Behind the flacon: creating the precious vessel to hold fragrance
2023 . 12 . 21 |
“Fragrance sits like a jewel in its crystal bottle until it is liberated. And this is why the flacon is so important and must be designed with care.” So said perfumer and founder of his eponymous brand Ramon Monegal when I interviewed him earlier this year. Ever since, the thought of fragrance bottle design has been a topic I have wanted to explore further. What are the origins? How has it evolved in the past hundred years? What is the process and how long does it take? Over the past few months as I met individuals deeply involved in the process, I was able to make inquiries into this part of the fragrance universe that had been elusive.
AN HISTORICAL CONTEXT
We know Mediterranean cultures used perfumes for both religious and cosmetic purposes and elsewhere versions of perfumes have been attributed to ancient Mesopotamia, India and China. Several years ago an ancient perfumery shop estimated to date back to 4000 BC was discovered on the island of Cyprus. Vessels made with the deliberate purpose of holding fragrance have been found in Egypt originating from the Middle Kingdom (roughly 2030 – 1650 BC). The various containers were crafted from wood, stone, marble, terra cotta and faience but once the ancient glassmaking process developed in Mesopotamia, its use spread across the Mediterranean basin to Egypt and Greece. Syrian craftsmen created the technique of blown glass at the end of the 1st century BC, resulting in a preference for glass packaging. This format was favored throughout the Roman Empire and is perhaps the start of the special relationship between perfume and glass. Blown glass was faster to produce and more translucent than its predecessor. Eventually Venice became renowned for its glass-making expertise. Shrouded in a mystique of secret formulas and techniques, glass production was consolidated to the island of Murano for better control and to prevent any potential leaks of these secret methods.
Glass is a stable, non-porous, high-quality material that preserves the properties of perfumes to ensure their quality for a long duration. By the 19th century the east of France was building a reputation for its glass production due to the ample supply of wood to fire up the ovens and the availability of natural resources used in the creation of glass. Lalique, Daum, Baccarat and Saint Louis all come from this part of the country and they were perfectly positioned to work with fragrance houses to produce either a series of bottles – thanks to industrialization - or limited editions as an oeuvre d’art. Guerlain’s famous “bee bottle” was created in 1853 for L’Eau de Cologne Impériale, made for the Empress Eugénie. On the other hand, mass production of bottles made fragrance more accessible to a larger part of the population, driving demand for perfume. By the late 19th century, the Art Nouveau style was born at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Nancy, also in the east of France. Many artisans experimented with glass. Even Hector Guimard, known for designing the Paris metro stations, got into the game with curvaceous bottles created for the fragrance house of Félix Millot.
The start of the 20th century saw collaborations between glass artisans and perfume houses such as Rene Lalique and Parfums D’Orsay. Art Nouveau, with its fluid, curvy, nature-inspired characteristics gave way to Art Deco known for its strict architectural, straight lines – just think of the original Chanel N°5 flacon launched in 1921. Invariably, most fragrances today come in glass bottles.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
Consumers may think the fragrance inspires the creation of the bottle, the packaging, the communication, and so on, however, artistic director and photographer Fabien Baron recently stated that sometimes the design of the bottle must be done before the fragrance has been made. Designer and Creative Director Lutz Herrmann confirmed this statement. “This is a true experience for most of my projects. The bottle and fragrance are mostly developed in parallel, as this is the current marketing process in the big companies. I have been told by many of my clients that it is necessary for the perfumer or nose to get inspired by the shape of a bottle and also the coloration. It is, as a matter of fact, part of the design task to capture the brand essence. Take the example of Laura Biagiotti’s Forever (2020) as it uses the infinity symbol as shape inspiration.”
Independent Creative Designer Christian von der Heide concurs. “Sometimes you only have the concept and the concept name and nothing more when you have to start working on creating the bottle design. Sometimes with large clients you have a whole team who starts together at the beginning, including the nose. I like form to follow function so I like to know what I’m doing. If you have the concept and the scent – even if it’s not the final version – the idea of the perfume will help at the beginning of the design process.”
I asked Christian if he had ever worked for a small, artisan brand, and to speak of the experience. “I have been working on a project for a new perfume and luxury goods brand with founder Beatrice Graf who has roots in Peru. It’s called Casa de Coca. The idea is to create a fragrance around the spirit of the coca leaf and the Inca world. She is working with me for the design and with Bertrand Duchaufour for the scent, and that’s it. We met regularly to brainstorm for the launch and now also for the future; it has been like working with friends. “
I was surprised to learn that the bottle design may be one of the elements that inspires the perfumer. In Christian’s experience, “It depends because it can go both ways around. And what really matters is that the end result is perfect. I like to work with the perfumers because they are very creative people.” Lutz mentioned that he has had projects where the shape, the color and the design of the bottle were key sources of inspiration. “As a designer you work mostly disconnected from the olfactive fragrance creation - your task is to develop the whole idea- the world, the name or branding and then an advertising agency gets to animate this.” His first foray into bottle design came by way of Roma by Laura Biagiotti. “The company who commissioned the agency I worked for told us it had to be a statement. So I came up with the idea to do something very literal – something you want to keep after the fragrance is gone. I came up with the column. And then they were so pleased with the concept that they asked me to do the imagery and the print ad.”
