History of Perfume

vintage perfume bottle

Perfume, from the Latin per fumum, meaning through smoke, has been a barometer of society and its mores throughout recorded history. Like fashion, it provides a road map to people's strivings for individuality, self-aggrandizement, social standing, and feelings of well-being.

Early Egyptians are credited as one of the first groups to improve their lives and deaths through the use of fragrance and fragrance ingredients, particularly blended for burning during religious services and burial. Historical references cite Ishmaelite traders who, in 2000 B.C.E., bore aromatic treasures to eager customers in Egypt via what was known as the Incense Road. Considered more precious than gold, flowers, herbs, and spices, perfumes were an expression of exaltation and admiration. The importance of perfumes gradually reached far beyond Egypt thanks to traders, crusaders, and shifting populations who took their precious fragrances with them. This was a fortuitous turn of events for the future of fragrance.

Perfume ingredients became indispensable in religious services, as medicants, to enhance personal environments, and to be applied to the skin for protection against the elements. Perfume was also used as an aphrodisiac. The famous and infamous embraced fragrance and made it their own. Cleopatra (60-30 B.C.E.) doused the sails of her ship to entice Mark Antony. The Queen of Sheba won the heart and devotion of King Solomon by bringing him gifts of rare spices all the way from Yemen. He particularly favored the fabled myrrh. It is said that each drop of Muhammad's sweat, as he ascended to heaven, morphed into the most precious of flowers-the rose.

It was the Egyptians who learned how to press the oils from flowers and leaves that they then smoothed on their sun-scorched skins. The Arabian doctor Avicenna is credited with developing the method of distillation, in the tenth century, which led to the creation of liquid perfume.

Little has changed in the gathering and processing of perfume ingredients. Flowers and plants are picked and gathered by hand, and distillation, in which steam separates the essential oils from the flowers and plants, remains one of the prime methods for extraction. (It is one of six methods: expression, maceration, enfluverage, extraction, and headspace technology.) In modern times, the greatest change has taken place in the fragrance laboratories where computer technology has become a basic tool, not only in establishing and maintaining quality standards, but also in allowing perfumers around the world to communicate with each other in developing unique new fragrance formulas.

Hand in Glove

Fragrance and fashion were linked for the first time in the thirteenth century. The setting was Grasse, France (located between Nice and Cannes) that at the time was the center of the glove-making industry. The problem these artisans faced, however, was the unbearable smell of the leather that was tanned with urine.

The fragrant flowers of Grasse, the province of the local perfumers, came to the rescue of the tanners and perfumed gloves became the rage throughout fashionable Europe. As a result, industrious glove-makers added the title of perfumer. They enjoyed great success until the early 1800s when they were taxed out of business and as a result moved away, leaving a talented coterie of flower growers and perfumers. Grasse flourished as the perfect source of flowers, especially lavender, jasmine, and tuberose that grew on the sun-drenched hills. In the twenty-first century, Grasse is a shadow of its former self, as real-estate developers usurped much of the land in the latter part of the twentieth century. It no longer is the prime source of flowers, roots, and herbs sought by the modern fragrance industry. The whole world serves the perfumers' fragrant needs.

Scents of Royalty

The desire to adorn the body with sweet smells and beautiful jewelry created a marriage of fashion and fragrance that reached its heights in the early 1700s, particularly during the reign of Louis XIV. It was then that European royalty decided to have their fragrances at hand night and day no matter where they might be. Aromatic jewelry designed by master craftsmen was in great demand. In fact, royalty had their own private jewelers and perfumers to cater to their every whim. Chatelaines, rings, earrings, belts, and bracelets were considered indispensable. Wealthy men, women, and children all wore decorative aromatic accessories.

Courting Perfume

In 1533, when Catherine de Medici left Italy to marry Henry II, she took all of her personal perfumes and perfumers with her. It was not uncommon for royalty and wealthy citizens to employ their own perfumers and jewelers who were responsible for creating exquisite one-ofa-kind containers for each perfume. The marriage of Marie Antoinette to the future king of France, Louis XVI, united two intense devotees of perfume. Both reveled in environments heavy with scent. But it was Louis XIV who became known as "The Perfumed King" in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. His retinue of perfumers created different scents for him and his court to wear morning, noon, and night. In his court, the wings of doves were drenched with fragrance to be released after a great banquet to fill the air with refreshing scents. Extravagance was the coin of the realm. Vessels were designed to allow incense to be sprinkled on carpets and in dresser drawers. Incense was also burned to fumigate clothes, living quarters, and to induce sleep.

