Interviews Miniature Perfume Shoppe & The Mini Museum: A Conversation with Allen Aaron White

Miniature Perfume Shoppe & The Mini Museum: A Conversation with Allen Aaron White

09/20/14 08:07:53 (12 comments)

by: Jodi Battershell

If you've ever gone down the rabbit hole of searching for vintage and discontinued fragrances (and who amongst us hasn't?), you've probably encountered a charming corner of the web known as Miniature Perfume Shoppe. Often the best (and sometimes the only) place to find the perfumes and perfume bottles of yesteryear, as well as a huge selection of minis for perfumes still in production, Miniature Perfume Shoppe caters to perfume lovers, perfume bottle collectors and antique collectors in one fell swoop.
 
Each listing in the shop is beautifully photographed (which is no small feat, as I learned in trying to photograph some of my own minis for this article), measured and rated for condition on a scale from 1-5 (with 5 being "mint" and bottles considered 1— "poor"—not offered for sale), all with as much detail provided as possible. (Same for any boxes, bags or tags that came with the bottle.)  All bottles are categorized and cross-indexed for maximum searchability, and it's clear from browsing the site that its proprietors, Leslie Ann White and Allen Aaron White, know what they're doing and above all, love their work. 
 
 
On a recent visit to Miniature Perfume Shoppe, I noticed a link to a museum dedicated to the art of miniature perfumes. Curious to learn more, I reached out to the Whites about sharing their story. In this conversation, Allen Aaron White tells us more about the magic and mystery of the miniature perfume world.
 
Jodi Battershell: Please tell our readers how the shop and museum got started. What was the first bottle in your collection? Did the idea for the shop or the museum come first?
 
Allen Aaron White: Not unlike many small businesses that one day grow to become successful enterprises, our mini madness and passion for perfume started simply as a hobby. In a way, you could almost say it was all Coco Chanel’s fault!
 
It all began with my wife, Leslie Ann, when she was only thirteen years of age. Living with her family in Scotland at the time, she was asked by her mother if she’d like her empty miniature bottle of Chanel No. 5. Puzzled by what she could possibly do with an old empty perfume bottle, Leslie Ann reluctantly accepted it, then tossed it in her dresser drawer. Little did she realize at the time that tiny Chanel bottle was not only the beginning of her miniature perfume bottle collection, but also a tiny glimpse of both her future career in the cosmetic industry and, one day, the first of more than 5,000 minis at Miniature Perfume Shoppe.
 
 
What is known today as Miniature Perfume Shoppe officially debuted at one of Houston’s premiere antique stores in 1999, then launched online as MiniaturePerfumeShoppe.com exactly ten years later. The Mini Museum is a relatively recent development and represents changes we are in the process of making to our current business model. Although we’ve been working behind the scenes on it for a couple of years, we launched the museum virtually this past January with hopes of landing a physical brick-and-mortar location here in Houston or Paris (Texas) sometime next year.
 
JB: What is the appeal of minis for you and for your customers?
 
AAW: First and foremost—they’re fun. We like to say that collecting minis is seriously Ⅎ∩N-tastic! The appeal of minis to most collectors, in addition to being both affordable and readily available, is that they are just so darn cute! But for us, minis are so much more. When exact replicas of the original commercial-size perfume bottle (as minis often are), they magically become objet d’Art. Literally. There is so much that can be enjoyed and learned from a mini: the notes, ingredients, and fragrance itself; the inspiration for and history of the perfume; the perfumer and perfume house; the packaging, bottle designer, and beautiful label to name just a few. To hold a mini in your hand is to a hold a miniature masterpiece.
 
[I couldn't agree more, Allen!  I have more minis in my collection than I realized, for all of the reasons you listed above. Here's a sampling of some of my favorites. The Molinard de Molinard, Niki de Saint Phalle (blue bottle) and Eau du Soir miniatures are remarkably detailed, given their tiny size.—JB]
 
 
JB: Would you describe yourselves as bottle collectors or fragrance lovers? Or both?
 
AAW: Personally, we appreciate both, and take full advantage every day of just one of the many perks of our work: getting to choose a different fragrance from the thousands of minis on our shelves. Although to be honest, from the very beginning it was all about the bottle. On any given week we receive hundreds of miniatures and just consider it a bonus when a mini still contains any amount of the original “juice.” Over the years, however, with fragrances being discontinued or reformulated by their makers, we’ve seen more and more collectors desire to have both the vintage fragrance as well as the beautiful bottle. Of course, minis are still being produced today, so there is an interest in new releases as well.
 
