Scents and sensibility: Collecting perfume bottles

People collect two kinds of perfume bottles – decorative and commercial.

Decorative bottles include any bottles sold empty and meant to be filled with your choice of scent. Until about a hundred years ago, it was usual for a woman to bring her bottle to her favorite apothecary to be filled with her chosen fragrance.

Commercial bottles are any that were sold filled with scent and usually have the label of a perfume company. Since there are so many thousands of different perfume bottles, most collectors specialize in some subcategory. Specialize is my number one piece of advice!

Popular specialties among decorative perfume bottle collectors include ancient Roman or Egyptian bottles; cut glass bottles with or without gold or sterling silver trim or overlay; bottles by famous glassmakers such as Moser, Steuben, Webb, Lalique, Galle, Daum, Baccarat, Saint Louis;  figural porcelain bottles from the 18th and 19th century or from Germany in the 1920s and 30s; perfume lamps (with wells to fill with scent); perfume burners; laydown and double-ended scent bottles; chatelaines; atomizer bottles; pressed or molded Early American glass bottles; matched dresser sets of bottles; or hand-cut Czechoslovakian bottles from the early 20th century.

Among collectors of commercial perfumes, some favorite specialty collections are those including a special color of glass bottle; bottles by a single parfumeur, such as Guerlain or Caron or Prince Matchabelli; bottles by famous fashion designers such as Worth, Paul Poiret, Chanel, Dior, Schiaparelli or Jean Patou; bottles by a particular glassmaker or designer, such as Lalique, Baccarat, Viard or Depinoix; giant factice bottles (store display bottles not filled with genuine fragrance); little compacts holding solid (cream) perfume, which are often figural; tester bottles (small bottles with long glass daubers); figural and novelty bottles; and miniature perfumes (usually replicas of regular bottles given as free samples at perfume counters).

Many people include perfume bottles in crossover collections as well – figural dog perfume bottles for the collector of dog figures or heart-shaped bottles for the collector of hearts, for example. There are also many related collections that may or may not include actual perfume bottles – advertisements; labels; fans with perfume advertising; fabrics with perfume images; soaps; perfume trade cards; powders; those little cardboard cutouts that fragrance models hand you in department stores; and many more that I have never thought of.

If you don’t collect perfume bottles, it may surprise you to learn that the record price for a perfume bottle at auction is something over $200,000 or that those little sample bottles we used to get for free at perfume counters in the ’60s can now bring as much as $300 or $400! It may also surprise you to learn that those miniature bottles are more popular with European collectors than their full-size counterparts or that bottles by American perfume companies are more desirable to European collectors than to Americans, and vice versa. On the other hand, collectors in England seem to prefer Victorian art glass and cut glass with English sterling mounts. It may also surprise you to know that most collectors of commercial perfume bottles will buy empty examples, but those still sealed with the original perfume do carry a premium, and the original packaging can raise the price by as much as 500 percent! Even a funny (or suggestive) name can increase the price of a bottle.

Collecting perfume bottles is one of those hobbies you can begin with little or no investment. Just ask your friend who wears Shalimar to save you her next empty bottle. But beware! Investment quality perfume bottles can be very pricey. The rules for value are the same as for any other kind of glass – rarity, condition, age, quality of the glass. There are some special considerations with perfume bottles. You do not have an investment quality bottle (one that will appreciate in value over time) unless the bottle has its original stopper and label (if it’s a commercial), it is a high quality lead crystal or glass bottle (not a lower end eau de cologne or eau de toilette bottle) and there is no corrosion on any metal part. With commercial perfume bottles, prior to the introduction of those little plastic liners on the dowel end of a stopper in 1979, all stoppers had to be individually ground to match the neck of their specific bottle. Bottles without those liners are to be preferred to those that have them.

Perfume bottles with significant chips or with sick glass (which can only be “cured” by a very expensive and time consuming process which
essentially involves grinding the glass from the inside of the bottle) lose some, if not most, of their value to collectors.

Some other hints for someone considering collecting perfume bottles as an investment include the fact that men’s scent bottles do not usually equal the value of women’s perfumes.

One exception to the rule that value depends heavily upon rarity is a bottle with widespread sentimental appeal (Evening in Paris is the most obvious example – women of a certain age all remember buying it for their mothers in dime stores or receiving it from their first beau). Another rule has to do with limited edition perfume issues or gift shop type bottles. They are like automobiles – they lose half their value as you take them out of the store and do not regain their original investment for 20 years. This old saying about all modern collectibles has many exceptions in the perfume collecting world, but do remember that you cannot count on collector interest in your bottle in the resale market if every potential buyer could have bought it in its initial offering.

Another rule is you make the rules for your own collection. Some miniature collectors will only include a bottle containing 1/8 ounce or less, while another may limit purchases to bottles of less than 3 inches. One collector may insist upon only signed examples while another proudly displays any bottle made by or designed by a certain manufacturer. Some collectors include bottles with figural stoppers in their displays, while others insist that the entire bottle must be made in a figural form (to look like something other than a bottle).

What causes such great differences in the price of the same bottle? The variables in pricing are almost endless. The first is condition, of course.

That is followed by location. Is the bottle being sold in Europe or the United States? Is the bottle in an elegant antique shop or a charity thrift shop? Is it in a well advertised auction or a small rural auction? Are two or more bidders determined to own the bottle? If the bottle is in an Internet auction, was it listed in the most logical category and was the description well written? I am sure you can think of dozens of variables yourself.

Reprinted from Antique Trader Perfume Bottles Price Guide, 2008.

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