Street Scents and Scenes

The growth of the urban environment in the eighteenth century gave meaning to fragrance for the masses. Over-crowding, lack of sanitation, and pollution made life unbearable. Fears of unknown diseases lurking in the water kept people from bathing. Perfumes emerged as the panacea for the great-unwashed populace. Crudely made perfumes and colognes could be bought on the street by roving self-appointed perfumers who hawked their fragrant wares from garments which looked like cook's aprons. Scent bottles filled the many pockets. The French Revolution put a stop to royalty's fragrant revelries and perfume didn't regain its popularity until the early nineteenth century, when Napoleon became emperor. There was no limit to his fragrance indulgences. He virtually bathed in eau de cologne, and never went into battle without a full supply of his favorites. His wife, Josephine, loved roses and musk, and she surrounded herself with them night and day. But, when Napoleon left her for Marie Louise, Josephine filled the rooms of Malmaison with the overpowering scent of musk, which she knew Napoleon disliked intensely. Visitors to Versailles report they smell it still.

The twentieth century saw the birth of fashion designer fragrances (primarily of French origin). They were referred to as the invisible accessory by merchants and the media, to be worn on special occasions. Then, in 1921, the great couturier, Gabrielle Chanel, set the fashion world on fire when she launched her breakthrough creation, Chanel No. 5. It was the first aldehydic type that is characterized by its rich sparkling quality. It became an overnight sensation and established a new category for the perfume world.

Chanel was not the first designer to sniff the potential of scents, however. Credit must be given to Paul Poiret, whose exotic designs were inspired by the mysteries of the Far East and who achieved recognition and applause for his art deco costumes for theater and ballet. Fascinated by the imaginative and ephemeral, he adored fragrance and became a perfume entrepreneur in the early 1900s. He established his own laboratory and facilities for blowing glass and packaging his "small wonders." His company, Parfumes Rosine, was named for one of his daughters. Of the more than fifty perfumes (floral, spicy, and oriental types dominated) introduced between 1911 and 1924, several carried his daughter's name. La Rose de Rosine was presented to the public in the mid-twenties as was La Chemise de Rosine and Mon Choix de Rosine. In 1927, inspired by the flight of Charles Lindbergh, Poiret launched Spirit of St. Louis, which was one of his last fragrance creations.

Poiret's couture clients, artists, actresses, and the wealthy, in the U.S. and abroad, quickly became his fragrance customers as he encouraged them to consider fragrance one of his most important fashion accessories. They responded enthusiastically. After World War I, however, his fashion house floundered. His fragrances continued to enjoy popularity in the United States where they were reintroduced. Poiret closed his business in 1930.

Designers and Grand Dames

The fascination with fragrance did not lose its momentum thanks to Chanel and an unending parade of designers who became arbiters of styles in scents with innovations of their own: Worth (Dans La Nuit, 1922), Jeanne Lanvin (My Sin, 1925). The legendary Arpege wasn't introduced until 1927. What was described as the most expensive perfume in the world, Joy, was launched by Jean Patou in 1930. Elsa Schiaparelli startled twentieth century women with a sexy scent which she appropriately called Shocking. Women flocked to her salon to add the scent in its unique "torso" bottle to their dressing tables. The bottle was said to have been inspired by the measurements of the voluptuous American actress Mae West. It is considered one of the great collectibles in the twenty-first century.

Peacetime Scent-Sations

A fashion/fragrance explosion following World War II was led by Christian Dior who not only dropped skirts to the floor in 1947 with his New Look, but also intrigued his customers with the legendary Miss Dior perfume. Nina Ricci introduced her romantic perfume, L'Air du Temps, in l948 in its unforgettable "double doves" bottle. In 1951, the elegant Hubert Givenchy took his place in the perfume pantheon, with L'Interdit, inspired by his muse, Audrey Hepburn.

Hints of Globalization

In the second half of the twentieth century, the French couture world spawned a splendid group of designers including Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Guy Laroche, Pierre Cardin, and Paco Rabanne. Before long, all became perfume aficionados as fragrance and fashion became inextricably connected.

