Ken Leach, a scented story of a collector

Not so long ago I made a selection of pomanders, a functional pendant made from precious metals with several small compartments for different fragrances. Worn around the neck or waist, it was thought to be a protection against infections and unpleasant smells.

One of them was a Victorian 18K gold scent bottle necklace that opened to reveal a six petals pomander adorned with turquoise and diamonds while the flower center featured a large hexagonal peridot. This museum-worthy historical piece belongs to the Kenneth James Collection, a New York gallery of exceptional 20th century jewelry from the most prestigious houses, and of a unique collection of perfume bottles.

All these years my focus was more on jewelry without taking into consideration the ornate perfume vessels. They accompanied us through the centuries and are an eloquent intention of mankind to preserve and extend the life of such an ephemeral substance as fragrance. It was considered like a gem, and sometimes even sacred, so the bottles were as precious as their content. The various artists created and embellished bottles of all shapes and colors to give to a literally invisible art form a visual glory. I was intrigued.

About this fascinating art I, Nastya Ivlieva, decided to speak with Ken Leach, one of the most important collectors of perfume bottles and a founder of the annual Perfume Bottles Auction, the longest running specialty auction of perfume bottles worldwide. He is also a contributing member of the International Perfume Bottle Association and provides information and material for numerous books, articles, and museum exhibitions.

Ken Leach and his private collection. Courtesy of Kenneth James Collection

On portrait you can admire some special perfume bottles from the Ken Leach’s private collection:

  • 19th Century English 18k gold, pearls, turquoise and cyrstal double-ended scent bottle and vinaigrette;
  • 19th Century English 18k gold, pearls, and turquoise matching Tussy-Mussy flower holder;
  • 1974 Limited Edition Jean Patou “1000” fragrance in crystal and 18k gold mounted with Onyx, Coral, Turquoise, Lapis made by Chaumet in original box;
  • Art Nouveau enameled peacock scent bottle c.1900 by Eugène Feuillâtre, an example of this flacon was exhibited in 1900 at Paris Exposition Universelle and another one in 1901 in Vienna;
  • 19th Century French Pomander and scent bottle encrusted with turquoise and green tourmaline when opened form a beautiful flower;
  • Lalique gilded glass perfume bottle c1927 “Pierre Precieuse” or “Precious Stone” with box for Lionceau;
  • Baccarat for Ybry larque 1920s Eau de Toilette in rare “Orange Topaz” color;
  • Baccarat for Ybry extremely rare black crystal 1925 “Amour Sauvage” perfume bottle with box;
  • Two rare Tiffany & Co rings in 18k gold with emeralds that unscrew to reveal a perfume container with sponge within;
  • 19th Century Chinese Snuff bottle mounted in Paris by Vernier in the 1920s with Art Deco enameling detail and coral mounts.
Ken is holding in hand a c1900 Marcus and Co gold finger ring scent bottle in peking glass, green enamel, and mounted with rubies (original wash drawings for this bottle are in the Darthmouth College Library) and wearing on lapel a 14k Gold “Shocking Scamp” Schiaparelli 1940 fencer brooch/perfume bottle by Fulco di Verdura. This is the only real gold version known and varies slightly from the commercial release. It is presumed to have been made for Elsa.

LIJ: What led you to start collecting perfume bottles? What was the first perfume bottle in your collection?

In the 1960s I opened an antiques business in Hollywood which brought me into the estate sales of passing movie stars and directors. There would invariably be a vanity table or display case glistening with perfume bottles, which I found intriguing.

Understanding that perfume bottles were most often gifted to a lady, and that the person giving was hoping for a reaction of delight, the shapes and colors were very important to that end. I’ve always felt the designer’s goal was to create a shape that would attract the eye and hand, even before the stopper was lifted.

I began selling them in my store, but also couldn’t resist collecting. The first significant bottle of memory was the Schiaparelli “Shocking” dress-form bottle designed by Leonor Fini.

c1930 Czech perfume bottle by Franz Josef Vater, black crystal with rare sapphire blue dauber-stopper, gilt metal fittings with glass floral elements by Czech costume jewelry company Firma Norbert Neiger (commonly referred to as Neiger Brothers). Estimate $4,000-$6,000. Courtesy of Perfume bottles auction


LIJ: How would you describe yourself as a collector. How has collecting changed for you through the years?

