Small Wonders – Aromatic Adornments

Of all the luxury commodities in the world, fragrance is the most paradoxical. Volatile and ephemeral, it nevertheless summons up our deepest hidden memories. Unseen, it is felt everywhere. Given its flyaway nature-as well as its precious ingredients-fragrance calls out for beautiful containment.And certainly we’ve all seen our share of exquisite perfume bottles-the visual symbols of scents.

When we think of perfume containers, we think of Lalique flacons with wisteria stoppers. We think of Guerlain’s Moghul-inspired bottle for Shalimar, or the heavy crystal Baccarat container for Jean Patou’s Joy, or of assorted Art Deco and Art Modern masterpieces commissioned by Coty, Houbigant, Lanvin, Dana, Caron, and Schiaparelli. But glass is only one of the possibilities. A longer tradition in perfumery places precious aromatic essences in metal containers, and that tradition continues today.

Martina Lang
Scent Cushion 1, 1996
Silver, copper, leather, fragrant blossoms, cord
5 x 2 3/8 x 2 3/8 “

In the Western world, perfumery begins in the medieval period. Regarded as blasphemous in the Dark Ages that followed the fall of the Roman Empire, fragrances came into use-in solid and liquid form-in the eleventh century. It was then that crusaders, returning from the East, brought back with them a multitude of aromatic items: spices, twigs, leaves, and powerful animal fixatives in paste form (such as civet, ambergris, and musk), which soon proved to be worth their weight in gold. With sanitation and fresh, running water virtually nonexistent, the air was heavy with the stench of open sewage, unwashed bodies, and lived-in clothes. Bathing and laundering were considered dangerous, in part due to contaminated water supplies. In such an ambiance, aromatics became treasured substances, called upon to counter the noxious odors in the air.

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Those of means-royalty, the nobility, the clergy – protected their personal space with the use of small globular vessels known as pomanders, whose potent aromas created an odor shield against the outside world. Initially a small, simple paste ball made of ambergris, the pomander was the earliest portable fragrance container used in the Western world, first appearing in Germany , Italy , and France . From a humble, utilitarian vessel, it soon evolved into creations of ornate gold and silver. By the fourteenth century, the name pomander, from the French pomme d’ambre, or “apple of ambergris,” had come to signify not only the contents themselves but their protective containers.

To accommodate additional ingredients musk, civet, sandalwood, nutmeg, angelica, labdanum, and castoreum–metal pomanders evolved from hinged spheres of two equal halves to intricately sectioned vessels holding a variety of these paste and powder scents. Worn by both men and women as a pendant from a chain around the neck or suspended from a chatelaine (a girdle worn at the waist), pomanders eventually came to be shaped like nuts, skulls, hearts, books, and ships. Smaller ones were often attached by chain to a finger ring and held in the hand, or doubled as cape buttons, rosary beads, or jeweled collars known as carcanets.

Tiffany & Co.
Heart- shaped Vinaigrette with Finger Chain
Late 19th century
Rock crystal, platinum, yellow gold, rubies, diamonds
Height 11/2″

Passed down from generation to generation, pomanders, often textured with filigree, niello, and repousse, studded with gems, or engraved or enameled with intricate or fanciful motifs, were more than exquisite and intricately sectioned baubles. Through the potent, precious scents they held, they, acquired a sorcery of their own. The mere wearing of a pomander on the body, or its presence in the, hand, was thought to guard the wearer and those in proximity against evil and disease.

A perforated scent vessel known as the smelling box or pouncet box appeared in the second half of the sixteenth century. While it retained the pomander’s familiar spherical, gourd, skull, or snail shape, this novel container held liquid perfumes, blended with powder and secured on a tin) sponge or piece of cotton. Like the pomander, this aromatic container was not meant to perfume the skin, but to offer its wearer instant sniffs of scent, and was favored by generations of nobles, courtiers, and wealthy merchants who were drawn to the delicacy of liquid perfume-even as they maintained a vestigial belief in the pomander’s amuletic powers. But by the seventeenth century, the 600-year-old pomander had become an object of derision-its heady musk and ambergris contents considered overbearing.

