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Perfume bottles of years gone by catch many a collector's eye.

Gloria Vanderbilt presents her fragrance in bottles bearing a frosted replica of a swan. Ralph Lauren contains his in bottles resembling inkwells.

These and other prestigious fashion designers, in placing their signatures on impressive bottles for their costly fragrances, are following a tradition and an art passed down through the centuries.

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Ancient Egyptians were the first to use perfume bottles. Made of terra cotta, these bottles held prized essences of violets, jasmine, rose, and other native flowers. Glass scent bottles - the most highly favored and frequently produced type throughout the centuries - are numbered among the earliest glass bottles ever found.

As perfume has long been a luxury item, it is not surprising that the choice perfume bottles fashioned in years past and made of countless materials - silver , gold, porcelain, agate, ivory, glass - are avidly collected today.

The basic design of perfume bottles is governed by the fact that perfume evaporates quickly. Containers for it must necessarily be airtight and preferably impervious to light. During the Renaissance years, however, bottles began to assume a higher sophistication of shape.

During the 16th century a scent bottle with a sprinkler top, called a ''casting bottle,'' was used to dispense perfume and was considered an appropriate gift for royalty.

Royalty and perfume, in fact, have a long history together. Louis XIV was called the ''sweet smelling monarch'' and personally supervised the compounding of perfumes. The court of his successor, Louis XV, was called ''la cour parfumes ,'' because a different perfume was designated for each day. Years later, Emperor Bonaparte customarily used two quarts of ''eau de Cologne'' each week, and each month splashed himself with the contents of 60 flasks of Spanish jasmine.

English royalty shared this love of fragrances. Henry used them lavishly; his son Edward VI concocted his own - a pleasant pastime of the aristocracy of those years. Later, Queen Elizabeth had a ''still-room'' for the distilling of perfumes and sprinkled herself freely with perfumes kept in her ''casting bottles.''

In the 18th century perfume and scent bottles ranged in style from exquisitely wrought gem-encrusted gold ones to those of jasper ware (now rare), enameled porcelain, superbly engraved clear glass, and enameled colored glass. Some porcelain bottles possessed intriguing stoppers that were sculptures of a woman's head, a flower, or a bird; many were artist-designed and one-of-a-kind.

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Fragrances, however, soon ceased to be a luxury of the very wealthy. Nineteenth-century industrialization heralded a rising standard of living for a growing populace. And it produced an abundance of scent bottles in countless materials and fanciful shapes from many countries - England, France, Germany, Russia, China - to delight Victorians.

The first half of the century brought scent bottles of Venetian glass and lovely Bohemian scent bottles with sulfide neoclassical portraits.

The latter part of the 19th century introduced the scent bottles that are more commonly seen today at antique shows and shops. They include those of cameo (cased) glass, clear cut or pressed glass with silver lids that hide stoppers, colored glass held in openwork metal, and hand-painted porcelain.

During this era the double-scent bottle also appeared in rich jewel-toned ruby, amethyst, and emerald glass, along with bottles that were copies of costly ones of earlier years. Made in a rectangular shape, the double-scent bottle divided down the middle, with separate tops for each fragrance.

Today collectors find most of these bottles are priced from about $50 upward, with many selling for about $200 when in good condition.

The elegant scent bottles produced of art glass by Galle and other eminent art nouveau glassmakers, however, are a cut above. These bottles are cherished treasures of collectors and currently demand higher prices.

French glassmakers also produced scent bottles expressly for perfume makers. Rene Lalique made many for Coty and Worth. Others were mass-produced by such large glassmakers as Baccarat, Cristalleries de Daum at Nancy, and Cristalleries de Saint-Louis. These bottles usually reflect the world of nature in their designs. Other designs at the turn of the century frequently tried to match the mood of the scent within the bottle.

During art deco years (1918-1930), fine craftsmanship evidenced itself in costly but innovative designs. A Baccarat bottle depicts the lagoon of Venice beneath a moon and starlit sky. A scent flacon by Louis Cartier of carved jade is set with sapphire sand and has a stopper of lapis lazuli.

Fortunately, collectors today can still find art deco scent bottles of excellent craftsmanship that are not excessively priced and which add immeasurably to the quality of a collection.

The broad variety of scent bottles made through the centuries can also be viewed in exhibits at most major museums - including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

A collection of scent bottles can be put to charming use on a contemporary dressing table or displayed in a group on a table in any room. A grouping of colored glass bottles makes an arresting focal of interest in a room of subdued shades.

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