Imagine being asked to capture a landscape with so much color, texture, and detail that the picture springs to life on canvas, transporting even the most casual observer to that exact location and moment in time. The only catch (and it's a big one) is that you can't see the place you're supposed to illustrate, and no one is able to describe it to you, either. That's because technically, it doesn't exist yet.
Welcome to the enigmatic world of fragrance bottle design.
It's true that once you peel away the layers of mystery and artistry, perfume bottles serve a pretty basic function. Yes, they're lovely to behold — their crystal necks and flower-bulb stoppers like perfect glass gardens. But at the end of the day, they’re designed to hold and dispense liquid with the same efficiency as any humble household cleaner. No wonder most of us assume that the real stars of the fragrance universe are the precious ingredients inside the bottle — those powdery florals and heavy-lidded ouds that conjure memories and emotions and daydreams. But just like so many objects rendered in glass, perfume bottles offer us a slightly distorted — if not totally reverse — version of reality.
"Sometimes we have to design the bottle even before the fragrance has been made," says Fabien Baron, the legendary designer, photographer, and filmmaker behind some of the most successful fragrance launches in history, including Calvin Klein CK One. "The designers are actually inspiring the perfumers and giving them ideas."
It may sound contrary to the way we imagine things are done behind the scenes, but this outside-in approach is the industry standard — and has been for decades. "In 1992, Jean-Claude Ellena told me he wanted to play with a green tea note for Bulgari Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert," says Thierry De Baschmakoff, the Grasse-born designer who's been developing packaging for top fashion and beauty brands for more than 25 years. "That was the first and the last time I actually knew what was going inside the bottle I was making." As with everything that relates to fragrance, the key factor dictating the design process is time. Because it takes longer to build a bottle than to build a perfume, says De Baschmakoff, the former usually precedes the latter — and ultimately gives it shape.
The idea of working from a blank canvas may have its artistic appeal, but it doesn't necessarily translate into creative freedom for bottle designers. If anything, it requires them to be even more thoughtful and deliberate in their approach. "I can design you a beautiful bottle, but there are billions of beautiful bottles out there," says Baron. "That isn't the point. It's about matching the history and the values and the psyche of the brand to a cultural moment and then aligning all of those elements into one clear message... The story is the most important thing."
Without a cohesive story to translate the world of a fragrance, says Baron, the entire project falls apart at the seams. "Even if the perfume is amazing, people won't buy it if they don't understand it. They need to feel a connection or it just doesn't work."
It might not seem logical to think that a perfume's image is more important than its smell, but then again, the fragrance industry hasn't grown into a multibillion-dollar affair by selling us cold, hard facts. Just consider: Chanel No. 5 rarely performs well in blind smell tests; our modern sensibilities are accustomed to lighter, airier compositions. But housed in its classic glass flacon, the fragrance is a global best seller. "People love the story and what it stands for," says Baron of the full, iconic package. Psychologically (and maybe even biologically), this makes sense. Think of how we grow to appreciate the little quirks and imperfections in the people we fall in love with. The stronger our emotional connection, the more beauty we see.
That's why the art of dropper bottle design has acquired new weight in an era where consumers often go online to experience fragrance instead of walking up to a store counter. Without the benefit of touch, human interaction, and the alchemy of scent on skin, people need something else to engage their senses and ignite their interest. And more often than not, the perfume bottle is what fills that virtual space. "It's the first form of communication and the first form of contact that people have with the scent," says De Baschmakoff. "So of course it has to resonate."
The trick is to design a bottle that resonates across the board — no small feat. A perfume can mean anything to anyone. Nina Ricci L'Air du Temps reminds me of my mother; it reminds my mother of balmy summer nights in Austria. But the bottle itself is a fixed quantity. It feels the same in our hands, it looks the same on our shelf, and it releases the same nimbus cloud of scent. It connects us.
The story behind a car perfume bottle is just as heady and complex as the fragrance inside. Below, we asked designers who have dreamed up some of our favorite bottles in recent years to distill their creative vision.
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"I grew up in the countryside, so I felt very close to nature and the people who cultivate the land. When my mother and I decided to collaborate on a collection of natural fragrances, it was very important that we partner with local artisans who shared our love of creativity and know-how," says Baptiste Bouygues, who launched Ormaie. Based in Paris, the brand produces scents made with sustainable, nonsynthetic ingredients. "I worked with Jade Lombard, our artistic director, to design the bottles, and then we set out to find the right craftsmen to bring them to life. Our glassmaker cuts recycled glass into bottles with 12 facets. To me, they represent the hours on a watch, because we put time into everything we do. Each bottle has a hand-carved topper sculpted from sustainable beechwood. The print shop that does our labels still operates a 19th-century Heidelberg machine. All of these components give our products an emotional, soulful quality. In French, the words beau (beautiful) and bon (good) are very close. To make something beautiful, it also has to be good."
