Thursday, July 7, 2011

Form Follows Fragrance

A perfume cannot exist without its container. Perfume bottles have been around for millenia, intriguing us with their essences. The perfumes themselves may have evaporated, but the forms linger and speak for the vanished contents. These ancient vessels are still as relevant today as they were when they were first created. The perfume bottle has indeed transcended time.

In order to understand how the perfume bottle has remained timeless I thought I would make one. There were several functional requirements that would have to be met. The bottle would have to be non-porous and protect the fragile essences from sunlight and oxidation, be non-reactive against the corrosive action of the volatile oils/alcohol and be proportioned to contain the precious liquid, about 1/2 ounce. There would also have to be a small opening so that the perfume could be applied without spilling and the orifice closure would have to prevent evaporation.

The natural materials available ended up being limited to glass, stone, glazed ceramic or stainless steel, the same materials one would use to cook acidic foods. Glass would have to be blown, cast or ground. Stone would have to be chiseled or ground. Steel would have to be forged.

Ceramic would have to be formed and glazed. An unglazed terracotta pendent, however, could be the ideal vehicle for wearing a natural perfume as it would hold onto the volatile notes and diffuse them slowly. But that’s the subject of a different exploration . . . Of all the methods, the one that afforded the most plasticity and availability was ceramics. Since I had taken a ceramics class (two years ago), I decided to practice throwing in miniature.

The forms that resulted were limited by my technical ability, but yielded a surprising variety of shapes. Perhaps unconsciously influenced by the work of Jonathan Adler

or the generic genie bottle each flagon took on a different shape, all under two inches high.

There is an amusing similarity between one of the bottles and the bulb extractor given to me at the hospital last November after my daughter was born. Hmmm, I wonder if those bulb extractors could hold perfume . . .

Aside from the formal study, other basic issues such as materiality and decoration were explored. Since I was not proficient enough to use porcelain, a material better suited to such small scale work, I chose a clay body with a fine grit which I highlighted by leaving a portion of the exterior unglazed. The bottle interior, however, had to be glazed and non-porous. Depending on how the pieces were dipped, the interior glaze sometimes overlapped the exterior glaze and resulted in some unexpected results and flaws. This contrast between glazed and unglazed surfaces was the only decorative element used.

Another challenge was to pull the bottle walls thin enough without compromising their structural integrity. This would help reduce material weight and ensure the bottles were proportional. The top had to be finished so that a cork stopper would fit properly. Cork was chosen because of its traditional use in perfumery and availability. In order to figure out volume, each bottle had to be filled with water before measuring out the perfume. No other identifying details such as labels or tags were used except for a signet ring imprint (did ancient perfumes have labels?). Finally, the bottles were not created with a particular perfume in mind, but were the end result of an exploration of perfume containment as a concept and analogous to study models or sketches used architecturally to analyze an idea.

My handmade ceramic perfume bottles work well and have an appeal that is almost toylike. They are reminiscent of the miniature Chinese ceramic jugs shown below that are almost 2,000 years old. As much as I enjoyed this experiment, the modern day exigencies of perfume selling would make my ceramic bottles highly impractical. Although form follows fragrance, there are practical considerations that have to be met. I will have to revisit this topic in the near future when I am ready to launch my first perfume.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


I recently salvaged a stash of old perfumes which included some vintage Chanel No. 5, Miss Dior and other more contemporary scents from the 70‘s and 80’s. It was such a pleasure to experience them, knowing they were no longer in production, at least the way they were formulated at the time. They reminded me of old buildings; we continue to inhabit them, but they are shells of their former selves. And yet traces of the past can be sensed like ghostly reminders.

I was surprised to discover that some of the unknown scents had murky bases full of labdanum, oakmoss, vanilla and patchouli. Contrast that to the metallic brightness favored today. These old perfumes actually unfolded on my skin, leading me to believe they contained high percentages of naturals.

Another surprise was how these old compositions were all about the base, exuding richness and complexity in lieu of lightness and transparency. Some might associate this with an “old lady” smell, but I realized that at some point in time, base notes were treasured in women’s perfumery. The leathery Miss Dior reminded me of a handsome satchel worn with a houndstooth suit and black stilletos. This Miss Dior could kick the crap out of any modern day sylph and yet her ladylike persona defined restraint.

When my mother smelled it on my wrist she said it instantly transported her back to New York in the 1950’s, when Miss Dior was a popular choice for young women with new found jobs. I may not have known my mother back then but I was able to imagine her as a 22 year old music school grad working her job at RCA and for a moment was connected to her in her past.