Science has proven that the olfactory sense (smell) is the strongest of the five basic senses because it is 100% intertwined with memory. The scent of lilacs can bring back the happiness of a spring day, or roses can evoke your first kiss in a summer garden. Because every person has a unique genetic chemical composition, perfumes cause a variety of chemical reactions and memories, both positive and negative. This explains why some perfumes smell “good” on one person, but “bad” on another. Memory subjectivity is just as important as the skin’s physical reaction to a scent. This is one reason that humans have sought out pleasant smells, and created perfumes from them, since our ancestors walked upright.
The modern word perfume has its roots in the Latin “per fumus”, which literally means “through smoke” since the initial use of scent was incense for religious services, which contained myrrh, frankincense and other strong smelling natural materials. Ancient Mesopotamia was the first culture to record the creation of personal perfume, found on a clay tablet dating to 2000 BC. Perfume was also common in ancient Egypt, where it was almost exclusively reserved for nobility. Around 1000 BC the Egyptians invented the process of making glass from their abundant sand, and one of the first common uses of glass was for perfume storage. It is also believed that the process for making perfume from the distillation of essential oils from flowers, spices and herbs spread to China and India during this time.
Unlike today, perfume was valued equally by men and women in antiquity. In fact, a common practice for both sexes in ancient Egypt was to imbue small conical wax shapes with myrrh, attach them to headgear with strings, and let the wearers’ natural body heat slowly melt the scented cones to ensure their fragrance would last throughout a long celebration. Perfume played a large part in the Egyptian funereal process as well. In addition to heavily anointing the dead with their favorite fragrance in life, Egyptians believed the gods would favor them more after death if they smelled better. Therefore large amounts of perfume were buried with the mummies for them to use in their afterlife. This practice lasted until Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great in the 3rd century AD, at which time perfume use then spread to Greece and Rome, but died out during the Dark Ages.
The art of perfumery did not become pervasive in Europe until the mid to late 13th century Renaissance, first appearing in Italy, and most likely introduced through Marco Polo’s several excursions to China along the Silk Road. It flourished quickly, however, and easily spread to France. By the 14th century the industry of flower cultivation specifically for use in the creation of perfume was widespread. Floral cultivation remains a vibrant industry, thriving to this day in southern France and Italy.
The royal houses throughout the Holy Roman Empire were starting to embrace the use of fragrances, and considered it quite exotic. Perfumes were still exorbitantly expensive to produce, and only royalty could afford them. Queen Elizabeth of Hungary was so taken by her first experience with perfume that she demanded the Hungarians learn the art for her, and that creation was called “Hungary Water” for a time.
The fledgling European perfume industry really spread during the 16th and 17th centuries, when the wealthy discovered its ability to hide unpleasant body odors, since bathing was considered an “unhealthy” practice at that time. While still expensive to produce, it became more affordable for the upper classes when an Italian barber in Cologne, Germany developed a less concentrated perfume variety that he called Aqua Admirabilis. We know it as “Eau de Cologne”.
The most expensive part of the perfumery craft is the extraction of essential oils from their natural sources, be it floral, arboreal or spices/herbs. Great quantities of raw materials are needed to produce tiny usable amounts of essential oils. The amounts vary by plant, but as an example it takes 900 rosebuds to produce just 1ml (30 drops) of essential oil of roses. Higher percentages of aromatic essential oils create more potent, longer lasting (and higher priced) perfume products. The best quality products contain an average of 15% of essential oils and are now called “Eau de Parfum” or “Parfum de Toilette”. The next step down in quality is “Eau de Toilette” containing around 10%, with “Eau de Cologne” at 5%. Men’s aftershave products contain just 1-3% of essential oils.
In Britain, the royalty from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I were also delighted with perfume. Elizabeth’s preferred fragrance recipe is surprisingly still preserved – containing a particular combination of roses, ferns and lavender. Perfumery was becoming more sophisticated during this time, and the best perfume makers were experimenting with different and more unusual mixtures. These recipes were kept secret and were heavily guarded by the perfume houses to prevent theft.
Little has changed in the industry from that aspect, and today the perfume houses’ most valuable employees are called “the noses”. The technical term is “perfumers”, and the 50 best in the world are highly trained in Grasse, France to identify and develop new fragrances. “Noses” are apprenticed to experienced perfumers for seven or more years, and they also earn graduate degrees in chemistry and often psychology.
18th century France (and in particular the court of Louis XV) saw such a proliferation of perfume use in both quantity and quality that Louis’ courtiers became known as “the perfumed court”. The king and his consort, Madame Pompadour, required large amounts of different scents daily for use on everything from their clothes to furniture, hair, food and pets. This excessive practice carried through the Napoleonic era where Josephine’s preference for the musk scent was legendary. There are claims that her apartments still smelled of musk up to 60 years after her death. In post-revolutionary America where perfume was a high priced imported luxury item, an inexpensive Eau de Cologne called Florida Water, a mixture containing easy to find oil of cloves, cassia and lemongrass, was most prevalent.
The world was undergoing major changes during the 19th century as the Industrial Revolution improved manufacturing techniques, and the perfume industry was no exception. The scientific discoveries and advances made in the field of chemistry during that era greatly altered how new fragrances were created. Coco Chanel’s chemist, who developed the first synthetic aldehyde molecules, created one in 1921 that gave her Number 5 its unique qualities and made it the most famous perfume in the world.
As scientific progress continued to impact the development and production of new perfumes, those advances produced fragrances now priced reasonably enough for everyone to enjoy. Perfumes today are quite complex with endless varieties, many containing more than 250 separate ingredients. There is literally a scent for everyone. In 1993, approximately one new perfume was launch per week; today the number is closer to one per day. As they say, better living through chemistry!