What started off your interest in miniature perfume bottles? Your first one?
Both Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel and my mother share the blame or, should I say, get all the credit. My first mini was an empty Chanel No. 5 given to me by my mom – her only fragrance of choice. She gave me the empty bottle and I didn't give it much thought, at the time I remember asking her "Like what am I going to do with your old empty perfume bottle?" She carefully removed the stopper and with a gentle smile showed me that even though the bottle was completely empty - it still smelled heavenly. I thanked her and then immediately placed it within a box and tucked it in my dresser and didn't give it anymore thought. Through the years, however, that little empty Chanel No 5 bottle traveled the world with me as I moved from country to country with my family. Many years later, while my parents and sisters were busy moving to Aberdeen, Scotland, I was busy moving into my first apartment back in Texas. And with my mom and I thousands of miles apart, I can still remember unpacking on moving day and coming across that special little bottle of Chanel. Upon discovery, I immediately removed the stopper and, much to my delightful surprise, it still smelled like heaven and, of course, my mom! And so it began...
Why is collecting miniatures so popular? What’s the attraction?
There are as many answers to that question as there are collectors. The attraction is different for everyone. For my first mini, there was the obvious sentimental connection to my mother who wore Chanel No 5, but I also loved the bottle design – especially the thin, faceted, glass stopper. But as I received one miniature, then another, and yet another, I suddenly realized I now had a small collection forming and began to appreciate minis for what most of them are – identical, miniature copies of the original, full sized perfume flacons. I find that people collect Minis for lots of different reasons: for the perfumer, design house, time period, fragrance, bottle colour, or shape (known as figurals. i.e. flowers, animals, objects, people, etc).
How affordable is it as a hobby? Give me an idea of the price range here, from most economical to most valuable collector’s item.
Although “Paris Minis” in my Shoppe go for as little as $2.95 a piece (Ballade Royale de Chariers, for example), most minis I offer run on average about $15-$25. Of course, hard-to-find specimens based on rarity and condition can go for hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars. Miniature perfume bottles frequently come up for auction and when they do, bidding wars often ensue. Such was the case for a Guerlain “Coque d’Or “ (Bow of Gold) that sold for $467.50 and a rare Mary Dunhill “Frou-Frou de Gardenia” bottle that, although a diminutive 2.7 inches high, realized a gigantic auction price of $1,760 (Monsen and Baer, Inc. Perfume Bottle Auction, May 20, 2000). And when mini flacons happen to be designed by famed glass designers such as Steuben, Lalique, Baccarat, or Viard, just to name a few, prices can really climb, as did a J. Viard designed “Bleu de Chine” (Chinese Blue) by Isabey that had an appraised value of between $6,000 - $8,000 in 1997 (Philips Presentations). Finally, encrust a special, limited edition miniature with some rubies, emeralds, and diamonds and, well, you get the idea.
Still, the vast majority of minis can be found for less than ten dollars a piece at garage sales, antique stores, and flea markets, so it is a very affordable hobby. I am constantly on the lookout everywhere I go. For me, part of the fun as a collector is the treasure hunt - always being on the lookout for these tiny masterpieces. It may sound childish, but there is a sheer joy and excitement anytime I find a 'rare' one at a garage sale for fifty cents. Miniatures in my Shoppe go for as little as $3 a piece, but on average run about $15. I always encourage people to do some skilful hinting to family and friends: the minis you receive as gifts on holidays and special events are free!
People who collect antique and vintage perfume bottles are often not interested in the juice inside. How do you and your customers stand on that? Can you bear to use up the juice inside? Does the juice go off more easily?
Personally (and I think this is true for most collectors) I am only interested in the bottle – its beautiful shape, label, and design - not the fragrance or “juice” it may contain. But my customers fall into one of three categories: bottle collectors, vintage fragrance “juice” collectors, and those who “want it all”.
As to the quality or wearability of the vintage juice that may still remain in a bottle, most mini collectors just view that as a bonus. Having said that, I have seen a trend the last couple of years of more and more collectors actually wanting their minis with the juice. Some want to revive the fragrant memory of their first love, some long for the original fragrance before it was reformulated or discontinued (yes, it does make a difference) and others just want a genuine sample of the entire presentation. For example, there is something very special about holding a vintage miniature of Shalimar, Tabu, or Toujours Moi – especially one in pristine condition, sealed, full of original perfume, and that includes the box. It’s like reaching back into time some fifty years and pulling the perfume bottle right off the shelf – brand new and just like it was originally created to enjoy.