Once I recognized the art and history to be found in each perfume bottle my goal became documentation and scholarship, with the end goal of inspiring other collectors as well as preserving and elevating an art form that was created to be disposable.

There are three main categories. The first one is a commercial that includes those bottles that were sold packaged and filled with perfume. The second category is decorative bottles that were sold empty to be filled or simply displayed for their beauty. They are mainly Czechoslovakian or Austrian. And the last one are Pre 1900 scent bottles that are typically a smaller bottle to be carried or displayed, made of various materials including porcelain, a precious metal, or a carved hard stone.

For decades my personal collection has focused on commercial bottles, but every now and then a fine scent bottle or vanity item in gold with jewels or enameled details finds their way into my collection. Many of them were made by the biggest jewelry names of the period such as Boucheron, Lucien Gaillard, Marcus & Co, Cartier, Rene Lalique, Tiffany & Co and others.

c1935 Czech Art Deco perfume bottle by Curt Schlevogt. Onyx glass perfume bottle with large ivory glass “ivy” stopper. Estimate $4,000-$6,000. Courtesy of Perfume Bottles Auction

LIJ: Which artists or historical perfume bottles are in your collection?

Perfume houses have employed the talents of jewelry designers and fine artists, so names including Fulco di Verdura, Gerard Sandoz, Salvador Dali, Christian Berard, Leon Leyritz, and Jean Cocteau are represented. Historical references are shown in turn of the century bottles that reflect an invention (light bulb, bicycle, telephone) and pivotal events (Liberty Bell, Statue of Liberty, world fair symbols and war time sentiments).

LIJ: Which of them mean the most to you?

Probably the wartime bottles with hopeful scent names like “I Will Return”, “Clear Sailing”, and “New Horizons” “One Day Will Come” “The Golden Victory”

LIJ: How were the wartime bottles made?

The use of red, white, and blue served the French and American markets. Bottle shapes included eagles, a tank, the jerrycan, and mortar shells. Often metal or plastic were incorporated into the presentation.

1920s Fulper Pottery Works for Minyunet “Mignonette” perfume presentation with glazed porcelain bottle as a kneeling Egyptian woman wearing gold jewels. Estimated $5,000-$7,000. Courtesy of Perfume Bottles Auction

LIJ: Could you tell us more about jewelers designing the bottles? Maybe Fulco di Verdura or Gerard Sandoz?

Especially during the 19th century and into the teen’s you find the finest jewelry houses created exquisitely small bottles of silver or gold often enameled or set with precious stones meant to be worn on the neck or carried in hand or purse. Boucheron, Cartier, Vernier, Marcus, Jensen, and Tiffany have all left scented reminders of another time.

After a decade in Paris designing fabrics and what are now iconic jewels for Coco Chanel, Fulco di Verdura came to America and through working for Paul Flato in 1938 found a loyal following of celebrities and socialites, including Elsa Schiaparelli. For Christmas of 1940 Schiaparelli commissioned Verdura to create a new perfume presentation for her 1936 “Shocking” fragrance. He devised a surrealistic brooch, the commercial presentation not in real gold, called “The Scamp”, combining a dressmaker’s dummy and fencer as the cage for the perfume bottle, with the rapier as the pin for attaching to clothes. Its box was designed like a fitting room with graphics by Marcel Vertes. Fulco di Verdura did make at least one example in 14K gold, presumably for Elsa. This example is in my personal collection.

LIJ: Is there a contemporary bottle glassmaker whose work you are following?

There are many fine glass artists today, but I prefer the classic companies – Baccarat and Lalique.

LIJ: Each year you directed the perfume bottle auction. Where and how do you find the pieces for your auction sale?

Our goal is to offer items that wouldn’t be found in a general auction or online platform. I often find myself sourcing the most interesting objects from the inheritors of collections that I helped to assemble decades ago.

Our 2023 Perfume Bottles Auction is comprised by some of the finest perfume presentations – many of which are on my list of favorites: Egyptian themed and three Trompe-l’œil presentations by Les Parfums De Marcy including the orange, a bracelet, and a necklace.

LIJ: What are the most striking bottles passed through your hands?

I’ve always been impressed by the bold Egyptian themed bottles from the 1920s, with shapes of a pharaoh’s head, the sphinx, obelisks with hieroglyphics, or a black crystal temple cat.

