B Is for Bottles

I’ll just go right out and say it: the most important part of a perfume is the bottle it’s in. And I kind of hate that.

Think about it – if your favourite fragrance wasn’t in the bottle it’s in, graced by the name of the brand that makes it,* would it still receive your adoration, would it still have been an object of desire to you? I’ll be the first to admit that much of the allure of a perfume is lost on me if it is in something other than its original bottle (think generic refills, decants, and samples…). I sometimes have to remind myself that no one but a small number of experts can smell the bottle (or the brand or price) on me – they just notice the perfume itself.

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” – William Shakespeare
But would it still smell as sweet if it was disguised as a dead rat?

Along a similar line, I’m convinced that perfume smells different depending on how attractive you find the wearer, but I’ll save that topic for another time.

The perfume liquid itself (the French call it ‘jus’) usually costs less than a couple of dollars per bottle, and can often be measured in cents. Bottles are where the real cost of most perfumes is, and brands spend a lot creating these vessels in such a way that you will find the promise of equally beautiful contents enticing. Alas, this shouldn’t put you off perfume, because there are a lot of other costs involved (marketing, distribution…). Again, I’ll save this topic for a different post.

With that out of the way, let’s talk perfume bottles.
The ancient Egyptians were some of the first to use perfume, and they were also some of the first to create elaborate containers for their scents. They used intricately carved stone vessels to hold their perfumes, often depicting images of gods and goddesses. The ancient Greeks and Romans also used perfume, and their containers were often made of precious metals like gold and silver.

During the Middle Ages, perfume bottles became more ornate, with intricate designs and decorations. They were often made of glass, which allowed for more intricate shapes and designs. Perfume was still a luxury item, reserved for the wealthy, and the containers themselves were often as valuable as the scents they held.
But between tyrants and uprisings, blood-stained revolutions and the birth of science, that level of luxury got lost somewhere, and didn’t reappear in a major way until the early 20th century.

In the centuries leading to the 20th century, most perfumes were sold in medicine bottles, with the primary focus being on the scent itself and the precious ingredients that formed it. One notable example was Guerlain’s iconic bee bottle, created in 1853, but it was only available to the very wealthy. It took a businessman-turned-perfumer named François Coty to realise that the perfume industry was missing a huge branding opportunity. In the early years of last century, he enlisted the help of legendary glassmakers Lalique and Baccarat to create bottles that were unique not just to perfume brands, but often to individual scents.

It was at this point that perfume bottles began to evolve into the recognisable forms we know today. Glassblowing techniques had improved both technically and economically, allowing for more delicate and intricate designs at lower prices than ever before. Perfume houses began to realize that the bottles themselves could be used as branding tools, which meant that soon the market was flooded with intricate designs, each trying to stand out from a crowd of competitors.

In the years that followed, fashion designers began to create their own perfumes, using their brand names to market their scents. Chanel No. 5, created by Coco Chanel in 1921, is perhaps the most famous example of this. The simple, elegant bottle design became an iconic symbol of the brand and helped to establish Chanel as one of the most influential fashion designers of the 20th century.

Today, perfume bottles continue to be an important part of the perfume industry, with designers and perfumers constantly striving to create new and innovative designs. From sleek, modern shapes to ornate, vintage-inspired bottles, the containers themselves have become an important part of the overall fragrance experience.

With that being said, a beautiful perfume bottle is a sight to behold (such as Lalique’s limited editions). Though you shouldn’t ignore them completely, try to think of them as a the cover to each perfume’s novel – stunning perhaps, but not nearly as important as the scent within.

*Or, more likely, oversees another company that designs and produces it.

A is for Amber

This is part one of a series of posts I’ll be doing over the next twelve months. It will serve as an introduction to, and history of, the big, wonderful world of perfume, and will cover notable ingredients, brands, people, places, and more. I hope you can tag along for the ride.

What is amber?

Amber is a wonderfully complex scent, and is probably my favourite fragrance note. It’s named after (you guessed it) amber, the odourless fossilised resin, but isn’t made from it. Traditionally, amber in perfumery means an accord based around three basic ingredients: benzoin, a tree resin with a sweet, slightly medicinal smell; labdanum, a flower extract with a sticky, leathery scent that smells to me like black-hearted honey; and vanilla. Unlike in this note’s early days in the late 19th century, most amber perfumes today probably contain none of the above ingredients (for all sorts of reasons), but they do maintain the rich and sweet scent of this iconic accord. This base can be accompanied by all manner of other notes, including woods, florals, oud, spices, fruits, tobacco, and many more – it’s a very versatile base for a perfume. Because amber is quite hard to describe in words, here are a few popular ambery perfumes you can test in stores quite easily: Paco Rabanne 1 Million, Prada Candy, Hermès L’Ambre des Merveilles, and Mugler Alien. They all take rather different angles on amber, but you’ll be able to get an idea of what they have in common. It’s worth noting that amber is generally more appropriate for wearing in the evening or during cold weather

Amber’s changing definition

On a side note, you will be hearing the term amber a lot more in the next few months and years, as it’s been chosen as a replacement for the perfume term oriental, which was for a long time used to describe fragrances based on ingredients found in the Middle and Far East (such as benzoin, sandalwood, frankincense, patchouli, and spices). Though the term was never meant to cause offence within the context of perfumery, and still doesn’t for most people, the industry is beginning to pre-emptively change it.

My favourite amber perfumes

There have been some really magnificent amber perfumes over the years. A few personal favourites are Hermès Ambre Narguilé (delicious), Guerlain Shalimar (classic but not old-fashioned), Goldfield & Banks Desert Rosewood (spicy woods and resins), Louis Vuitton Ombre Nomade (addictive sweet oud and incense), Matiere Premiere Encens Suave (expensive incense), Bond No. 9 Dubai Amber (oud with a little pungency), and Fort & Manlé Amber Absolutely (strange-but-fun fruity amber). What I love about amber is its cosiness and rich intensity – ambery perfumes often can be as good for a quiet day at home as they are for a big night out. I think everyone should have at least one amber perfume in their fragrance collection!