Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Perfume bottles as decorative arts

The history of glass perfume bottles is as old as the history of glass itself. Four thousand years ago or more, the Egyptians used unguents and potions for various religious and earthly purposes. The earliest known containers were made from wood, stone and metal, but soon the advantages of glass became apparent. Not only is it impervious to most fluids, this material is easily shaped when hot and it can be brightly coloured as decoration.

The retail packaging of perfumes today is intricate and attractive, as befits a high-value product that is consumed over time and usually kept handy in full view. But commercial bottles are mostly machine-made in mass production of thousands of identical items. We are interested instead in hand-made examples of the decorative arts where the practical purpose may be largely lost. (How many people would have bought a vase from Gallé or Tiffany, intending to fill it with flowers and water?) Many Australian glass artists have made decorative perfume bottles. Here are a few:

Alan Fox, Keith Rowe, Lucas Salton, Ann Hand, Martini Glass (Tina Cooper and Mark Galton)
Ian Johnstone, Gerry Reilly, Ann Clifton, Pauline Delaney, Stephen Morris

In case it might be thought that making decorated perfume bottles is girly business, note that seven of the eleven artists represented in these pictures are blokes. There is more evidence on that score below. 

It is perhaps fitting that the two leading makers of decorative perfume bottles in Australia today are based in a part of the country that is itself small and beautiful – Tasmania. Tony Trivett and Richard Clements make their creations by lampwork, using borosilicate (Pyrex) tubing and rods, and formed in a burner and coloured with metal oxides. By contrast, all of the items in the above two pictures are made by taking a gather of hot molten glass from a pot or tank in a furnace and blowing a bubble.

Tony Trivett, 6 bottles
Richard Clements, 7 small bottles mostly from the 1980s and 1990s

Observe again, both of these artists are men – as is another prolific maker, Michael Hook.

For those who collect older bottles from second hand markets, there is always the risk that stoppers will be chipped, broken or missing. The glass-to-glass action of inserting the stopper brings particular risks of damage, as does the transport of bottles with the stoppers in. Stoppers can be dropped to the floor or jammed in too tight, and the extra leverage due to an elongated stopper makes the whole package vulnerable to breakage. The other risk is the seller who describes the item as a ‘bud vase’. Look for an opening that is precisely round with grinding down the throat where it has been bored out to fit a stopper. It is no surprise then that most collections will include bottles that are missing their matching stoppers, like these:

Tricia Allen, Greg Royer, Matt Bryce and Kent Le Grand, Peter Goss, Ryu?, anon

Australians produce hand made bottles in an amazing array of sizes, styles and colours. Here are a few by female artists:

Kath Sinkora, Kylie Neilson, Cathy Jordan, Maureen Williams, Eileen Gordon and Jemma Clements

Perfume bottles are readily collectable because they are small and elegant, and they don’t take up much space. But don’t think these are trivial objects in the world of decorative arts. In February 2009, Christies of London sold a 1927 bottle by the Frenchman Maurice Marinot for a cool 51,400 Euros – that’s about $65,000!


  1. For some reason I have just found this in my RSS feeds - didn't see it before. I hope you will continue these blogs, though I know only too well how hard it is to keep up the flow.

    You've helped me ID a recent TradeMe purchase - now know I have a Maureen Williams scent bottle. I also got a small 1984 Peter Goss bottle recently.

  2. See more Australian Glass perfume bottles by Michael Hook in our blog entry for 21 November 2015.

  3. The cosmetics world requires a lot of cosmetic spray bottle types. Not only that, but the cosmetic products tend to be either liquid or solid. custom spray bottles