"I never imagined the bottle standing vertically. Never. In my mind, women didn't need another object to put on their bathroom shelves. I pictured a flat, refillable, ultra-portable bottle with the proportions of a smartphone, which the hand is already used to. I wanted to create a bottle so thin that we had to construct various ways to create it," says architect and industrial designer Chafik Gasmi. He creates sculptural pieces for brands such as Baccarat, Kenzo, and Bulgari, and in 2019, crafted one of the world's slimmest perfume bottles for Lancôme's newest scent. "The glass stuck together and exploded when we used traditional blow-molding methods. Finding the solution was a real work of science. In the end, we designed the edges with enough volume to allow the air to circulate. I've loved creating an object that has tension between sturdiness and softness. It adds dimension to the way we experience fragrance. When people tell me, 'But it can't stand!' I simply answer, 'But who cares?' Placed in your hand or carried in a bag, the bottle is close to you. It becomes an extension of you — an emotional, tactile, visual extension."
Are perfumes all about the scent? Yes, and no. Not only does a perfume’s scent say something about the personality of the wearer, a perfume’s branding does as well.
Perfumers carefully craft their brand image, from advertising and marketing down to the aesthetics of the packaging and the bottle. This careful branding is one reason iconic fragrances such as Chanel No. 5 continue to dominate the market decades after their introduction—even though the scent stays the same, the presentation of the perfume remains chic and fresh.
The perfume bottle especially plays a large role in crafting a brand image, but designing new bottles presents a special challenge for manufacturers. Glass is the material traditionally (and conventionally) used for diffuser bottle, as glass is transparent and preserves the properties of the fragrance stored inside. However, as perfumers prioritize form over function in order to offer the most creative aesthetic appeal, perfume bottles tend to have difficult shapes with complex glass thickness distributions and a low tolerance to container defects.
Given the importance of aesthetic, creative bottles in building and retaining a brand image, developing robust fabrication methods is necessary to minimize waste and associated costs. Consistent manufacturing starts with engineering the glass, the molds, and the processing parameters. Unfortunately, this manufacturing process currently relies upon empirical knowledge and trial-and-error development cycles, which are expensive and time consuming.
Virtual process modeling offers the potential to reduce both the cost and time of development needed for creating new perfume bottles while improving robustness to process variability by simulating mold equipment and process conditions on a computer.
However, if you are like me, you dread seeing the word “modeling”—modeling involves high-level math in order to incorporate a wide range of material properties and many engineering parameters such as temperature, pressure, and heat flow, plus more. Add to that the complexity of the blow and blow (BB) molding technique used for manufacturing perfume bottles and the mathematical requirements only increase.
Fortunately, a recent article published in the International Journal of Applied Glass Science explains the development of a numerical model for manufacturing small glass bottles for perfume that can handle the mathematical complexity of BB manufacturing. Though there is a lot of math, the researchers do an excellent job of relating the most important aspects of the equations and the model to the material properties and engineering parameters.
The researchers of this study—Adrià Biosca, Salvador Borrós, and Andrés-Amador García Granada (Chemical Institute of Sarriá), Vincenç Pedret Clemente (Ramon Clemente), and Matthew Hyre (University of Northwestern)—wanted to model the effects that molds used to shape bottles have on finished products, and then compare these predictions to commercially manufactured bottles.
The researchers specifically targeted the distribution of glass in two bottles with very different shapes. The researchers discussed material parameters such as viscosity and thermal conductivity and how they arrived at the values they used. They also discussed engineering parameters including cycle time, wall friction, stresses, and heat transfer between the glass and the mold along with the effects of varying modeling parameters.
In the end, the researchers showed rather good agreement between the model and the finished bottles. Thus, they foresee their manufacturing partner Ramon Clemente being able to improve quality while also reducing the time and expenses of iterative development cycles.
Interested in learning more about latest advancements in glass science? The June/July issue of the ACerS Bulletin, now available online, features articles discussing recent glass innovations!
The paper, published in the International Journal of Applied Glass Science, is “Numerical and experimental study of blow and blow for perfume bottles to predict glass thickness and blank mold influence”