As for “going off”- minis are subject to the same storage concerns as their larger commercial relatives, maybe more so. Their intoxicating fragrances are just as susceptible to air, light, heat, and cold. Based on composition and the quality of ingredients used, some fragrances smell great for very long periods of time, while others do not. If you keep your perfume mini out of the direct sunlight and heat, the average shelf life (in my experience) is about seven years to still enjoy optimum results.
Does it matter to you if a bottle is empty?
Not for my personal collection, although I do prefer a bottle to have some remnant of the original fragrance remaining in it. This is especially true for antique miniatures where even a dried drop in the bottom of the bottle still helps to recapture the long-since-forgotten scent of another time and place. I just experienced this with a vintage 1937 Phul-Nana by Grossmith, London that I recently acquired that was originally launched in 1891. The dried residue still exquisitely perfumes the bottle with its original rich, exotic, and oriental scent to this day. The biggest “no-no” in miniature collecting is to clean the inside of the bottle.
How many bottles do you have in your own private collection? What are your favourites and why?
Fewer than you might think. I have about one hundred and fifty total, with at least sixty-five of those being vintage Chanel No 5s in all its various presentations. And with more than 3,500 miniatures (and counting) on the Shoppe shelves, I get to be the “caregiver” of all these precious minis. I get to enjoy them, display them, and take good care of them until just the right miniature perfume lover comes along and desires them for their collection.
My personal favourites to collect are vintage examples of Chanel No 5, Guerlain’s “Shalimar”, and Christian Dior’s “Miss Dior”. For overall beauty – both in fragrance and bottle design – it’s hard to beat the iconic cap of No 5, the delicate fan-shaped bottle and cap of Guerlain, and classic hounds-tooth pattern found on early Dior.
Is it hard for you to part with things and sell them sometimes?
All too often. Of course, luckily for me, every day is like Christmas since I am buying almost every day. I get to unwrap all the “new” arrivals, process and photograph them, and enjoy each one until they are purchased and sent to their new home. However, I do confess that more than one or two usually land on my personal workstation to enjoy and I’m not always in such a hurry to add them to my inventory.
Can you give me an idea of the kinds of people who collect miniature perfume bottles?
Like the world of fashion, collectors come in all colours, shapes, and sizes; there is not one particular demographic. Professionals, students, housewives, men, women, young and old – people just like you and me. So diverse! And their collections are diverse, too. For example, my husband has an appreciation for modern and surrealist art, so it came as no surprise to me that he wanted to collect the miniature flacons by Parfums Salvador Dali – miniature perfume versions of Dali’s masterpieces. (Shhh, he has over fifty and keeps them in his closet!)
Collectors come from all over the world, but I send more minis to collectors in Australia than any other country. What all mini collectors have in common is the pursuit of something beautiful to add to their collection.
If someone wanted to start a collection, what would you advise?
My first suggestion would be to become familiar with minis via either the Internet or by books on the subject. Totally immerse yourself in the subject and then start collecting what appeals to your personal tastes and interests. The book I most often recommend for beginning collectors is Miniature Perfume Bottles by Glinda Bowman (Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.) Not only is it chock full of great photos and concise descriptions, but also includes a useful price guide in the back of the book. Jeri Lyn Ringblum’s A Collector’s Handbook of Miniature Perfume Bottles (Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.) is also a wealth of information. For those collectors interested in both the fragrance and the bottle, another invaluable resource (which just happens to be based in the United Kingdom) is the Perfume Intelligence Library (www.perfumeintelligence.co.uk). With more than 21 volumes, 65,000 entries, and 3,000 images, it is always my first stop for perfume history and bottle research.
Networking is also important. In addition to perfume related blogs, I encourage newbie collectors to participate in the conversation with other mini collectors – they can join my own organization, The Miniature Perfume Society as well as The International Perfume Bottle Association (of which I am an active member). There is so much we can learn from each other and it’s fun to see what others are collecting, too. I learn something new from my customers almost every day, as well as the Association.
Do you have any suggestions on displaying a miniature collection?
I would recommend a curio cabinet, display case, or bookcase with glass doors (you want to collect minis, not dust bunnies.) Place them where you will be able to see them and enjoy them every single day.
Over the years, I have maintained as many as three different curio cabinets (at the same time) in as many different areas of my home. There really are not any “rules”. First and foremost, be creative, enjoy, and have fun. You can incorporate common things you have around your house into your display – scarves, mirrors, mini shopping bags – all help to create a theme or setting you will enjoy. I love to incorporate dollhouse furniture, especially chairs, to give a special place for each and every mini. And don’t forget your boudoir, closet, desk, vanity, or dressing table. All are great places for minis.