Fragrance in the United States, at the time was primarily French and considered a luxury to be worn only on special occasions. An interest in American fragrances began to accelerate when Estée Lauder introduced Youth Dew in 1953. The first perfume in an oil base (versus alcohol), it was particularly long lasting and became a nationwide success. The launch of Norell, however, catapulted America into the fashion/fragrance arena. Norell was the first American designer to lend his name to a perfume. Revlon introduced it in 1969. The sophisticated floral became the olfactory touchstone for executive women throughout the country. It suddenly became de rigueur for these career women to keep Norell perfume bottles in full view on their desks.

By the 1970s, American designer fragrances multiplied. Halston led the way with his first fragrance in 1975. Presented in the famed Elsa Peretti bean bottle, it was an immediate favorite. Ralph Lauren set new fragrance standards with Lauren and Polo in 1978. Calvin Klein rocked the fragrance world in 1985 with Obsession and its provocative, risqué advertising. He followed up in l994 with the first important unisex fragrance, CK-1. It created a sensation. America's designers Oscar de la Renta, Liz Claiborne, Bill Blass, and Donna Karan moved quickly to join the fragrance explosion.

Designing a Fragrant Future

France's commitment to fragrance and its formidable fashion designers also continued unabated. In the 1980s, new cutting-edge designers made their mark: The 1990s witnessed fragrance launches from Jean-Paul Gaultier and Issey Miyake. By the time the century was over, fashion designers from Italy (Armani, Moschino, and Dolce & Gabbana), Spain (Carolina Herrera and Paco Rabanne), and Germany (Jil Sander and Hugo Boss) were international fragrance stars.

In the twenty-first century, competition heated up with fragrance blockbusters from the newest fashion leaders in the United States and abroad: the namesake fragrances of Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, and Vera Wang have joined John Galiano's Kingdom. The everwidening development of odor identical molecules and computer-generated techniques that extract and reproduce scents previously undetected or available has dramatically expanded the perfumer's palette. Amongst the original olfactory experiences that emerged are food, oceanic, and ozone notes. Researchers have explored scents emitted by coral growing in the Caribbean. Flowers have been sent into space to determine how the weightlessness impacts the flower's odor stability. Work has been undertaken to develop pleasing odor environments and delivery systems for future space stations. Research has revealed that humans are not comfortable living under odorless or negative odor conditions.

The key to the success of the designer scents has always depended on how well each designer interprets his or her fashion image in the packaging, name, advertising, and, of course, the fragrance. The appeal is especially powerful to the majority of consumers who could not afford the couture designs that appear alluringly in the pages of magazines, in store windows, and on popular TV shows. The perfumes have made it possible for almost everyone to experience the panache of the designers. As a result, designer fragrance successes have multiplied and captured the imagination and dedication of women everywhere.

There are eight basic fragrance categories: Green, single florals, floral bouquet, oriental blend, modern blend, fruity, spicy, and woodsy mossy. In recent years, fantasy formulations have grown increasingly popular. These are fragrances that defy description and are olfactory experiences based on the perfumers imagination.

In the twenty-first century, creating a fragrance demands scientific, technical, and artistic expertise. The time frame from start to finish can be as long as three years. Usually, a team of perfumers, assistants, and evaluators work against what the industry calls a "perfume profile." The profile identifies the type of fragrance (floral, spicy citrus, woodsy, green, or oriental), the characteristics of the type of woman who would wear the fragrance (sophisticated, conservative, sporty, adventurous), the pricing, the packaging, and among other factors, imagery. A number of perfumers from different supplier companies compete to win the assignment. Once the winning fragrance is selected, it is market-tested, which could take another six to eight months. During this period, the packaging, advertising, marketing, and sales promotion (including sampling) strategies are finalized.

There are only a handful of great perfumers and like all fine artists they are considered key to the success of creating a great luxury brand. They are in demand and remunerated accordingly. Because of the many elements involved in bringing a fragrance to market, there is no hard and fast rule for allocation of costs.

The future promises to expand the rarity and enjoyment of designer-inspired fragrances. New technologies and packaging concepts will make them available in a myriad of forms for personal wear and travel, as well as in the home and in public spaces. The olfactory adventure of the twenty-first century absolutely knows no bounds.

See also Non-Western Cosmetics; Western Cosmetics.


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Cunningham, Donna. Flower Remedies Handbook: Emotional Healing and Growth: With Bach and Other Flower Essences. New York: Sterling Publishing Company, 1992.

Dyett, Linda, and Annette Green. Secrets of Aromatic Jewelry. New York: Flammarion, 1998.

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History of Perfume