JB: Why were minis created? What is the role of a mini in a perfume's marketing campaign? Has the purpose of a mini changed over the years? 
 
AAW: Although examples of miniature-size perfume bottles date back to antiquity, strictly speaking, there are five different types of minis: the personal scent bottle, sample, tester, true miniature, and “first size” perfume bottle.
 
Still manufactured today, personal scent bottles—including miniatures—were especially in vogue in the 19th century as personal scent containers into which perfume was decanted.
 
The best-known early “minis” were the tiny sample bottles used with great success by the door-to-door sales representatives of companies such as the California Perfume Company (Avon) and Fuller Brush in the early to middle 20th century. Mini “tester” perfume bottles (apothecary-style bottles with glass daubers) were also in common use in early pharmacies and department stores.
 
As part of the marketing and sales strategy (quite an effective one by the way) by major cosmetic and fragrance companies, sample bottles were frequently given away at the beauty counter whenever a purchase was made to entice a buyer (usually a woman) to buy the larger, full-size bottle of the fragrance. These are the bottles and boxes that usually have “Not for Sale,” “Gratis,” or something to that effect printed on them.
 
 
What most people today would consider a miniature perfume bottle began first as replicas of full-size perfume bottles. Except for their diminutive size, they are almost identical in every way with the larger commercial bottle. These were originally designed as either special editions or gifts for fragrance buyers and sales consultants—especially during a new fragrance launch. These miniatures were sometimes also included in gift sets—the kind you’d see at Mother’s Day or other holidays—and could not be bought or sold individually. Occasionally, some would be used as a “deluxe sample” or a “limited edition” gift-with-purchase. Couturiers were known to give minis such as these to their very best customers.
 
Finally, there are the “first size” miniatures. These bottles usually hold ¼ oz. of fragrance and are the smallest commercial size bottles sold. They are considered miniatures only because their bottles frequently measure less than three inches in height. A good example of this type of mini is the well-known classic Shalimar bottle from 1925. Although it contains one-third of an ounce of Guerlain’s glorious perfume, the beautiful Baccarat flacon is only 3 1/8” high.
 
Due to cost constraints, minis, as we think of them, were gradually abandoned by perfume manufacturers for carded vials, spray vials, and magazine “peel and sniff” inserts, although some companies are still producing new minis today promoted as “travel size” or “purse size”—for a price. With all the above in mind, the purpose of minis has not changed over the years.
 
JB: Is there a size/quantity limit to what qualifies something as a mini? 
 
AAW: With a few exceptions (usually antique miniatures where the ornamental top or decorative cap places the bottle outside our normal limits), we define a mini as any perfume bottle measuring less than three inches in height. Volume varies depending on the bottle design, but minis generally contain less than 5 ml (0.17 fl. oz.) of fragrance. Bottles less than one inch high and holding between 1-3 ml of perfume we consider micro-minis.
 
 
JB: Who are the shop's customers: people who collect minis, perfume bottle collectors, or people who wear the fragrances? 
 
AAW: Shipping to collectors in more than thirty-five countries, we have all three. But from the very beginning the vast majority of our customers have been interested solely in the mini, caring less about the perfume than the tiny bottle itself. There are thousands of minis in the perfume universe, and collector’s interests vary as much as the minis they collect. It is not unusual for a collector of commercial-size perfume bottles to also include a few minis—especially when they are attempting to assemble the whole size range of a specific fragrance and flacon.
 
All of that said, over the past several years we’ve noticed collectors have become more and more interested in minis that still contain their original fragrance—especially when the vintage “juice” has been either discontinued or reformulated by the perfume company. Good examples would include Lauren, Tatiana, Jean-Louis Scherrer and Must de Cartier. That’s why we stock more than 5,000 miniatures that are full, empty, or anything in between and priced accordingly. We truly have minis for every “taste” and every budget. We even created our own decant department for those wishing to rock a vintage perfume or “test drive” a newer fragrance before purchasing an expensive full-size bottle. 
 
Rolls Royce by Marcel Guerlain
 
JB: Are the fragrances in the bottles still wearable?
 
