The World’s Most Imperial Perfume Bottle

It is Guerlain’s famous Bee Bottle, offered as a wedding gift to Empress Eugénie, Napoléon III’s wife. An extraordinary book and an exhibition celebrate its 170th birthday.


By Silvia Manzoni. Cover image: © Oliver Pilcher/Assouline Publishing.

The gifts Eugénie de Montijo received when she married Emperor Napoleon III on 30 January 1853 included one that, more than any other, celebrated the Spanish aristocrat’s love of the arts and beauty: a bottle of perfume. It was offered to her by Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain, founder of the eponymous Maison, which had already conquered many European courts and Paris high society with its Colognes
To Eugénie, he composed that Eau de Cologne Impériale with its fresh citrus aroma and hint of rosemary that is still sold today, with an almost unchanged formula. However, historian Elisabeth de Feydeau explained that the cologne “was used more as a finishing touch after the toilette than as an actual perfume” back then. And thanks to this creation, Guerlain was awarded the title of Official Supplier to the Imperial Court.

A unique work of art: the famous Flacon

But the cologne bottle is what really made the wedding gift immortal. The famous Flacon aux Abeilles, or Bee Bottle, a transparent jar decorated with a motif inspired by the Place Vendôme column, which Guerlain saw from the window of his office on Rue de la Paix. On the bottle’s surface, 69 bees are sculpted in relief on the glass, symbolising the productivity and honest work that represented the Empire.
An extraordinary work of art on which artisans’ hands had set a seal of uniqueness. Even today, Guerlain’s most famous bottle is still made in Normandy and decorated by hand so as not to lose this priceless heritage.

© Oliver Pilcher/Assouline Publishing

The celebration in a must-have book

Over the decades, the various versions of the bottle, while respecting the original, have allowed it to cross the ages and live across three centuries without losing its glamour. “With the Bee Bottle by Guerlain, innovation, craftsmanship and creation celebrate 170 years of a marriage of light. From the splendour of the Second Empire to the artists of the twenty-first century, Eau de Cologne Imperiale inspires a sparkling Parisian saga”, writes journalist Laurence Benaïm, who has been entrusted with retracing the bottle’s history in the book Guerlain: An Imperial Icon, published by Assouline and released in France these days.
The book not only consigns this monument of perfumery art to history but also confirms its modernity.

Message in a bottle

The aesthetic and symbolic values of the bottle are also reaffirmed through an exhibition opened until 4 September in the rooms of the historic perfumery at 68 Avenue des Champs Elysées in Paris. 
Eleven women were asked to give their vision of the iconic bottle with a photo.

© Oliver Pilcher/Assouline Publishing

«It is an opportunity for us at Guerlain to reassert our love of photography and demonstrate our ongoing loyalty to artists such as Valérie Belin and Charlotte Rampling, who have already contributed works to the Guerlain collection», explains Ann-Caroline Prazan, Brand Artistic Culture and Heritage Director. «This is also a chance to strike up new relationships and turn the spotlight on work by upcoming photographers.

All generations are represented, with these women each adding layers of harmony to a chorus. Their work accentuates the importance of transmission and remembrance, our duty to protect nature, the necessity of dreaming, a yearning for freedom and a taste for travel».
The brand also created a short film using artificial intelligence to mark the anniversary. Available on Guerlain’s website and social media platforms, the film ‘Born in 1853. Made for the future’ consists of a video compilation of over 1800 images generated in collaboration with a custom-designed AI model and a text-to-image technique, tracing the illustrious past of the Bee Bottle through historical or artistic landmarks and imagining a romantic version of its future.

11 iconic women share their vision

Here is how the eleven photographers present their work:
Valérie Belin, Black Impérial: «The Bee Bottle is presented as a promise of luxury and dreams. Bees are a symbol of eternal life». 

Perfume’s visual interpretation by Valérie Belin.

Jane Evelyne Atwood, A bottle in the sea: «On a beach, in the sand, in a delicate balance, threatened by the coming and going of the waves, the bottle becomes like a bottle to the sea».

Perfume’s visual interpretation by Jane Evelyne Atwood.

Delfina Carmona, The magician’s dream: «Its singular shape, colour and material allowed me as a photographer to play with different lighting effects».

Perfume’s visual interpretation by Delfina Cremona.

Delphine Diallo, Feeling: « For me, bees are connected to the sun. As soon as it rises, they fly away for new adventures».

Perfume’s visual interpretation by Delphine Diallo.

Su Kui, Attraction: «I was drawn to the sight of bees in flight, so it was obvious to place them as a key element in the image».

Perfume’s visual interpretation by Su Kui.

Orlan, Orlan hybridises with Empress Eugenie and her perfume: «I chose to take an interest in the Empress by deciding to hybridise myself with her. This gesture gave me the possibility to make twice, two visual universes, where two women coexist».

Perfume’s visual interpretation by ORLAN.

Charlotte Rampling, The inconsolable: «I imagined a meeting of the most luminous of bottles with a mysterious figure in the deep darkness».
Myriam Roehri, A dream: «I let my thoughts and dreams be guided to Spain where I found the mermaid of Maria Limona in a garden, echoing the Lorica Squamata of the Vendôme column which adorns the bottle».
Almudena Romero, Untitled: «Coming from a family of farmers and beekeepers, I found a strong link between the bottle and my family history». 
Christine Spengler, Crazy Love: «This bottle symbolises the love that Napoleon III had for his wife, and also that of all the men who offer it today to their loved ones». 
Audrey Tautou, Un trésor dans ma maison: «It is an initiation, a secret, handed down from mother to daughter».

Silvia Manzoni is a fashion journalist and beauty expert.

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