With more than 2,000 bottles in her collection, Irene MacGregor is passionate about perfume. Christen Pears meets her.

WE rarely give the bottles of perfume on our dressing tables a second thought - a quick spray before work or going out - and when they're empty, we toss them into the bin. But in a few years' time, these everyday objects could provide a fascinating insight into our social and cultural history.

Irene MacGregor has a collection of more than 2,000 bottles. Some date back to the Victorian period, but most are commercial scent bottles from the 20th century. Just a cursory glance over the display conjures up images of a lost era: elegant glass bottles with crystal stoppers in a rainbow of colours.

Irene, who lives near Consett, began collecting when she was given a perfume bottle by a visiting aunt from Australia.

"This was a modern bottle and after that, people started buying me bottles for birthdays and Christmas. I was interested in antiques anyway and I started visiting antique and collectors' fairs and car boot sales," she says.

Irene was joined by her husband Andrew and the couple soon amassed an enormous collection. There are display cases all over the front room of their terraced house and perfume has become such a passion for the couple, they named their daughter Jade Jasmin, after the old, French jasmine fragrances.

About ten years, ago Irene decided she had enough bottles to set up her own business and now sells to collectors both in Britain and abroad. She also writes and edits Common Scents, a collectors' magazine, which has around 160 subscribers.

She says: "People collect anything from the turn of the 20th century to the modern day but it's getting harder to find bottles. We used to come back from fairs with the car boot full but there just aren't that many out there now - mainly because people throw them away.

"It's the things that people think aren't worth anything that actually are. I don't want people to throw them away because they're part of our social history."

The Victorians loved single flower scents such as rose, jasmine and violet but at the beginning of the last century, perfumes became more complex.

Not all of the bottles in Irene's collection still have perfume in them, although she says it is better if they do, even if it's just a tiny amount.

"Ideally, you want to find a bottle that hasn't been opened but with the ones that have been, you often find that the old perfumes smell as good as they did when they were made."

The most popular perfume of all time is Evening in Paris by Bourjois. Launched in 1929, it came in a deep blue bottle and Irene has a number of different bottles, as well as soaps and talcum powders.

Her collection includes perfumes by the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, their box lined her trademark shocking pink, and an enormous bottle of the exotically named Phulnana - Irene's own favourite because it was worn by her grandmother. There are novelty bottles in all sorts of shapes, including an etched glass Buddha, as well as intriguingly shaped boxes: shoes, shamrocks, guitars.

There's also a wonderful Elizabeth Arden boxed Christmas set, dating back to before the 1920s. In immaculate condition, it includes miniature bottles of skin tonic, orange skin food, foundation and powder, as well as a mini perfume, La Joie d'Elizabeth.

Some of these bottles are works of art in their own right, including several by the celebrated French manufacturer, Baccarat.

"They're absolutely beautiful, really unusual. The people who design modern bottles should take a look at them for inspiration," says Irene, clearly not impressed with current design.

"If you want to buy a modern perfume, you would be better off spending £100 on a pure perfume rather than an eau de toilette. Obviously a spray is convenient but if it's something you're going to keep rather than use, it doesn't matter."

Last Christmas, she splashed out £500 on a specially-commissioned litre bottle of Guerlain's Nahema eau de parfum. It's an exquisite bottle, embossed with gold bees and with the dark gold liquid glowing inside, it looks incredibly exotic. But Irene will never open it. It seems such a waste but she doesn't see it like that.

"I wanted something no one else would have and it's not for me now. It's there for the future."

She and a friend recently held a display in Newcastle's Central Library, entitled Fragrant Newcastle.

"It was absolutely wonderful. We had so many people coming and chatting to us. Some of them would see a bottle of perfume they hadn't seen for years and it would bring tears to their eyes. Scent is incredibly evocative and it's easy to underestimate what a big role it plays in our lives."

* For more information, visit the website at www.commonscents.org.uk