AAW: Most of the time, yes, but that is not our primary criterion when buying minis for the Shoppe. We always ask lots of questions and do our very best to ascertain both the origin and manner in which an individual miniature perfume bottle or entire collection were stored, but just like their larger counterparts, minis (and the fragrance they contain) are subject to the same damaging exposure to light, heat, and time. It’s not unusual for us to be asked to personally sniff and evaluate a mini before it is purchased to verify that the perfume within is still wearable, but even when that’s the case, it is quite normal for a vintage fragrance to have lost its top notes.
 
JB: What is the oldest mini in the shop or museum? Is there a rare or antique mini you hope to find but haven't encountered yet?
 
AAW: The oldest “minis” we have are about two thousand years old and belong to The Mini Museum’s permanent collection. Known as an “Unguentarium”, these small glass vials or bottles were commonly used in ancient Rome and Greece to contain perfumes, cosmetics, ointments, and oils. They are also referred to as “Lachrymatory” (tear catchers) because of the legendary belief that mourners used them to catch their tears before burying the bottles with their loved ones. Believe it or not, minis can be even older. We currently have our eyes on a Canaanite perfume juglet dating to 1200 B.C. Fingers crossed!
 
 
On any given day, the oldest bottles at Miniature Perfume Shoppe typically fall between the 1870s-1920s, increasing in number by each decade through the 2000s. We’d love to eventually have and be able to offer all of the miniature perfume bottle presentations created for Elsa Schiaparelli between 1928 and 1959—more than fifty fragrances in all!
 
Snuff, Zut, Shocking and Schiap by Schiaparelli
 
JB: Is there a bottle that is the most valuable/rare/precious, dollar-wise? One that is the most precious to you from a personal standpoint? 
 
AAW: When it comes to collectable miniature perfume bottles considered über valuable and rare—legitimate works of art really—there are numerous examples by Lalique, Baccarat, Fabergé, Tiffany, and others—all under three inches—that routinely sell at auction for five figures. Some minis are even included in the New York Museum of Modern Art. For example, with only a few known to exist, a 1926 “Rolls Royce” fragrance flacon designed by Marcel Guerlain sold at Christies in 2011 for $32,060 (pictured above). At only 3 1/8 inches high, that’s $10,687 an inch, so minis are certainly holding their own in the collectible perfume bottle market!
 
Other auction contenders that could be considered as the Holy Grail of miniature perfume bottles include a 1929 Liu by Guerlain ($10,649), a 1925 “Xantho” by Gabilla ($7,987) and a 1936 “Imperial” by Lengyel (R. Lalique) sold by Ken Leach at auction on behalf of The International Perfume Bottle Association (we’re members) for $1,300.
 
Imperial by Lengyel
 
On a personal note, Leslie Ann loves collecting the classic Chanel No. 5 minis—the earlier the better. I’m at the other end of the spectrum collecting the surrealistic miniatures of Parfums Salvador Dali.
 
JB: Where do you find your minis?
 
AAW: Finding the “next great mini” is the fun part of our work and a full-time job in and of itself. In addition to the obvious estate sales, antique stores, flea-markets, garage sales, Craig’s list and other online resources, we’re always on the hunt. And although we spend significant time daily searching the globe, most minis actually find us! Hardly a day passes that we are not contacted with requests to buy single minis or entire collections—some numbering in the thousands. One such collection is the 450 piece “Oso Collection” that we purchased earlier this year, with one dollar of every mini sold from that collection benefiting the Oso (Washington) Mudslide Relief Fund.
 
JB: How do you decide if a bottle goes to the shop or the museum?
 
AAW: Although we do make specific purchases targeted solely for the museum’s permanent collection, the vast majority of all the miniatures we buy originate with and go to Miniature Perfume Shoppe. Over the years we’ve fine-tuned our processing of all the minis we receive so that every single mini gets lots of scrutiny (and professional cleaning if necessary) before it ever lands on our shelves. Very often we wind up with duplicates. When that occurs, both the Shoppe and the museum benefit, with the very best and truly rare specimens going to the museum by default. However, we’re constantly upgrading the quality of minis we include in our store’s inventory for sale, wanting our collectors to always have the best selection and value to be found anywhere.
 
JB: You are also an authorized retailer for mini fragrances by a select few new niche houses currently in production. How did this come about? Is there benefit for a niche/indie/artisan house in offering minis? 
 
AAW: Lest we forget, although they are beautiful to hold, admire, and collect, perfume bottles (including minis) are utilitarian objects designed to contain the true treasure—perfume! Fortunately for us, we’ve discovered and partnered with a few select niche perfumers who are not only creating some of the most beautiful fragrances on the market today, but also offering them in miniature size bottles.
 