Designing the bottle can even take longer than creating the fragrance. The industrial process can be lengthy and then the design goes through trial and approval processes. Lutz explained “These processes influence the development and sometimes send you back to start from scratch. If a test comes back with negative results the clients ask the designer to go into a new direction. I would estimate in the best of worlds such a development would not take more than 8 months but I had some really tricky projects which took far beyond that timing to be completed.” Of course the fragrance itself, whether mass or niche, also goes through a battery of trial and approvals before the final version gets bottled. Christian affirmed, “You need at least one year for the whole project. The first part of the project for me is the most important and it takes several weeks. This is where you have to get into the brand, research it and find the values and history of the brand or the person you are working for. Then there is all the engineering to make the details right, the mould alone can take three months! Then you must test the stability of the fragrance, is the fragrance compatible with the color of the juice and so on.”
I asked Christian to talk to me about one of the most challenging bottle designs he has ever made. “The most technically challenging bottle I have worked on has been the bottle for Kaviar Gauche. I adore craftsmanship and the client wanted a very high quality design. We did a gilded flower on top of the flacon, created from five or six moulds because every petal has its own mould. Then we had to put the flower together…so no flower is exactly alike, and each is all made of metal. Then we had to find a special tone of gold. I was inspired by the color of the hair of the designers behind the brand: it’s kind of a copper gold shade. We loved the idea of putting the designers DNA into the bottle. We also had to transfer the gold onto the bottle because there is a golden rim. But to make it shine into the bottle and reflect outside the bottle to the customer. So this was really challenging!”
I wondered if in this world that is increasingly digital and eCommerce driven, does the bottle become a visual communication that can entice the consumer to buy? Lutz believes consumers have become more interested in the business of perfumery from production to ingredients to the manufacturing process and how sustainability fits in with all of it, and so consequently the fragrance industry may be rethinking what message they send through the packaging including the flacon. “…I believe that there is a new spirit that the content should be more valued over the appearance. I do not have a crystal ball but I believe the time is just changing and for the design of bottles this means: less bells and whistles, more attention to detail and real value.” Lutz recently worked on a design for German fashion house Talbot Runhof which follows this philosophy. “I think this bottle shows what I refer to as less: the bottle tells clearly the heritage of the brand as a couture brand through the cap design. The shape itself is simple, very tactile, good to hold and use and elegant.”
Christian reflected on how times have changed. “In the past we had a key visual and maybe a headline. Now you have to show everything about the fragrance: you have to have Instagram, Reels, videos - an unboxing video, making of videos, interviews. You have to support the product. Especially for a new brand you must find a new way of how to visualize the brand. And of course sampling and travel sizes are very important. “
PAYING ATTENTION TO DETAILS
The design of the flacon can tell a story of its own: just think of some of the iconic bottles created by Pierre Dinand, one of the world’s premier fragrance-bottle designer. Of course he is known for YSL Opium, inspired by Japanese inro cases which were used to hold small objects. He also designed Paco Rabanne’s Calandre, which symbolizes a memory from a steamy, roadside romantic encounter (remember, Calandre is the word for the grille of the car). The bottles for Boadicea the Victorious, a selective English perfumery brand, feature handmade pewter shields embellished with Celtic motifs, calling to mind the independent, powerful personality of the British warrior queen.
Recently a few flacons have made headlines for their sculptural or high tech esthetic. Take for example Frank Gehry’s design for the Louis Vuitton Les Extraits collection. The flacon itself is a more rounded version of the one featured in the signature collection, but the cap is meant to depict movement. Gehry is a big fan of sailing and indeed the aluminum cap seems to represent sails blowing in the wind. Meanwhile, Italian outerwear label Moncler is launching a his and a hers fragrance in flask-shaped bottles that are “equipped with LED screens that can display personalized messages through a Bluetooth-powered smartphone app, a high-tech feature that recalls the brand’s luggage collaboration with Rimowa.”
A few weeks ago Luc Gabriel presented his new project to me, the Cherigan Paris fragrance collection. He is breathing new life into this Sleeping Beauty brand which dates back to the 1920’s, an era Gabriel calls the golden age of French fragrance. Although the brand originally had a myriad of bottle designs, the current collection stays true to its roots with a streamlined art deco flacon for the 100ml size – but with a twist. For each of the seven fragrances, a color has been selected and is lacquered on the base of the bottle. The clever technique gives the impression that the entire bottle is colored glass but in fact it is an optical illusion. Each extrait de parfum is also available in a 15ml size, the glass stopper of which may be used to dose a drop of fluid on pulse points – an elegant gesture of perfumery that is intimate and discreet.
HAVE TO HAVE IT
Worldwide, there are people who simply collect fragrances just because they covet the exquisite bottle, or they invest in select pieces. When I worked in a luxury department store many years ago, we had customers vying for the lowest production number of the Lalique pour Homme limited edition crystal flacon. Worldwide production was very small, and the lower the number of the bottle in the series, the higher its value would be.
Perhaps the beauty of fragrance flacons was what first attracted me to fragrance. My grandmother had a beautiful cobalt blue bottle on her vanity that I always admired. Years later she gave it to me and I finally found out it was a Baccarat edition from Christian Dior. The fragrance it originally held is long gone, but I will always treasure the precious vessel that endures.
Thanks to Lutz Herrmann and Christian von der Heide for their expertise and insight.
"Vaporisateur K&R, MIP" and "Clairefontaine Design. René Lalique, MIP": Thanks to the Musée international de la Parfumerie
"Forever, Laura Biagiotti" and "Talbot Runhof flacons": Thanks to Klas Förster for LHID 2021
"Casa de Coca flacon" and "Product design for Case de Coca": Thanks to Image Agency x Casa de Coca
"Lalique pour Homme Sagittaire 1999 by Gold": Thanks to by Gold
"Lutz Herrmann": Thanks to J. F. Schwarzlose