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Fragrances have been around since ancient times (remember frankincense and myrrh in the Bible?). And the Egyptians were the first to give perfume to their mummies. But anywhere a scent was used, a container had to hold it. Through the ages, those containers have often been works of art.
Stone, alabaster and clay pots were some of the original perfume bottles created by ancient Egyptians. Romans carried their most valuable fragrances in containers of hollowed precious stones. Glass bottles began to appear in about 1500 B.C. They were lightweight, nonporous and colorful ... and you had to be wealthy to own one. Once blown glass was discovered in the 17th century, bottles took on the shapes of animals, fruit and shells.
Through the 18th Century
Early Europeans used a variety of items for perfume, including shells, gold and silver. Many containers were wearable (or at least easily carried), since without our modern sewage disposal systems, the environment could smell, shall we say, a bit rank. This way, people could inhale a more pleasant scent. Small porcelain bottles became popular for holding scents after Chinese porcelain manufacturing processes were discovered. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, people bought perfume in plain bottles, then poured the contents into their more decorative bottles at home.
19th and Early 20th Century Bottles
The Art Nouveau movement began in the early 19th century, and with it came a radical change for perfume bottle design. Handpainted scenes were popular at the beginning of the century. The most popular bottle style was called "Belle Epoque," which was a very elegant, traditional French design. During Victorian times, gold details were added to almost all perfume bottles. By the second decade of the 20th century, bottles had become more intricate, including one shaped like a vase -- complete with silk flowers concealing the stopper. Manufacturers finally agreed glass was the best container for perfume because it could be sealed tightly and would not react with the fragrance inside. In 1906, perfumer Francois Coty asked Rene Lalique to design beautiful -- yet affordable -- bottles for his fragrances ... and who hasn't heard of Lalique crystal?
First Half of the 20th Century
Soldiers returning to the United States after World War I brought perfumes from Paris with them, which increased the demand for scent. By the Roaring '20s, fashion designers began making perfumes. (In fact, Chanel No. 5 was created in 1921.) For a perfume to be successful, the packaging had to be stunning, and Baccarat's designs in high quality crystal were used by most perfume companies. During the Great Depression, designers became more conservative due to limited demand, and the Paris perfume market suffered. Bottle designs were based on movies and architecture. After World War II, however, business picked up again, and through the '50s, new perfumers produced more romantic bottles to hold their fragrances.
Designer Pierre Dinand was a pioneer in perfume bottle design through the '80s and '90s by being the first designer to focus exclusively on the perfume market. Jewelers entered the perfume industry in the mid-'80s, with Cartier, Tiffany and Bulgari, among others, producing signature scents. Both Baccarat and Lalique are still in business, designing bottles of the highest quality. Today, bottles are created to provide a feel for the perfume inside, giving the buyer a first impression as to the bottle's contents.