume bottles is entwined with the
Read on to learn more about the artistic history of perfume bottles.
You might be surprised at the long history of perfume bottles. Scroll down to learn more about the artistic history of these vessels.
Ancient Origins of Deliberate Scents
While the deliberate use of scents has existed for many thousands of years, some of the earliest distilled and mixed perfumes appeared in ancient Mesopotamia, India, and China. Of the surviving purpose-made vessels for perfume, ancient Egyptian examples date back to at least the Middle Kingdom.
The Egyptians had both religious and cosmetic uses for perfumes. These perfumes were famous around the ancient Mediterranean and exported as part of regional trade.
Ancient Egyptian perfume bottles were delicate and beautifully crafted as symbolic vessels for the wealthy to keep with their personal cosmetics. These vessels could be carved from stones such as travertine marble or molded from
This ancient glassmaking process developed in Mesopotamia and spread westward to Egypt. The artisans of 18th Dynasty Egypt (the period from 1549 to 1292 BCE) were renowned for their exquisite core-form works, often featuring striped patterns in rich colors. This style of glassmaking spread to Classical Greece. Known as alabastrons, these perfume bottles could be shaped like vials or like
The Invention of Blowing Glass
The core-formed vessel was eventually phased out by the invention of blowing glass. Syrian artists developed the process around the 1st century BCE. From there, like core-forming, the technology spread to the rapidly expanding Roman Empire. By most accounts, upper-class Romans were perfume-enthusiasts, anointing from their hair to their feet. This fashion for scents was viewed by some as a moral failing.
Whether a moral failing of the Romans or not, a fashion for perfumes required large-scale production of perfume bottles. Blown glass opened a new art form. More translucent and faster to produce than core-formed or cast glass, glassblowing encouraged a rapidly growing, ever-creative industry within the Empire. The
Late Medieval and Renaissance Luxury
After the fall of Rome, Europe entered the period often called the Dark Ages. While somewhat of a misnomer, a lot of scientific knowledge was neglected and would only be reinvigorated in the later Renaissance. However, the famous Persian philosopher, astronomer, and physician Ibn Sina (also known as Avicenna, lived 980-1037 CE) developed and publicized a process for distilling floral essential oils. This process was an improvement on older perfumes, in which ingredients were crushed and mixed with oil. A variation of the distillation process articulated by Ibn Sina had also been in use in ancient India likely since around 3000 BCE.
While the Indian and Persian perfume traditions continued to flourish, it would not be until the crusades that European interest in crafting perfume was reignited. Both military and trade voyages to the Holy Land introduced Europeans to the attars (botanical essential oils), particularly a signature distillation of roses. They were also re-exposed to animal-based scents such as musk (secretion coming from the musk deer), civet (from the civet), and ambergris (discharge from sperm whales).
The production of perfumes in Europe took hold in the late Middle Ages. Guilds of perfumers were established to grow (and protect) the budding industry, which was closely nourished by royals and their courts. In the late 14th century, Hungarian court perfumers crafted Hungary Water, a perfume that mixed the traditional aromatic oils with alcohol. The alcohol-based perfume was perfected by the Italians in the 14th century, the liquid
During the late medieval and Renaissance period, solid perfumes were housed in pomanders and worn on the body, while liquid perfumes were housed in exquisite vials. Venice became known for producing delicate, thin glass vessels in a style known as cristallo (meaning clear glass). This façon de Venise spread around Europe throughout the Renaissance, as both perfumery and glassmaking gained in popularity. In the 16th century, the Italian noblewoman
The perfume bottles of the late medieval and Renaissance period demonstrate a reinvigorated luxury and the ever-evolving techniques of artisans. The perfume sprinkler (above) would have been used to scent a room, and it demonstrates a classic Venetian cane-working technique. Perfume bottles could also be much smaller—and like the pomander—worn on the person. The scents of the nobility were often lavishly housed, such as the example in carved agate and gold set with rubies. These personal perfumes were handy in a world where bathing and personal hygiene were not up to modern standards.
Rococo and Romantic
European perfume bottles of the 18th century were heavily influenced by the fashions and artistic movements of the day. Crafted in glass, porcelain, or even
Glasswork came to the American colonies quite early; the first workshop was established at Jamestown in 1608. Domestic production would not match imports until the late 18th century. In the 19th century, mass production was increasingly possible due to the advancement of the Industrial Revolution.
For perfume bottles, Neoclassical designs were popular in Europe, but American consumers were also developing their own
Modern Art and Commerce
In the 20th century, some of the most famous names in glass and perfume established reputations that hold to this day. French jeweler René Lalique became known for his
Based on a 1924 design, the Chanel No. 5 was purposefully simple in reaction to the cut-glass works of the likes of Lalique. It was, and still is, clear; the amber-colored liquid is on full display. By the 1930s, smaller sizes were available for the ease of the modern woman on the go. The perfume and its signature bottle remain iconic, from being name-dropped by Marilyn Monroe to cameos in music lyrics today.
Perfume bottles today are heavily branded, unlike the largely anonymous pieces of ancient times. However, with careful product design, the perfume bottle remains a work of art.