In 2012, we were honored to be the first retailer selected by Kedra Hart of Opus Oils to introduce their miniatures worldwide. Their tiny bottles, whimsical fragrance names, adorable labels, and gorgeous fragrances make them an ideal collectible mini.
 
 
Although not technically a mini, we began carrying Hedonist by Viktoria Minya when it launched in 2013. We simply couldn’t resist her stunning 45 ml, 3.5 inch flacon filled with hundreds of Bohemian crystals and, of course, the gorgeous, intoxicating fragrance destined to become a modern-day classic.
 
This year, we were honored to partner with Jennifer Bove of DRIFT. Her beautiful, all-natural fragrances are available in minis of both liquid and solid fragrances, with her solid miniatures being exclusive to Miniature Perfume Shoppe.
 
The response by collectors to all of these miniatures has been wonderful, so we believe minis to represent a great opportunity today for both perfumers and us. Our current goal is to add at least one new brand a year.
 
JB: Any tips for getting the perfume out of a mini, especially a micro-mini? (I've personally observed this is often a difficult task.)
 
AAW: Unless the fragrance is quite old and has become unconstituted, it should be no harder to get perfume from a mini than any other size of a splash perfume bottle or sample vial. Using small tweezers or a toothpick to clear the narrow bottle opening of any dried perfume residue (if present) may help. The more common problem associated with vintage and antique minis is when the stoppers or caps become “frozen.” Although some people have success alternating between running some hot water around the bottle’s neck and placing the bottle in the freezer for a short time, there is some risk of damaging the bottle, perfume, or both. We’ve had a lot of success simply using a Q-tip to apply a small amount of “Orange Glo” brand furniture polish where the bottle neck and stopper meet. (Be careful to wipe the area clean before removing the stopper.) After letting the mini rest overnight, give the stopper a gentle nudge, reapplying and repeating if necessary. We have great results opening stubborn minis in this manner 99% of the time.
 
 
JB: Any tips for proper storage and display of minis, to preserve the fragrance as well as the integrity of the label, box, etc.? 
 
Minis containing any amount of fragrance are susceptible to the same damaging effects of exposure to light, heat, cold, and moisture just like their larger counterparts. When not displayed, they should be carefully stored in a dry, climate-controlled environment. Ideally, a miniature perfume bottle collection—small or large—should be displayed in a beautiful glass cabinet with doors to help keep dust off the collection and also enhance their natural beauty.
 
JB: What about dating minis? Any suggestions for accurately identifying or determining the age of a miniature perfume bottle?
 
We’re often asked to help identify and date minis, and are happy to do so. Perfume launch dates are always a good place to begin, but stoppers, labels and bottle markings usually offer the best clues for the various mini presentations. Information found on the original box, inserts, and packaging can be useful, and even vintage perfume advertisements found in old magazines and on Google can help place a particular mini in context. A complete list of guidelines for helping to date and identify minis can be found on our website.
 
JB: Is there a brick-and-mortar of the shop/museum we can visit? (Or will there be in the future, if not now?) What are the future plans for the shop and museum?
 
Not today, but hopefully soon! As mentioned earlier, Miniature Perfume Shoppe originally debuted at one of Houston’s premiere antique stores, but with the recession forcing closure of that location we’ve been online exclusively since 2009. As it turns out, that was one of the best decisions we could have made as it allowed us to expand our business internationally, while also helping focus our attention on growing our inventory. That strategy has paid off as we currently have more than 5,000 minis in stock, with a targeted goal of doubling that number by the end of next year.
 
 
What’s next for Miniature Perfume Shoppe? The Mini Museum! We are especially excited about our plans for the museum because it represents a major shift in the way we’ll be doing business in the near future. Of course, there are still a lot of details to sort out, but basically, we’re moving toward a “for profit for good” educational business model. More than just selling minis, we want to share minis ... sharing perfume history one mini at a time. Moving from our current studio/warehouse to a museum gallery-like setting, we want all of our miniature perfume bottles to not only be beautifully displayed, but also accessible to the public on a walk-in basis, but also through small gatherings, perfume talks, and special exhibits. We’re even planning a “museum on the go” strategy—a real “mini van”—taking the minis to the people, rather than waiting for the public to come to us. It’s all very exciting and has been a lot of fun planning, but there is still a lot of hard work ahead to make it become a reality ... one mini step at a time.


