My first real experience with perfume came on my whirlwind Contiki trip to Europe 10 years ago. We stopped at the Fragonard laboratory outside of Nice to learn about the rich history of perfume and to buy some one of a kind scents. It was here I started to become aware of the powerful effects scent has in our daily lives, many times it will trigger memories, invigorate feelings or inspire us, and it is the invisible superhero of our five senses.
Today perfume is a purposeful item that is; the finishing touch to an outfit, the aroma setting the mood, the last impression of a person. We all have a favorite perfume, something from a designer, a custom made scent from a boutique or a mix of essential oils created at home but where did it all come from?
Multiple ancient cultures have a historical past with perfumes and fragrances; the first perfume is known to be created by Tapputi-Butt, a chemist and an overseer of a palace in 1200BC Babylonian Mesopotamia. She used a natural combination of flowers, oil, and herbs that she would then distill into the scented elixir. Around the same time, India was distilling Lttar, a natural perfume that comprised of oils made in small batches and aged from 1 to 10 years which would only be given to royalty and inmates of harems. In Egyptian culture perfumes were considered to be the sweat of the sun god Ra and so the scent was utilized in many religious ceremonies and everyday wear. Egyptians would use scented oils to help protect their bodies from the harsh desert conditions and also include vast amounts of in urns and pottery in their tombs to accompany their spirit to heaven. Many tombs were so heavily scented that traces could be found thousands of years later by archeologists. Romans had a high level of hygiene and indulged in perfumes multiple times a day as they would visit their spectacular public baths. All ancient cultures reserved perfumes for the nobles, this was done because perfume was extremely difficult to produce, and it required a large quantity of ingredients to produce a very small amount of essence, keeping it a luxury item.
Around the rise of Christianity we see a fall in the use of perfumes and scents in many cultures as the use is privileged to priests, but this did not stop the Arabs. Islamic culture enhanced the development of perfume by perfecting the extraction of fragrance through steam distillation and introducing new materials such as animal musk’s, resins, herbs, and precious woods. Al-Kindi is credited with establishing the perfume industry as he conducted extensive research and experiments while producing scents, created 107 methods and recipes for perfume-making. It was then in 1179 Muslims began to trade with London and introduced perfume to western culture.
In 1370 Hungarians introduced modern perfume, scented oils blended in an alcohol solution, this was under the rule of Queen Elizabeth of Hungary and the perfume was known all over Europe as Hungary Water.
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) all public places were scented, she could not tolerate bad odors and ladies took up the hobby of creating delightful fragrances to display skill in mixing.
In France perfume flourished in the 17th century and was used for good and evil. Perfume was used in abundance by the wealthy due to their unhygienic sanitary practices and was used to mask body odors. Napoleon used a liter of violet cologne a week, this was on top of the 60 bottles of double extract jasmine he received every month. His wife Josephine preferred musk and used so much that 60 years after her death her boudoir still has a lingering scent. The evil side to perfume was when it was poison disguised as perfume. For a poor French Duchess, her perfumed gloves were switched with scented poison gloves which allowed the poison to slowly absorb into her skin resulting in death.
A quick mention of cologne, it was created at the beginning of the 18th century by an Italian born entrepreneur (many sources do not agree on the name or occupation) in Cologne, Germany. It originally referred to a mix citrus-based fragrances created as a reminder of the early morning spring air of the inventor’s home town. Later in the 20th century, the word began to mean a lighter version of a scent, one that had aromatic compounds of 3-8%, (Esprit de Perfum, 15-30% aromatic compounds, Eau de Parfum, 1020% aromatic compounds, Eau de Toilette, 5-15% aromatic compounds.) Finally, the English language basterdized the term to convey a generic fragrance worn by a man unrelatedly of concentration.
Back to the 19th century, the perfume industry saw a major change in society with the industrial revolution and the introduction of better sanitation systems and personal hygiene. This helped develop modern chemistry for perfume and how fragrances were created as we became more sensitive to bad odors as our body hygiene improved. This is also when the perfume industry started to reach larger markets, production slowly increased and availability was for the first time open to more classes.
Around the mid-20th century perfume was liberated from its natural origin and many perfumes utilize synthetic scents creating a perfume that offers scents which do not exist in the natural world creating controversy on which is better; synthetic scents or natural aromas, eventually it comes down to personal preference. It was here in 1921 when the first completely synthetic mass-market fragrance was created, Chanel No. 5, you can learn more about Chanel’s story with the audio story. This also opened the doors to many competitors, they began to saturate the luxury market with copycat products turning it into the international industry we have today.
It is clear to see how perfume has evolved over the centuries, how perfume has formed societies, changed from once only available to high society and royalties but now available to the masses, in an array of aromas, amazing. I hope you have been able to find that signature scent or scents that empower you and invigorate you to rock every day.
This concludes my History of Make-up series if you missed any posts you can find them here
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