story by Sheila Sarhangi
photo by Jack Wolford
“They’re like little pieces of architecture,” says Gwen Olins. She’s describing the antique Hawaiian perfume bottles that she and husband Evan began amassing in 1979; the couple’s collection now numbers 200-plus. Ask Gwen to pick a favorite and she hesitates and then concludes, “That’s like having ten children and asking which is the best.”
The Olins’ obsession with the antique bottles started shortly after the duo moved from Humboldt County to Kona. It was the end of the ’70s—Carter was in the White House, Donna Summer was on the charts—and at a friend’s house, Gwen saw her first Gump’s Pikake perfume bottle, a souvenir from an even earlier era. “I held it in my hands,” she recalls, “and the quest began.”
The perfume bottles were born in the days of the ocean liners, when it took six days to travel between Hawai‘i and California, far too long to transport lei. Ingenuity struck: A manager for Gump’s department store hit on the idea of creating perfumes from Island flowers and selling them in flacons carved from native Hawaiian woods like koa and milo. The wood bottles were made from 1935 until 1960, and today the Olins have the world’s largest known collection, snatched for prices between $5 and $600 and found at antique shows, flea markets, shops in Hawai‘i and abroad, and also on eBay. Each bottle has its own motif, among them a volcano, an ‘ukulele, a marlin and various tikis, hibiscus and plumeria. Some of the bottles still have liquid inside, although if you take a whiff, they all emit the same musty smell.
The Olins have now recounted the tale of their three-decade-long hunt in Lei in a Bottle: Collecting Hawaiian Perfume Bottles, a book with photographs of their treasures and a detailed history of the industry. “I believe that people are born with a collecting gene,” Gwen theorizes. Certainly the pastime is nothing new for her or Evan: When she was 8, Gwen collected rocks and petrified wood; for Evan it was green glass Coke bottles. Her theory triggers an affectionate laugh from her partner of forty years. “I think,” she adds, “we share that gene.” HH