Perfume and fragrances are a large part of our culture. Men and women worldwide use fragrances whether perfume spray or perfume oil to smell great, evoke memories, and express their personalities. Perfume seems to have been part of human society for years, but where did it all start? And how? Let's find out.
Perfume is at least 5000 years older, but probably longer. In Ancient Egypt, hieroglyphics suggest Mesopotamians and Egyptians were making scents around 3,000 BC. The first perfumers were Egyptian priests, and it is thought they used the scents in burial ceremonies. These priests made perfume from essential oils. Egyptian priests believed that incense had transcendent qualities that communicated with the gods. Special ointments were made to embalm the dead and were infused with perfume to make sure they had a pleasant passage to the afterlife. Indeed, in 1897, when Egyptian tombs were being opened, archeologists found many fragrance bottles and recipes, some of which have obtained mythical quality. While ancient Egypt is our best record of fragrances from millennia ago, we should note that China has ancient writings about scents from 4500 BC. Indeed, it is likely that fragrance has been a part of human life since the Stone Age. However, Egypt is generally agreed upon as the birthplace of fragrances as we know them. Cleopatra is considered the face of ancient perfume, with stories telling how she used jasmine to seduce Mark Anthony.
The Ancient Greeks
The ancient Greeks also used perfume to worship the gods and goddesses. Religious and death ceremonies leaned heavily on scents, which the Greeks believed came from the gods themselves. These ideas are typical of Greek life, where anything perfect was considered as sent from the divine. Indeed, the Greeks contributed to the art of perfumery significantly. Many books survive that show the early work the Greeks were doing to revolutionize scent. Where the Egyptians burned fragrance ingredients, the Greeks ground plants and resins, suspending them in oil. These are thought to be the first perfumes for the skin. Several factors combined in ancient Greek to popularise perfumes. Firstly, the Greeks became very conscious of hygiene. Additionally, as Alexander the Great conquered many parts of the world, large flows of new and exotic plants, vegetables, and other materials returned to Greece. International trade and love of smelling good saw many advances happen throughout the perfume world of Greece. Ambergris and musk were used in fragrance for the first time.
Additionally, perfume becomes more democratized. It was no longer solely for the gods and ceremonies. Fragrances became an everyday item of the Greek high society, with perfume shops selling perfume spray and perfume oil opened all around Athens. Interestingly, these shops became something of a central hub for gossip and political planning.
The Greeks heavily influenced Roman society, so there should be no surprise that fragrances played a significant role in Roman life. However, it is through the Romans that perfume gets its name: per fumum
or "through smoke." Rome's evolution from a farming village to the center of the world happened quickly. As the city and its citizens became powerful, they grew opulent. And perfume was used as a way to display affluence. Indeed, it is estimated that Rome imported almost 3000 tons of frankincense, alongside 550 tons of myrrh annually around 1BC.
In Rome, public baths were the place to be. The sophisticated upper echelons of Roman society were obsessed with bodily care. Spending hours on their skin, hair, and so on. But something had to give. The Romans had grown too decadent, and their society collapsed. Sadly, so too did perfume for a couple of hundred years in Europe. While monks and priests still made incense for religious purposes, wearing perfume entered its own dark age in Europe.
Europe's Perfume Dark Ages
While many European societies turned their back on perfume during this time, other countries embraced and refined it. In India, sandalwood was used on men during wedding ceremonies, and jasmine as a perfume for women
. In China, fragrances were being used in everything, even writing ink. In the Arab world, artisans developed new techniques to distill and capture the fleeting scent of materials. As trade between India, China, and the Arab world grew, new ingredients were exchanged. Tin-plated copper stills replaced the fragile glass.
The Crusades and the Renaissance
As the Crusades began around the 11th century, some of the items that soldiers brought to Europe were fragrances and distillation techniques. Indeed, the Arabian physician Avicenna is thought to have perfected the art of distilling roses. This very process was returned to Europe — specifically to Italy. From there, Europe's perfume dark age was over. So began an exciting few centuries where perfume advanced considerably. Scented alcohols of 95% proof — aka Water of Life — were invented in Modena. Marco Polo traveled the world and returned scented goods to his hometown of Venice. However, for many, the first "true" perfume as we know it was made in 1370 in Hungary. Queen of Hungary Water, an infusion of floral aromatics, was made for the Queen of Hungary. It was considered an elixir of youth. Soon after, she married the King of Poland. She was 72. Maybe they had a point.
As explorers like Columbus, Vasco de Gama, and Magellan began returning from America around the late 15th century, they brought new and exciting ingredients. Cocoa, vanilla, sandalwoods, and clove were just some of the new foods and materials that perfumers had to work with. Musk and rose-scented pomanders became particularly fashionable, especially in English high-society.
However, it was Paris that became the center of the perfume world. Queen Catherine de Medici (who married King Henri II in 1533)
brought scented gloves from Tuscany. Tuscans had used these scents to cover the smells of tannery; however, soon after, her perfumer set up a little shop in Paris, which proved incredibly popular. As so, Paris began a love affair with scent, which continues today. However, perhaps Louis XIV
(1710-1774) is most responsible for this. He, for example, commissioned his perfumer to make a scent for every day of the week. Thus began a custom for people of rank to have a scent. This inspired a great deal of competition between perfumers to offer fragrance to noblemen and women.
Perfume Goes Mainstream
Sure enough, perfumers began to sell their perfumes through traveling salesmen. Then, in 1765, the Baccarat glass factory began creating bottles for the perfumers of Paris. As chemistry advanced over the next century, perfumers devised new techniques and fragrances.
Modern Perfume Houses Open
The town of Grasse became the supplier of jasmine, orange blossom, and rose for Paris, and perfume bloomed again. Perfume houses like Roger& Gallet and Houbigant thrived. In London, the new Crown Perfumery was given the royal seal of approval. During the 20th century, Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel created the best-selling fragrance. In 1921, she launched her Chanel range, of which Chanel no.5 is perhaps the most well known.
In the 1920s, French perfume houses like Nina Ricci, Christian Dior, and Jean Patou opened, as French perfume reached its peak in the 1950s.
While modern perfume production has become complex, it still shares some production techniques from previous centuries. However, crucially, perfume lovers can choose alcohol-free scents that don't involve animal cruelty. Through the use of synthetics, modern perfumers can produce more ethical and sustainable product ingredients.
Furthermore, while perfumes are still expensive, everyone can access even designer fragrances through impressions that can smell just as good as the originals.