Collecting perfume bottles and vanity items is interesting because it tells us about our past, and the changing lifestyles around the world and over the centuries.
The number of perfume and vanity items available for purchase is immense, and with the advent of the internet, sources abound. How you decide to collect is a matter of personal taste. You can collect everything that comes your way, or you can specialize on one particular maker, period, category, color, country of origin, theme, or whatever suits your fancy. You can study the items in your collection and research them and their makers, or simply admire their beauty. There is nothing right or wrong about any approach – it’s all about what gives you satisfaction.
If you decide that you are the researcher type – the IPBA’s Lending Library, PBQ Archives, and Virtual Museum can be helpful research tools.
Be a Discriminating Buyer
- Hold the bottle in your hands, and rely on your sense of touch to feel chips or nicks. But don’t necessarily pass up a bottle with a small imperfection. If you love it – that is what counts, and you may never find another one like it.
- Do not be rushed – take the time to inspect the bottle; handling it, looking at the finish detailing, and checking for signs of use and normal wear.
- Learn to differentiate the look and feel of cut glass versus pressed glass. This is particularly important when purchasing Czech bottles. Many Japanese bottles, though similar in shape or style to Czech bottles, were not of good quality. The glass may be obviously pressed or cloudy.
- Examine the item in bright light, as chips, cracks, repairs, and other damage can be disguised by dirt or stickers in weak light. Carrying a magnifying glass with you while shopping can be very useful in spotting imperfections.
- Check the stopper for an etched number. If present, check the base of the bottle to confirm that the numbers agree.
- Check the fit of the stopper to see if it feels loose, or if you have to force it closed. A quality manufacturer will custom grind the stopper to fit the base.
- For a correct stopper fit, the frosted stopper dowel should sit just below the bottle lip and line up with the frosted part of the neck.
- Commercial bottles have more value with their boxes/presentations, and the better the condition of the packaging, the more value it has. However, if you love it, do not pass up a bottle due to imperfections in the packaging.
- Commercial bottles also have more value with their labels, preferably in good condition.
- If the bottle or vanity item looks too new and is in a perfect box – examine it carefully – it may be a reissue. Reissues may still be beautiful and collectible, but do not pay the price of an older original bottle when it is a newer reissue.
- Know your subject – often a bottle will be for sale with a mismatched stopper, switched atomizer head, or other replacement. This is where having done research on your subject is important.
- The condition of the item is critically important to the price and value; however beware if some aspect looks too good to be true. The condition should also be commensurate with its age. For instance, if a novelty perfume from the 1930’s has a ribbon; the ribbon should look great for being 90 years old. If the ribbon looks brand new, then it probably has been replaced. Similarly mirrors on novelty presentations from the 1930’s typically have at least a few small imperfections in the silvering. Better condition is always preferable, but perfect condition can be a warning sign of replacement.
- If you acquire a bottle that is still sealed, leave it that way to preserve its value. Sometimes a portion of the perfume will gradually evaporate, even though the bottle has never been opened. Do not break the seal to clean the inside of the bottle or to test the fragrance – chances are it is no longer viable.
- If you find a bottle with a Zip Code on the label, this is an indication that the bottle was produced after 1962, which is when the US Postal Service started requiring Zip Codes.
- If a clear glass bottle has a foggy look, or an iridescent, whitish or scaly surface, it could be “sick glass”, caused by extended exposure to moisture that has caused a chemical change in the glass. This damage is usually not recoverable. So unless the price is extremely low, you may want to pass on that item.
- Many older bottles will have bubbles or slight imperfections in the glass. This was part of the old manufacturing process, and will not devalue the bottle.
- Bottles with the original dauber intact usually cost 10 to 20 percent more than those without. To prevent breaking the dauber, the stopper should be lifted straight out of the bottle.
- To find worn, faint, or faded acid-etched marks on the bottom of a glass item, try rubbing it briskly with a soft cloth until warm to the touch. This will bring the acid to the surface for a few seconds. Breathe on the surface to frost the mark. Hold the item at an angle where strong light will reflect off the bottom surface.
