Carved 'scent'sations


POSTED: Friday, April 17, 2009

After moving to Hawaii in 1979, Gwen and Evan Olins were invited to a friend's home, where Gwen spied an unusual wood sculpture and fell in love with it.





        ”;Lei in a Bottle: Collecting Hawaiian Perfume Bottles”;

By Gwen Olins and Evan Olins


Hula Moon Press, softcover, 84 pages, $24.95


Look for it at Borders, Barnes & Noble or online at www.hulaheaven.com.




It turned out to be a perfume bottle from luxury purveyor Gump's, credited with starting the fad of hand-carved wood flacons with Hawaii motifs. The particular bottle she saw was inspired by the pikake, with a leaf design covering the bottle, and cap crowned by the likeness of a pikake bud.

That was the beginning of a 30-year fascination with Hawaii perfume bottles that resulted with the couple's publication of “;Lei in a Bottle: Collecting Hawaiian Perfume Bottles,”; last fall. But just because they've written the book on the subject doesn't mean their research has stopped.

It wasn't easy to unearth information about the bottles, manufactured between the mid-1930s and '60s. More is bound to, and did turn up when the Big Island couple appeared at the Wiki Wiki One Day Vintage Collectibles & Hawaiiana Show at Blaisdell Center a few weeks ago.

“;The experience has been so wonderful,”; Gwen Olins said by phone from the Big Island. “;As a result of our show in Honolulu, more and more information is coming our way. We found a couple of carvers we didn't know, and a member of the Harders family (prominent manufacturers at the time) got in touch with us. He said he's going to try to find out more, because his family doesn't own a single bottle.”;

ONCE UBIQUITOUS, the bottles are hard to find now and generally command prices of $75 to $300 when found in vintage and antique shops or eBay.

“;I haven't seen one on eBay in a long time,”; Gwen said. “;It's a little esoteric. A lot of people don't know what they are when they see them.”;

The flacons had a hole in the center, just deep enough to hold a small vial of perfume that could be discarded while the wood container—made of milo, koa or monkeypod—served as a keepsake for loved ones or souvenir of a stop in Hawaii. The intent was to capture the scent of a floral lei for transport anywhere in the world, and many bottles went home with servicemen during World War II.

By the '60s, the era of the hand-carved bottles was disappearing. “;It faded out as companies tried different packaging with plain bottles,”; Gwen said.

Given the artistry of early bottles, she's still surprised when she hears adults' stories of how they grew up playing with the wood flacons as if they were building blocks. Although the perfumes had started as luxury items, their ubiquity in ensuing years, and association with the growing tourist trade, made the wood containers seem common, even though they were still being carved by hand at Harders of Hawaii, John A. Oya & Co. and Hula-Lei.

“;Items can seem plentiful at the time but become scarce because people didn't give them value. Even if you do find them, they're not always in good shape because people played with them,”; Gwen said, which reminded her of an episode of “;Antiques Roadshow”; in which a woman brought in a family calabash that was deemed to be worth tens of thousands of dollars. The woman gasped when she heard the news. “;She said that as kids they'd get into it and spin each other around on the floor.”;

THE OLINS had long had the collectors bug, and over the years bought and sold vintage Hawaii clothing, textiles and collectibles through their Hula Heaven store, which they closed in 2003 to make time to write the book. It is illustrated with Evan's photos of the couple's collection of bottles, numbering about 200, purchased for as little as $5 and as much as $600—for Gump's night-blooming cereus bottle—over time. Gump's created five designs, including the hapuu fern and plumeria. Gwen said the one she's missing is the ginger.

“;Since we published the book, a lot of people have said they wished we had done a price guide,”; Gwen said. But by simply calling attention to this little piece of history, prices have already shot up from about $25 to $150 last fall.

In the 1930s and '40s, original prices for the perfumes were about $10 to $25, and recently, Olins found evidence that the art form might be reborn, though at 21st-century price point. At a Big Island eco-fashion event, she met an aromatherapist selling an anti-vog formula in a vial surrounded by a container hand-carved from mango wood, for $300, a price that discourages impulse buying.

“;I think people need to consider what they use and what they buy all the time,”; Gwen said, “;especially today, when we're trying to keep our landfills clear. We should consider the value of everything we buy to make sure it's something that will last, something we'll enjoy, that is sustainable.”;