Visit the official website of the Miniature Perfume Shoppe to browse the astounding assortment of fragrances in the shop.  Miniature Perfume Shoppe Society membership is free and includes discounts, special offers, a Wishlist feature and other benefits. International shipping is available to select countries.

Follow the progress of The Mini Museum and view a timeline of perfume history, complete with photos, on the official Mini Museum site. 

 

Images: 

“Rolls Royce” perfume bottle: Christie’s Images, Ltd. / CHRISTIE’S (with permission)
“Imperial” perfume bottle: Ken Leach / PerfumeBottlesAuction.com (with permission)
M'eau Joe No 3:  Opus Oils/Elle Salvador Dali Lava
Eau du Soir assemblage, Coriandre, Pierre Cardin: Jodi Battershell
All other images: Miniature Perfume Shoppe and The Mini Museum
 
Allen Aaron White
As a native Houstonian with a varied and successful professional career that has included work as an antiquities dealer, human resource executive, and even an ordained minister, Allen’s path to perfumery has certainly been the road less traveled. As co-founder of Miniature Perfume Shoppe, he enjoys working alongside his wife, Leslie Ann, a former account executive for Clinique Labs and cosmetics buyer for Foley’s (now Macy’s) department stores. Allen is also preparing for the opening of The Mini Museum in Houston, Texas as both its Director and Curator.
 

Jodi Battershell (NebraskaLovesScentis a lifelong Nebraskan who transplanted herself to Philadelphia after a lifetime on the Great Plains. An appreciator of fine fragrances since childhood, she tried her hand at natural perfumery and fragrance-mixing for a number of years, ultimately concluding she was better suited to appreciating the fragrance creations of others. She is pleased to finally be putting her English degree to use as a writer and editor for Fragrantica.com.

 

 



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SumoTigerCat
SumoTigerCat

Great article! I've ordered several times from The Miniature Perfume Shoppe and have always been very pleased with both what I purchased and the kind, individual service. Great place to find a little of that special fragrance!

Sep
25
2014
Miniature Perfume Shoppe
Miniature Perfume Shoppe

"Mini" thanks to all of you for your interest and kind words here, with special thanks to Jodi for reaching out to us. Not only is she a gifted and professional writer, but Jodi was such a pleasure to work with. All too often, minis get treated like the "Rodney Dangerfield (gets no respect) of the perfume world." Hopefully this post helps begin to dispel that perception. At least I hope so, 'cause we think minis are seriously Ⅎ∩N-tastic! - Allen | The Mini Museum & Miniature Perfume Shoppe.

Sep
24
2014
Yudum
Yudum

Made me want to start a mini collection

Sep
24
2014
Cybernoir
Cybernoir

Loved this, thanks so much Jodi. Great article, I love minis and micro minis and purse sprays, of all kinds.

Sep
23
2014
nananessa
nananessa

Wow! What a collection! Amazing!

How I wish I had kept my empty minis throughout my lifetime! But this collection is stunning. OMG for that vintage Schiap! I am so wishing I could see them all.

Kudos on your venture & article!

Sep
22
2014
johngreenink
johngreenink

Very fun interview, and I love the quote "it was all Coco Chanel’s fault!" ha ha! I am also so surprised to learn that so many of the initial minis were attempts to reproduce the bottle in complete scaled-down proportion; it's quite fascinating. The prices that some of the rare minis have fetched is also eye-opening. It's always a treat to read how someone's passion began and developed they way theirs has, thanks for sharing this experience with us.

Sep
22
2014
Scentmad
Scentmad

Love it, what an intriguing place.

Sep
22
2014
seamav
seamav

What a gem of a place...thanks for this fun article

Sep
20
2014
eirenelisa
eirenelisa

Loved this article! Thank you

Sep
20
2014
chanelnumerocinq
chanelnumerocinq

I love this shop. Some of my most treasured bottles are tiny ones I got off of this online shop! Excellent quality of service and great condition products.

Sep
20
2014
Sherihan
Sherihan

Nice

Sep
20
2014
IMsooKool4Real
IMsooKool4Real

This is why I love this forum so much. It introduces me to these hidden little places (real and/or virtual) I would never have discovered on my own and the wonderful people behind the doors.

The art of the mini bottle has always been something that intrigued me.

Thanks for taking the time to write this.

P.S. I liked the way you wrote : Ⅎ∩N-tastic!

Sep
20
2014

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