- Filigree on bottles is usually symmetrical. An asymmetrical design might actually reflect a missing part. Carefully inspect for missing gems.
- When buying on the Internet read the description carefully and examine the pictures closely. Although most sellers are careful to describe or point out any defect, sometimes the pictures clearly show an unmentioned flaw, which it is assumed that the buyer will have noticed.
Cleaning Your Bottles
Supplies you will want to have on hand:
- A plastic sink liner, plastic tub, or other padded working surface.
- A soft toothbrush
- Q-tips or other longer-handled swabs
- A small funnel, preferably the kind made to transfer perfume into a purse bottle.
- A lint-free towel to dry your bottle after cleaning
- Small bottle brushes, flexible decanter brush, or aquarium brush
- Denatured alcohol, Goodwin’s Lemon Fresh ammonia, quality silver polish
Steps for cleaning your perfume bottle or vanity item:
- Use a plastic sink liner, plastic tub, or other softer surface when cleaning your bottles or vanity items. Your hard sink will not be forgiving if you accidentally drop or bump the item.
- Any hand stained or painted item should be checked for color fastness before you clean the bottle with water or a cleaning agent.
- Take great care not to allow the bottle’s paper label to be touched by water or any cleaning agent.
- If a commercial bottle already has the seal broken, consider pouring out any remaining perfume and thoroughly cleaning the bottle. The often cloying or rancid odor of an old perfume can be unpleasant, and will eventually leave behind a scummy unsightly residue.
- Denatured alcohol is usually recommended for removing dried perfume residue. Allow to sit overnight if necessary. Inexpensive nail polish remover is another option.
- It is important to control the amount of any solvent or cleaner and the application process. Consider pouring a small amount of the cleaner into a cap, and then pouring from the cap into the bottle using a funnel.
- Sometimes the misty bloom inside a bottle can be removed with liquid bleach that has been allowed to sit overnight.
- Do not scrub, especially with abrasive cleaners, perfume bottles or vanity items decorated with enameling, gilding, or hand painting, as the ornamentation can be rubbed off or chipped easily.
- The soft toothbrush, applied with caution, can be used to remove grime in the crevices of cut or engraved glass, as well as items with metallic filigree or applied jewels.
- Cleaning around filigree should be done with care. Stones, especially those with foil backs, can be damaged even by water.
- Metal filigree that is discolored by contact with perfume can be improved with gentle cleansing, but the metal discoloration overall appears to be permanent.
- Silver items or glass with silver overlay may be cleaned with a quality silver polish.
- Plaster of Paris or “salt-ware” presentations for novelty perfume bottles should never be touched with a liquid cleaner, because the material will dissolve. A dry, soft toothbrush may be used to remove accumulated dust.
Cleaning and Repair of Compacts
- Remove all the loose powder from the inside of the compact, as it can be extremely messy, and it’s not necessary to save it. A small computer keyboard vacuum works well, as does a small dry toothbrush.
- There is no harm in leaving a powder cake inside the compact, but do not use any of the make-up found inside a vintage compact!
- Swan’s down puffs can be washed with soapy water. A hair blow dryer will fluff up the puff.
- Cotton puffs should not be washed as they will often disintegrate.
- Powder sifters can be cleaned with water and dish soap. Handle the wet sifters carefully as the mesh can tear near the rim.
- Goo Gone or rubbing alcohol will successfully remove adhesive labels from metal or glass.
- Compacts can be buffed and polished with a good quality silver polish such as Simichrome. Simichrome is wonderful for sterling compacts, but be careful using it on silver-plate, as it can polish through the layers and make the metal uneven in color. Simichrome can be purchased online or at most hardware stores.
- Missing rhinestones can be easily replaced. Using a razor blade, carefully lift up the prongs and with a tweezer drop in the rhinestone. Then fold down the prongs with the razor. If the rhinestones are glued in, a dab of super glue works well to attach the new ones.