Could you tell me your favourite six?
Honestly, I love them all, but if you insist: Chanel No 5, Shalimar, Miss Dior, and White Shoulders. And who can resist early miniature perfume flacons by Coty, Lalique, or Baccarat?
Can you define what a miniature is? Does it have to be a replica of the original full-sized bottle?
Historically, the first minis were miniature objet d’art created for aristocratic ladies as keepsakes or to take on their travels. Later, design/perfume houses created them as gifts for their favorite clients. Eventually, they were used as incentives or samples at cosmetic counters to entice women to try something new that would lead to a purchase of a full bottle. These were usually marked as “sample” or “not for sale” on the bottle or packaging. Due to the expense involved, most perfume houses eventually stopped producing these altogether. It’s interesting to note that during this last year I’ve noticed a renaissance of these adorable bottles we call minis. Many perfume houses are now selling miniature versions (5ml or less) of their fragrance as vials, roll-ons, and sprays and marketing them as “travel size” or “purse size”.
Strictly speaking, to be considered a miniature perfume bottle it must be no taller than 3 inches high – 1.5 inches for a micro-mini, but often the lines blur as to what constitutes a mini vs. a larger commercial size due to the bottle design. For that reason, I’ll occasionally make an exception and allow a “mini” up to 4 inches in my Shoppe. As a general rule of thumb, a mini will only hold between 1ml - 5ml of fragrance.
Although not required to be classified as a mini, I personally think the best miniatures are those that are true, identical replicas of the commercial sizes.
Time Travel In A Bottle...
In the interests of research I, of course, ordered some bottles for myself. I usually have a policy of never buying anything that’s discontinued - therein lies the road to ruin, but with so much choice, I found myself irresistibly drawn to my perfumed past.
I finally settled on Givenchy III, Fendi and Mystère de Rochas. The first is what I wore in my late teens when I was trying to be sophisticated and grown up (my mum was firmly in the oriental camp, so this was my form of rebellion!).
Mystère de Rochas was what my beloved maiden Aunt Rita wore. She was that winning combination of classy and kind - when she died I inherited her pearls and a bottle of Mystere de Rochas that she was half way through.
Then there was lovely Fendi . It was my great perfume love in my 20s. On first smelling it on my skin again it after twenty years I felt it had a much ‘earthier’ opening than I remember, top marks for that. After about twenty minutes it settled down to the old friend I remember (LVMH what were you thinking discontinuing this gem?).
I’ve never subscribed to the ‘perfume is about memories’ school of thought: for me, perfume has always been about beauty, but the bizarre thing about opening that little bottle is that it was like unleashing a huge wide-screen cinema screen in the room. Suddenly there in front of me were images projected from a period of my life that I hadn’t thought about in a long time. I was a young reporter living in Washington, I lived in funky Adams Morgan. I had a great group of friends who were also young journalists (it was one of them, Laura, who introduced me to Fendi). We were all on the cusp of ‘making it’, we were all a couple of years away from meeting our future husbands and wives and settling down. There were lots of laughs, lots of dinners and lots of mutual support whenever one of us had a dud date: I believe I wore Fendi to the date where the guy kept whistfully saying that I reminded him of his first wife, and the sports fanatic who had the World Series on during our candle-lit dinner...
The strange thing is that the Fendi also made me feel sad – and it took me a day to pinpoint why. It was also the time when both my parents were still alive, those special days when I was still someone’s daughter. My father always loved America and hearing stories about my life there. I must admit, I had a day of basking in the golden memories of youth, followed by a day of crying and sorrow. The lid on the Fendi is now firmly back on now.
Although the juice in a miniature can’t be relied on to be in good order, I think that miniatures can be a good way to experience a whiff of your past without having to commit to spending lots of money on a full bottle. [LDG]
Leslie Ann worked in the cosmetics industry for more than twenty-five years. She is a former Cosmetics Buyer for Foley’s Department Stores (now Macy’s) and was also an Account Executive for Clinique Labs. An avid collector herself, Leslie Ann is an active member of The International Perfume Bottle Association (IPBA) and The Miniature Perfume Society. www.miniatureperfumeshoppe.com
Lila Das Gupta is a London based journalist. Her company, Olfactory Events, gives private talks about perfume and runs Perfume Lovers London with support from Basenotes.