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In the late eighteenth century, the smelling box was succeeded in popularity by the vinaigrette, a new kind of container that housed a piece of cotton wool or a tiny sponge soaked in a pungent liquid scent known as vinegar water. When the container was unscrewed or flipped open, the vinaigrette’s sharp aroma filled the air, clearing the nose, warding off foul aromas, and reviving flagging spirits. The cotton or sponge reposed for safekeeping behind an interior grille that was initially a perforated piece of metal. Later, both the grillework and the exterior became wildly ornate. The lid, serving as the design vehicle, became the site of engraving or repousse, or sometimes it consisted of a mounted gemstone. The stopper, initially made of cork or glass, was eventually replaced by a smoothly operating spring cap. And the tiny grille, arguably the vinaigrette’s defining feature, evolved into a miniature filigree or pierced-work tour do force, displaying ornate designs such as baskets of flowers, arabesques, initials, and scrolls.

To protect against corrosion, the interior of the vinaigrette was lined with gold, silver, sib-eyed glass, glass, or porcelain. Since the contents evaporated rapidly, the container had to be hermetically sealed, requiring precision jewelry-making techniques.

In the nineteenth century, vinaigrettes were held to the noses of ladies who fainted-the usual reason given being tight corsetry, though anemia as also rampant in those days. Vinaigrettes took numerous shapes. Many resembled tiny, bound books; others were egg-, horn-, or escutcheon- shaped. Some looked almost identical to perfume flacons of the time, but their containers were thicker, to minimize evaporation. Sized to fit in the palm of the hand, vinaigrettes were frequently attached by chain to a finger ring.

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Marine-style Nautilus
Late 19th century
Rock crystal, yellow gold, enamel, diamonds
Height 4″

First winning favor in the fourteenth century, liquid perfumes, such as floral bouquets, had another purpose. They were used not so much to scent the air as to scent the self: both the skin and the clothing (especially the handkerchief) that surrounded it. Hungary Water, the first alcohol-based perfume, was introduced in 1370. To accommodate these liquid came, gold and silver flacons began to be produced throughout Europe in the late fourteenth century. These small ornamental vessels with rightly fitting caps (to prevent spillage and alcohol evaporation) were frequently shaped like gourds, ovals, and .shells, their surfaces engraved or filigreed with arabesques or foliage designs. Until sometime in the nineteenth century, these flacons were individually crafted and delivered empty to their owners–only the wealthiest members of society who brought them to apothecaries or perfumeries, where precious scents like rose or lavender essence were decanted into each container.

American Cloverleaf Chatelaine, early 20th century
Gold, enamel

By the eighteenth century, artful perfume bottles were being crafted by metalsmiths all across Europe . But liquid fragrances had also begun to be carried in a new kind of flacon, made of glass. The novelty of viewing the perfume within a transparent container helped spur the growth of the glass perfume bottle industry in Venice , Bohemia , Silesia , Prance, and England . While some glass flacons mimicked their precious gold and silver predecessors, others depicted fashionable motifs of the day: billing doves and portraits of young girls in the late seventeenth center, pastoral scenes and views of ruins in the eighteenth. By the nineteenth century, crystal, cut lead, or multicolored glass flacons featured virtuoso staining and cameo, jeweled, and enameled surfaces. The most opulent yet, these bottles and pendant flacons incorporated metal as an overlay, of filigree, or as a decorative element with enamels and gemstones.

Biba Schutz
Hanging Scent, 2002
Oxidized tine and sterling silver, copper
Pendant 4 x 3 x 3 1/2″
Photo: Ron Boszko

The interior perfume vial is removable, allowing the wearer to insert a potpourri sachet within the caged vessel form.

It was also in the eighteenth century that the chatelaine rose to prominence. This extraordinary accessory, defined as a clasp, shield, or hook that was worn at the waist, served as a carryall for both women and men. Suspended from it were one or more short chains ending in rings or swivel catches. These in turn were used for hanging small objects, often a vinaigrette or perfume flacon, or a variety of objects and trinkets including whistles, scissors, tape measures, or timepieces. Since it could be seen from all angles, the chatelaine was as lavishly decorated on the back as the front, often in chased or repousse gold or silver.