- Mirrors can be cleaned with glass cleaner sprayed onto a cloth. Do not spray it directly onto the mirror.
- Do not wash a compact by dipping it into soapy water, as the water will go behind the mirror and damage the reflective coating.
- Replacing missing or broken mirrors is an easy repair if you are using vintage glass. The mirrors in vintage compacts are much thinner than the mirrors that are found in hobby or craft stores.
- It is possible to remove a good mirror from an otherwise damaged compact and use it for repair. Some jewelers will cut thin glass to size to fit the compact.
- If the mirror is glued in, super glue works well and will adhere the old glass to your compact.
- Hoarding damaged or plain compacts for their replacement mirrors, puffs, and sifters is a good idea as new cosmetic powder puffs seldom fit into vintage compacts.
Displaying Your Collection
The less an item is handled, the less likely it is to get chipped, scratched, or broken. So generally it is better to display your collection under glass so that it does not have to be dusted or cleaned.
That being said, a large, lighted display case is a good option, but by far not your only option. Small, ornate, lay-down items can be effectively displayed in a vitrine display table. Small items and mini perfumes may be displayed in an old printer’s type tray. Other collectors have cleverly converted empty vintage glass-front clock cases found at an antique store into display cases. Rows of smaller items can also be displayed in wall cases originally designed to display model train cars. The only real limitation is your ingenuity.
NOTE: Do not display your compacts in a completely enclosed case – they need to breathe so the metal and enamel don’t become dry or tarnished.
Whatever your choice of display case, where you place it in your home is of critical importance. Strong sunlight is one of the biggest enemies. It can fade fabric, dry out and fade packaging, turn older clear glass into a pale lavender shade, craze enamel finishes on compacts, etc. Stable temperature is also important. Avoid placing your display case too close to an HVAC vent, which would cause temperature fluctuations. It is also important to avoid humidity extremes such as a damp basement room or bathroom.
If you prefer to store your compacts in drawers or boxes, remove all the powder. Wrap them in acid-free tissue, and do not completely seal any plastic bags, let them breathe a little.
Creating an Inventory
Creating an inventory starts with assigning a number or code to each item as you acquire it. It can be a simple numerical sequence, or you may choose to encode a letter to indicate the type of item (e.g. “C” for compact, “L” for lipstick, “N” for novelty, etc.).
Consider purchasing very small, removable labels from an office supply store, mark it with the inventory number, and find an inconspicuous place on the base of the item to place the sticker – being sure not to place it on the item’s paper label or any surface that might be damaged by the sticker.
Keep some sort of a spreadsheet, log book, set of index cards, or database with the identification number, description of the item, and information about its maker, size, age, date of purchase, and price. You may also want to photograph each bottle, identifying each image with the inventory number. If necessary, take multiple photos showing the unique details of the piece.
If you are lucky enough to have acquired an unusual item, consider submitting your photographs and description to the IPBA’s Virtual Museum!
The collecting tips in this article have been compiled with input from the following sources:
- “Care and Feeding of a Collection” by Richard Bell, Convention 2018 presentation.
- Collecting Bottles for Fun and Profit by William C. Ketchum Jr., 1985, HP Books.
- Miniature Perfume Bottles by Jeri Lyn Ringblum, 1996, Schiffer Publishing Ltd.
- Perfume and Scent bottle Collecting by Jean Sloan, 1986, Wallace Homestead Book Company.
- Perfume Bottles for Purse and Dresser from Czechoslovakia 1920s – 1930s, by Verna J. Kocken, 2006, Schiffer Publishing Ltd.
- Perfume, Cologne and Scent Bottles by Jacquelyne Jones North, 3rd edition, 1999, Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.
- The Wonderful World of Collecting Perfume Bottles, Second Edition, by Jane Flanagan, 2009, Collector Books.
- “Tips for Cleaning & Repair of Compacts” by Andra Behrendt, Autumn 2018 PBQ.