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A $2,500 'casket'? (It's not what you think)

The literal translation of the French word coffret (pronounced CAW-fray) is "casket." This macabre connotation aside, it has multiple, quite different meanings in the perfume world. Traditionally, a coffret is the container that houses and protects the bottle (or flacon). But it has also come to refer to the gift sets that are ubiquitous during the holiday season, the most recent one included. Stroll through any department store or duty-free boutique even now and you'll still find them stacked and waiting for a bathroom vanity to call home.

In addition to perfume, these promotional coffrets typically contain body lotions and trinkets such as key chains, generally to attract younger consumers; I much prefer yet another type of coffret – the one that is offered year-round and features a selection of fragrance miniatures. For one thing, everyone knows the universal law by which cuteness is inversely proportional to size (see: puppies, cupcakes, Vitra chairs). And for another, they can be quite beautiful.

Not long ago, I got to view a gorgeous set close up when I visited the Nina Ricci headquarters in Paris for a special preview of its limited-edition Collection Cristal.

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Caius Von Knorring, director of marketing for Nina Ricci fragrances, walked me through the history of each of the five scents in the set as well as their respective bottles (all of which were originally designed and produced by Marc Lalique).

The brand's best known fragrance, L'Air du Temps, with its well-known dove-topped crystal flacon, dates to 1945, 13 years after Maria (Nina) Ricci established her fashion house (the brand is now owned by beauty behemoth Puig). The Collection Cristal also features Coeur Joie, Fille d'Eve, Capricci and Farouche. Although I'm partial to Capricci, with its bevelled, pine-cone like bottle and bergamot-based scent, the set as a whole elegantly defines an era of heady French perfumery.

Priced at $2,500, the coffret is hardly an impulse purchase.

(Of the 220 distributed around the world, only two came to Canada, where they are currently still available at The Bay.) So why splurge? Von Knorring pointed out that, as a single sale item, the coffret embodies the spirit of the brand's venerable fragrance past. "I think the collectors will buy most of them," he said. "But [the coffret]itself is so beautiful that you will also have people attracted just to [the box]itself."

Wanting more perspective on the value of coffrets past and present, I attended a live auction of vintage perfume bottles at Drouot in December. It quickly became evident that flacons from a bygone time are as precious to some people as any other curios, paintings or bijoux that pass through the auction house.

One bottle shaped like an airplane commanded €5,700 ($7,500), while a rare Lalique flacon opened at €7,000 ($9,200) and sold for €13,000 ($17,000). Several of the Guerlain and Nina Ricci lots generated mini bidding wars. And when a bottle came with its coffret – the original packaging – it indeed seemed that much more desirable.

Incidentally, Nina Ricci's Collection Cristal is not the priciest coffret I have seen this season. That distinction goes to the €5,500 ($7,200) Edition Cristal from master nose Francis Kurkdjian, known for his bespoke scents. The satin-panelled coffret – only 20 of which have been produced – features a drawer containing gold-plated scissors for cutting the silk twine that seals the bottle and a travel pouch embellished with Swarovski crystals. The scent itself is stirring and, in many ways, a more luminous, modern take on scents of the Nina Ricci heyday.

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Put another way, it is a beautiful example of thinking both outside and inside the box.

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