1934 Parfums de Burmann “Pleine Lune sur le Nil” (“Full Moon on the Nile”) black crystal Egyptian Revival perfume bottle and faceted stopper, obelisk shape with gilded brass base and cap, gilded and enameled hieroglyphics and decorative motifs on front. Estimate $30,000-$40,000. Courtesy of Perfume Bottles Auction

LIJ: Who are your collectors? Is your market mostly individuals or institution.

We have a loyal following of avid collectors, but do also attract museums, as well as fashion, fragrance and jewelry brands.

LIJ: In what museums can be found bottles you auctioned?

Our clients prefer anonymity.

LIJ: What piece or what artist is considered the holy grail in this market? Why?

Every major collection should include the 1947 Baccarat crystal bottle for Elsa Schiaparelli’s “Le Roy Soleil”. It’s a surrealist design by Salvador Dali, featuring an oversized blazing sun with enameled swallows forming a smiling face, appearing to float over a bottle formed as rippling ocean waves.

Commonly referred to as “The Royal Sun,” this presentation celebrated the Allied victory in Europe in World War II. Named after Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” it harkened back to a glorious era in French history. The birds have been mistaken as seagulls, but in fact Schiaparelli chose “swallows” to symbolize positive change and a brighter future for France. The original hand written order, dated 1945 in the Baccarat archives, shows a request of 2,000 bottles.
The Duchess of Windsor having been one of the first to receive one, wrote to Schiaparelli: “It is really the most beautiful bottle ever made, and the Roy Soleil is a very lasting and sweet gentleman. I cannot tell you how I appreciate your giving me such a handsome present which has displaced the Duke’s photograph on the coiffeuse!” Schiaparelli wrote in her autobiography that it was “…too expensive and too sophisticated for the general public, but… not destined to die.”

1946 Salvador Dalí design, produced by Baccarat for Elsa Schiaparelli “Le Roy Soleil” (The Sun King) clear crystal perfume bottle representing a calm sea, with enameled blue waves and gilded rocks, the large stopper cover formed as a radiating sun. Estimate $10,000-$12,000. Courtesy of Perfume Bottles Auction

As far as a “holy grail” presentation, it would have to be the limited edition c.1936 “Tresor de la Mer” by Rene Lalique for Saks Fifth Avenue, featuring a pearl-shaped scent bottle nestled in an opalescent glass powder box formed as a large clam shell with puff. This was complimented by a matching opalescent glass bottle also of a shell and pearl theme. The maker of this version is still unknown but it was also Made in France. This perfume bottle will be auctioned on my upcoming auction on April 28th. It is exceedingly rare, and it is only the second time it has appeared on the market.

This perfume bottle was launched as the companion perfume bottle to the limited edition Rene Lalique “Tresor de la Mer” perfume presentation. It was a “Tresor de la Mer” Rene Lalique version that sold for $216,000 in 2006, breaking all records for a commercial perfume bottle at auction.

“Tresor de la Mer” (Treasure of the Sea) opalescent frost glass perfume bottle by Rene Lalique for Saks Fifth Avenue. Estimate $3,000-$5,000. Courtesy of Perfume Bottles Auction

LIJ: Your personal choice is.

Les Parfums De Marcy is a 1920s perfume brand that issued the Trompe-l’œil perfume presentation. One appears as a pearl necklace with each pearl containing perfume; and another as a bracelet, the large stones being the stoppers for hidden perfume bottles.

c1927 “Le Bracelet Miraculeux” (“The Miraculous Bracelet”) by Les Parfums de Marcy from Paris. Estimate $14,000-$16,000. Courtesy of Perfume Bottles Auction

On April 28th will be auctioned a Trompe l’oeil perfume presentation designed as an Art Deco bracelet includes five clear glass perfume bottles with various fragrances with stoppers designed as cushion cut sapphires. When inserted in place the bottles align with simulated old European cut diamonds to form a spectacular jewel.

c1927 “Le Bracelet Miraculeux” (“The Miraculous Bracelet”) by Les Parfums de Marcy from Paris. Estimate $14,000-$16,000. Courtesy of Perfume Bottles Auction

1925 “L’Orange” trompe l’oeil presentation by Les Parfums de Marcy, simulates a halved orange. This presentation is made of glazed ceramic on the skin part and the orange segment inside are enameled blown glass perfume bottles. Estimate $800-$1,000. Courtesy of Perfume Bottles Auction

There is also a half pealed orange which is the most deceiving of them all. Unfortunately it is extremely fragile and almost impossible to find one without damage. These types of presentations are captivating and extremely desirable in the collecting world.