A museum of makeup? People have used cosmetics to enhance their appearances for thousands of years. Guerlain, founded in 1828, is one of the world’s oldest fragrance and cosmetics companies. Now the French perfume and cosmetics house has curated a collection of artifacts spanning three centuries.
“It was hard to whittle down 18,000 pieces to just 400,” says Guerlain heritage director Ann Caroline Prazan.
The collection’s most prized object is a lipstick created in 1870 and housed in a contemporary looking gold bullet case. Prazan carefully operates a push-up mechanism to reveal a dark maroon-colored wax pigment still intact after 153 years.
The refillable lipstick has a remarkable story. A Guerlain employee saw the wax and many-hued pigments of a candlemaker. At the time, women used tubs of colored powder to paint their lips with a brush. Seeing the candlemaker’s tools gave the employee the idea of creating a waxy, lip cosmetic as a stick, Prazan says.
Women still wear lipstick today, but Prazan also displays a liner long out of fashion. Believe it or not, women used it to paint the veins on their arms and necks blue to appear paler. The technique was popular in late 19th-century Paris.
Any company that sticks around for hundreds of years must innovate. Among Guerlain’s archival treasures is the patent for the first pivoting toothbrush. Documents show a 1845 design that looked like a precursor to today’s electric toothbrush.
Then there is the old bottle of Jicky, considered the world’s first modern perfume. Created in 1889, it included synthetic ingredients and was a scent cocktail—not just one note like previous fragrances. It featured hints of spice, lemon, lavender, wood, and vanilla. Now it is the oldest continuously produced perfume.
While the archive is private, the brand also created an exhibit open to the public for the 170th anniversary of its most famous design, the Bee Bottle. It was created in 1853 for the wedding of Empress Eugenie and Napoleon III. The exhibit, called “Chere Eugenie,” was displayed at Guerlain’s Paris shop until September 4. There the original Bee Bottle could be seen. Light reflects off hand-painted bee reliefs on the bottle that held the fragrance.
The bee was the French imperial emblem. It was also used by the first French kings. It now represents Guerlain too.
What’s next for the company?
“I plan well into the future, easily 100 years away,” Prazan notes while putting away her nearly 200-year-old objects. “I know the house will be around for that long—long after we’re gone.”
Why? Wanting to enhance one’s appearance is an enduring desire that can be carried out in both healthful and harmful ways. Remember: Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart. (1 Samuel 15:7)