Search by Keyword
History of Scents, from Ancient Fragrances to Modern Perfumes and Essential Scented Oils
As defined in Webster’s Dictionary, the word perfume means a substance that emits a pleasant odor; especially: a fluid preparation of natural essences (as from plants or animals) or synthetics and a fixative used for scenting. More to the subject, perfume is a mixture of fragrant essential oils and aroma compounds, fixatives, and solvents used to give the human body, animals, objects and living spaces a pleasant scent.
Our journey on the scented road begins at the borders of civilization. One of the oldest uses of perfumes comes form the burning of incense and aromatic herbs used in religious services, often the aromatic gums, frankincense and myrrh, gathered from trees. Perfumery, or the art of making perfumes, began in the ancient Mesopotamian civilizations and Egypt, and was further refined by the Romans and Persians.
The first written testimony about the use of perfumes was found in a cuneiform tablet from the second millennium BC in Sumer. It recorded prescriptions for the development of ointments and perfumes oils. Ancient Egyptians used perfumes and cosmetics in both their religious and mundane life. The ones in charge of their elaboration were the priests who lived near the temples and they had their laboratories installed in some of their dependencies, where they elaborated ointments and the aromas that were used profusely in the religious ceremonies. The Egyptians imported products from different places to perfect their ointments and perfumes.
Recently, archaeologists have uncovered what are believed to be the world's oldest perfumes in Pyrgos, Cyprus. The perfumes date back more than 4,000 years, and were discovered in an ancient perfumery. According to the Homeric tradition the Gods of Mount Olympus were responsible of teaching the use of perfumes to the men and women of Greece.The art of perfumery develops in Crete, in Syria and other Mediterranean towns as well. The Greeks propagated the liking for perfume through their Mediterranean colonies, from the near east to the French and the Spanish coasts. From a Greek colony of the southern coast of Italy went out the first barbers and perfumers that settled in Rome during the Republic.
At the end of the Republic and in the first centuries of the Empire, Rome became a rich and prosperous city that it knew the cosmetic and perfumery "boom", consumption becoming popular among all the social classes. The use of perfumes and ointments became abusive and exaggerated. In addition to people who applied perfume, it was also utilized in the great rooms, in the palaces, in the theatres, on the dresses, in the wine, among the standard legions when they went to the war or when they returned victorious from their conquests, and even some emperor perfumed his favorite horse. Innumerable perfumes were used in religious ceremonies as well, like offerings to the Gods, in burials and in familiar celebrations, especially weddings. With the decline of the Roman Empire and the expansion of the Christianity, that preached austerity and moderation, the use of perfumes was reduced to the royal courts and to the palaces and castles of some nobles.
The Byzantine Empire, heir of Rome, having near the raw materials and the labor force of their Eastern neighbors, with a perfume tradition, developed an important fragrance industry. But it will not take too much time to arise a new perfume power, the one of the Arabs. The Arabs were great experts in perfumery who knew how to assimilate and to perfect the knowledge of the previous cultures, taking advantage of their knowledge and their new techniques.
In the 9th century the Arabian chemist Al-Kindi wrote a book on perfumes which he named Book of the Chemistry of Perfume and Distillations. It contained more than a hundred recipes for fragrant oils, salves and aromatic waters. The book also described 107 methods and recipes for perfume-making and perfume making equipment, such as the alembic. The Arabs became for several centuries the perfumers of the world. It is reported that among the many presents of Harun al-Rashid to Charlemagne were several types of perfumes. In the golden age of Arab culture a technique was developed for the distillation of essential oils. The Persian Muslim doctor and chemist Ibn Sina introduced the process of extracting oils from flowers by means of distillation, the procedure most commonly used today. He first experimented with the rose. Until his discovery, liquid perfumes were mixtures of oil and crushed herbs or petals, which made a strong blend. Rose water was more delicate, and immediately became popular.
Knowledge of perfumery came to Europe as early as the 14th century due partially to the spread of Islam. But it was the Hungarians who ultimately introduced the first modern perfume. Made of scented oils blended in an alcohol solution, the first modern perfume was made in 1370 at the command of Queen Elizabeth of Hungary and was known throughout Europe as Hungary Water . Venice and Florence were the capitals of the perfumes during the Renaissance. The formulas of the old compositions were recovered so the art of perfumery returned to Europe. The Medici’s and the Venetian Dukes’ courts were perfumed. When Catherine of Medici, the great ambassador of the perfume, left for France to marry King Henri II, she took in her entourage her perfumer called Renato of Florence.
With the development of organic chemistry in the 19th century came the production of synthetic perfume materials. In 1921, Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel launched her own brand of perfume, Chanel No. 5. In 1925, Guerlain created Shalimar. And the 1930s brought the renowned fragrances Je Reviens, Tabu and Joy. Even today, France remains the centre of the European perfume design and trade.
Up until the 1940s, perfume was used mostly by the upper class. Elizabeth Arden, Coty, Guerlain, Helena Rubenstein, Chanel and Parfums Weil established the Fragrance Foundation in 1949. Its creation suggested that perfume was a growing industry in the United States. Today, according to the Fragrance Foundation, the U.S. is the “largest fragrance market in the world.” In each epoch perfume reflects society. A world without perfume would be a world without history!