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With the Industrial Revolution in full force by the mid-nineteenth century, perfume bottles and vinaigrettes had become nearly ubiquitous. No longer were they solely commissioned by the well-to-do. Now mass-produced, they were sold in volume, at affordable prices, with wide scale distribution and availability. Both bottles and vinaigrettes were manufactured in metal, glass, horn, shell, wood, and other materials.

The chatelaine had a couple of revivals in the nineteenth century. During the 1830s and `40s, it was characterized by designs of pierced and engraved steel, often with Moorish motifs. In the 1860s, the chatelaine reappeared, largely for ceremonial use at dances and balls. Appendages included fans, pillboxes, and dance cards and pencils, as well as perfume flacons or vinaigrettes.

One manufacturer-retailer notable for shaping the public’s perception of fragrance and fragrance containers was Tiffany and Co. The first Tiffany store opened in lower Manhattan in 1837, selling stationery and giftwares; and while such items remain in the company’s inventory, this emporium-as-institution brought its exquisite designs, impeccable craftsmanship, and straightforward American values to gemstones and jewelry, sterling silver flatware and hollowware, and fine china and crystal, which have since become its stock in trade. In addition, as an arbiter of New World good taste,

Tiffany began offering women’s fine perfumes, as well as perfume bottles, vinaigrettes, and chatelaines, in its debut catalog of 1845. In the late nineteenth century, Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of the founder, connected his family business with a variety of timely design movements- from Arts and Crafts to Art Nouveau. More artisan than shopkeeper, he also developed a unique type of iridescent glass (inspired by excavated ancient Roman glass) named “Favrile” (referring to the Latin word Faber, for craftsman like). Tiffany also revived and promoted a number of antique jewelry making techniques, such as guilloche enameling, which involves transparent enamels that reveal a metal pattern engraved beneath. In most cases, the cutting technique was executed on an engine-turning lathe that produced a variety of patterns.

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Christina Smith, Untitled (pendant), 1996
Sterling silver sheet and wire
Pendant: 1 1/4 x 2 x 3″
Photo. Gale, Palmer
Designed to contain the lavender and jasmine that the artist grows in her garden.
Karen Gilbert
Grand Opening (pendant), 1996
Sterling silver, blown glass. perfume
Pendant: 5 x 21/2″

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Tiffany repertory expanded to include a wide array of traditional and exotic artistic styles including neo-classicism, Japonisme, Islamic motifs, Arts and Crafts, and Art Nouveau. The eclectic Victorian style was also explored in Tiffany & Co. aromatic jewelry. One notable example is an extravagant crystal “Heart” vinaigrette bottle attached to a diamond ring. Its design influences come from French cabinetmaking, in particular marquetry of the mid-eighteenth century, where scrolling curves, acanthus leaf borders, and floral cornucopias were featured in ornamentation.

With the explosion of commercial perfumery in the early 1900s, the volume of flacon production rose to meet a steadily growing market. Celebrated jewelry and glass designers such as Lalique and Baccarat were commissioned to create stylish glass flacons for many of the sparkling and seductive new perfumes by Coty, Guerlain, Houbigant, and a host of other fragrance houses. The bottles themselves were placed (like jewels) in equally sumptuous satin- or velvet-lined, leather-covered boxes. Perfumery had become an art form-or rather, it was seen as the perfect merger of art and industry.

What’s more, this was an art and industry intended for women. While some of the early twentieth-century scents were shared by men, perfumers soon made their lush bouquets (like Chanel No 5 and Arpege) and their voluptuous Oriental potions (like Shalimar and Tabu) expressly for women. (Until the 1950s, men’s scents would be limited to such necessities as shaving creams.)

