Once every four years, the French President hands out a set of prestigious awards to the country's finest craftsmen and craftswomen. Known as the 'Meilleur Ouvrier De France' (Best Worker/Artisan Of France), this accolade indicates not only that its recipient's skills have reached the absolute pinnacle of achievement, but also that the country itself has had its culture enriched by the recipient's work. According to Roja Dove - curator of the Harrods Perfume Diaries - world-renowned companies such as Boucheron and Christofle can boast only one or two such highly qualified artisans. However, the crystal making factories of Baccarat are home to no fewer than twenty-five 'meilleurs ouvriers', which helps to explain why the final event in the Perfume Diaries calendar turned out to be particularly memorable.
On the 30th of September, against the backdrop of hundreds of ancient flacons, Michaela Lerch, curator and archivist at Baccarat, delivered a presentation on some of the firm's most notable achievements in the field of perfume bottle making. Although her English wasn't always up to the task, the content of her speech was so fascinating - and the gentle prompts from Mr Dove were so helpful - that she had no trouble keeping the audience interested.
Her story began in 1764, when Louis XV authorised the construction of a glassworks factory at Baccarat, a small town in north-eastern France. About 50 years later, the first crystal products were made and in around 1860, the firm began producing perfume flasks. With their rectangular, whisky-decanter bodies and round stoppers, the first flacons were undeniably elegant, but not especially eye-catching. As scents were sold in the manufacturers' own shops - usually with a whole range of other 'personal care' products - their bottles simply didn't need to stand out. Indeed, it was accepted that the flacons were little more than functional containers: customers would decant their purchases into their own, personal bottles. However, as time passed and the perfume retail industry developed, the design of the flacons was forced to evolve.
Initial alterations were simple. In the late 19th century, some perfume houses decided to commission Baccarat to create different stoppers to identify their perfumes. This led to the idea of dispensing with basic, paper labels and replacing them with larger designs in gold enamel. At the beginning of the 20th century, the business of decanting scents into smaller bottles went out of fashion, which meant that each perfume had to be a 'stand-alone' product in a purpose-built flacon. This in turn increased the prominence of the perfume box, which culminated in François Coty's innovative move to weave a common theme through the designs of his flacons, labels and packaging.
The first few decades of the last century saw the rise of department stores, in which hundreds of fragrances from several different creators were stocked side by side in large cabinets. Flacons could no longer remain unobtrusive: in order to fight for the attention of potential customers, they had to become more imaginative, more luxurious and more expressive of their brand's identity. With the birth of modernism and the rise of the couturier came the arrival of the golden age of perfume bottles, a time when several of the most beloved flacons were created, many of which were, of course, made by Baccarat.
Notable examples include Coty's Muguet (1916), where the body is made of a crystal so thin and fine, it almost appears to vanish, thus allowing a full appreciation of the decorative, enamelled stopper. Highlighting the era's love of animal imagery, Toujours Fidèle (Ever Faithful; 1912) by D'Orsay consists of a dog-shaped stopper atop a body in the form of a plush cushion, whilst Lubin's Kismet (1921) depicts an elephant and rider. The mania for Egyptian designs manifested itself in several creations, including Le Secret Du Sphynx (1917) by Ramses, which was inspired by an ancient sarcophagus.
As is well known, Baccarat were the creators of Guerlain's classic Mitsouko bottle, with the gendarme-hat stopper. However, most people may not be aware that the reason why the very same design also had to be used for L'Heure Bleue and Fol Arôme was because of the shortage of artists in the post-War period, yet another example of the realities of wider social contexts influencing perfumery.
Ms Lerch then outlined some of the main techniques involved in the bottle production process, such as the use of gold to create red-coloured crystal or cobalt to achieve a rich blue tint. Some designs have called for the creation of what's known as 'opal' crystal: an opaque substance which can be made to imitate the look of different materials, such as porcelain and jade. Gilding is achieved by the application of 24 carat gold powder which is then burnished with an agate stone. All these procedures - including the blowing, etching and cutting - are still carried out by hand. Indeed, crystal blowing is a particularly difficult skill which requires 10 years to learn.
Moving on to the middle of the 20th century, Ms Lerch explained that Guerlain's Coque D'Or (1937) was housed in what was one of the most luxurious bottles ever made by Baccarat: a bow-tie-shaped inner layer of clear crystal, surrounded by a second, coloured layer which was then almost completely covered in gold. The bottle for Elsa Schiaparelli's Le Roy Soleil (1945) - an example of which was displayed to the audience - was designed by Salvador Dali and depicts a sun rising over a wavy sea. However, some of the most accomplished flacons - in technical terms - were the amphora designs created for Miss Dior and Diorama in 1949. With their gilding, exquisite cut-work, deep colours and hollow stoppers, they display and encompass almost all the main Baccarat trademarks.
A similar shape was adopted in 1956 for the famous Diorissimo bottle with its gilded bronze stopper of a bouquet of flowers. Mr Dove stated that he considers this to be the last great commercial flacon. After its release, the more egalitarian ethos of rising firms such as Estee Lauder meant that scent was forced to become a more affordable product, which of course had a direct effect on how much perfume houses were willing to pay for the creation of mainstream bottles. Since then, Baccarat's involvement in the creation of flacons has largely been restricted to special, limited editions, such as Versace's geometric puzzle-box for V'e (1989) and the bottle for the extrait of Guerlain's recent Idylle, which attempts to convey the notion of a drop of rain trapped in a casing of glass.
As Ms Lerch concluded her presentation, it was impossible not to look at the displays around the audience with a new sense of awe and admiration, and also, it has to be said, with a distinct tinge of melancholy. As I type these words, one of the greatest perfumery exhibitions ever staged in Britain is being packed away, perhaps never to be re-assembled again. During the four weeks of its existence, it played host to several excellent events and provided wonderful opportunities for like-minded people to meet and exchange views and ideas. The Harrods team are to be applauded for their efforts in making it such a tremendous success and for acknowledging that London is increasingly becoming a crucial hub in the world of perfumery.
About the author
Persolaise is a UK-based writer and amateur perfumer who has held a strong interest in the world of fine fragrance for over two decades. He is currently developing his own line of perfume. You can find out more about his work at www.persolaise.com
or by emailing him at persolaise at gmail dot com