In the 1920s and `30s, small- and miniature- sized perfume bottles were incorporated in an ingenious multisectional or interconnected jewelry item known as the vanity. Vanities were designed as portable makeup holders in an age that delighted in glamour. Once considered the scandalous artifice of actresses and women of ill repute, makeup came into favor with the explosion of the beauty industry in the 1920s. It was carried not in a bulky handbag, which suited neither the short, diaphanous flapper dress of the `20s nor the bias-cut fashions of the `30s, but in vanities, which in turn were attached to or incorporated into bracelets, necklaces, or even finger rings. Vanities were usually made of metal, enamel on metal, or Bakelite. With a perfume flacon or powder compact often serving as the centerpiece, vanities celebrated and even flaunted the very notion of beauty.

Mikala Naur
Aromatic Tea Egg Necklace, 1995
Metal tea eggs, gold leaf, gold chain, plastic filament
Length 181/2″

A small piece of scented cloth is inserted into each egg.

The modern glade, or solid perfume compact, first appeared during World War I in France , when alcohol was rationed and wax perfumes became briefly popular. In the 1960s and 1970s, when the fragrance industry was becoming increasingly competitive, the glade re-emerged as a largely American marketing phenomenon. Sold by cosmetics companies-Max Factor, Revlon, Faberge, Corday, Avon, Estee Lauder-in limited editions, around Christmas or for Mother’s Day, glaces were whimsical and lighthearted.

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Conversation pieces designed to appeal to women who still regarded perfume as a slightly risqué luxury, best saved for special occasions. Requiring no screwcap, cork, or dauber, these novelty items were inexpensive to produce and easy to house in an infinite variety of amusingly shaped containers that offset any lingering “bad girl” implications of wearing perfume. From hearts and flowers to adorable teddy bears, kittens and dogs, glares proved to be witty and nostalgic. The more ambitious ones were quoted from historic designs: Regency cameos, Victorian hearts, Battersea boxes, netsuke ivories.

Handcrafted by costume jewelry artisans, the exterior motif was first rendered in a detailed drawing, then sculpted in wax or metal, from which a pliable rubber mold was made, allowing for richness of detail. The compacts were then cast, molded, polished, and plated in molten copper, nickel, rhodium, or gold finish at jewelry manufacturing plants. Often these compacts were set with faux gemstones, crystals, and cameos.

Jennifer Kellogg, Flower Necklace, 1998
Sterling silver, blue topaz, flowers
Length 18″

Estee Lauder, for one, has continued the solid perfume compact tradition, introducing a new collection each Christmas. Recent additions include a turning Pleasures ferris wheel, with seats that swing, and a circus tent a containing Beautiful, which opens to reveal a trapeze artist and dancing bear.

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In recent years, contemporary metalsmiths and glass designers have begun to explore the perfume container as a jewel-like body adornment, creating unique and precious portable vessels that reject the ubiquity of modern commercial fragrances, while at the same time challenging conventional notions of jewelry. Art jewelry is designed to interact, adorn and protect, often with secret recesses known only to the wearer. Nowhere is this more evident than in pieces with fragrance compartments, providing personal and intimate sensory pleasures.

Whether exquisite or amusing, these small aromatic wonders remain first and Foremost functional gadgets designed to protect their precious, volatile contents. Their apparently t seamless exteriors, which often disguise the hinge, cap, and lid, encase exquisitely engineered, mechanically ingenious interiors that safeguard the liquid, paste, or powder fragrances inside. From a design point of view, it is the inner-outer structure that distinguishes these containers from other forms of ornamentation. But from the wearer’s perspective, these tiny, jewels are much more than mere gadgets or containers. It seems that these contemporary perfume containers are returning to their historic origins as amulets or charms. In an age of uncertainty, which places a high value both on portability and on sensory stimulus, these vessels satisfy a basic human urge not just to sniff a scent or smooth it onto the skin, but to keep it close at hand-for the sake of comfort, protection, or enticement, to transform an intimate environment, or recall a beloved memory.

Paul McClure, Sense (perfume bottles/pendant), 2001
Silver,steel cable, rubber
Pendant: 3 x 1 x 1″

Intended to hold two separate scents in each of the containers (the wearer’s and another’s).

By Linda Dyett [Metalsmith Magazine - Spring 2003]
In association with SNAG's
Linda Dyett, a New York-based writer specializing in beauty, fashion, and design, Is co-author of Secrets of Aromatic Jewelry.
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