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September 22, 2019 8 min read

History of Perfume

The word ‘perfumare’ is a Latin word. It means ‘to smoke through’. Yet, adorning a scent is one of the pleasant experiences. Perfumes delight the wearer. Their use also convey charming vibes across the opposite side. So calling perfumes a social auxiliary will not be a misnomer.

Perfumes reflect our personalities in so many ways. They also act as our link to emotional attachments and past memories. This intricate relationship of human temperament is not a new tier in evolution. It actually signifies a history dating back to thousands eons. History of perfume umbrellas many roles in almost every culture.

From use in

  • religious ceremonies,
  • health rituals to
  • romantic trinkets and hygienic practices,

Fragrances denote a symbol of wealth, power and control.

In some cultures, it was a show of

  • confidence,
  • equality,
  • fairness,
  • efficiency, and
  • progress

Whatever the case, the use of scents was a staple tagged with nobility and high class. Even today, the different classes of perfume brands associate with high-class.

So evolving from a mere attempt to smell nice, the ‘smoke through’ journey takes you on an inspiring and innovative ramble.

The beginning  The Egyptians

The beginning  The Egyptians

The earliest signs of fragrance use emerge from ancient Egypt. History of perfume comprised of many chapters in the elusive Egyptian society. Scents were a symbol of affluence, supremacy and high status. Its use for alive and dead elite alike.

A symbol of beauty and observance. The fragrance had an obligatory status in Egyptian society. Common belief termed it the sweat collection of their sun-god Ra. Archeological finds exhibit one of their gods as an attribute to perfume. Different scent formulas represent strong footholds of this craft in the local culture.

The oils and essences were an important part of:

  • mysticism,
  • holiness, and
  • spiritual affairs

Different scents were important tools to ward off evil and protection. Various smells were a way of communicating with the dead. The oils and unguents made a distinctive accessory for the living elite. History of perfume provides proof of its use in mummifying formalities and rites.

The import of raw ingredients for perfume-making was from neighboring Arab countries.  In fact, the trade for subject ingredients made a huge contribution to the local economy.  Fine woods, scented resins, myrrh, and incense made up some of the main ingredients of the scents of the time. An African region, named Punt, exported aromatic wood and myrrh to Egypt.

Egyptians created perfumes by distilling natural ingredients from flowers, fruits, and aromatic woods. The importance of this olfactory ritual is evident. Dead bodies of kings and queens like Cleopatra and Hatshepsut had scented ingredients.

The evolvement  The Persians

The Egyptians used oil-based perfumes. Their products were thick and heavy on the skin. Persians were the ones who created light-weight scented products via distillation process. It was a Persian doctor named Avicenna, who had an interest in Chemistry. He experimented with distillation to make better varieties of scents. He was the first to work out the understanding behind perfumes that did not use oil as a base.

Persian kings had their signature scents. So if you think that celebrity scents are a new fad, think again. Today celebrity brands are out on shelves for sale. But nobody had access to the signature scents of kings and queens in ancient Persia. Archeological finds reveal depictions of King Persepolis Darius holding bottles of his signature fragrance. King Xerxes holds old Lily of the Flower Valley, a monogram ingredient of his perfume. 

The designers of that time had created different equipment for perfume-making. Archeological finds of the subject craft workshops contained them. It shows their passion and eagerness to create unique scents. Different innovative processes show their zeal and fervor in this regard.

The reformists The Romans

The reformists The Romans

The Romans worked with scents and fragrances with a zeal and fervor. They credited their chemical formulas and recipes for perfumes by keeping written records. Many modern-day perfumes have used the Roman recipes in their chemical combinations.

Archeologists have found a mural depiction in Pompeii remains. It shows the whole process of a particular perfume-making. One of the oldest perfume making workshop was recently discovered in Cyprus. The workshop in the mythological home of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. It shows a strong relationship between religion and fragrance.

Yet, the use of perfume was not limited to religious affairs. Rather, it found its way in every sphere of life. The incense used in temples and public places to mask the foul smell. Documents from Pliny-the-Elder reveal the use of rose-scented water to refresh an ambiance. He also mentions the use of rose-scented water as a skin moisturizer. Public bathhouses used fragrances to scent the water. Skincare products (like balms, moisturizing oils) and other hair products integrated the use of scented oils. The prevalent use of this luxury resulted in yearly imports of 2800 tons of frankincense.  Another record shows the import of 550 tons of myrrh each year in ancient Rome.

 Romans used unguents as fragrant material. It consisted of essence mixed with a liquid base. Salt acted as a preservative. Gums and resins gave the unguents a greasy touch. But functioned to keep the volatile essences fixed in the scented product.

 Romans used many methods to extract essences from a variety of raw materials. They included fruits, flowers, leaves, wood barks, and even seeds. One of the frequent liquid bases used as a fixative was omphacium. It was an oil extracted from a green olive variety or unripe grapes. These methods still form the basis of essence extractions used in the perfume-making industry. Some of them include:

  • Enfleurage

The raw material got placed on the hard fat obtained from organ meat as kidneys. The petals or barks got replaced so that the fat caught the essence. The fat was then used in unguents and other fragrant products.

  • Steeping

Crushing the Raw ingredients released the essential oils. They were then packed in linen and placed in oil, which trapped the essence.

At places where the climate was hot, steeping in oil and water was the preferred method.  Earthenware filled with raw fragrant material. The pots collected rainwater. Mixed with certain oil, the pots buried in the sand with mouth-open. The hot climate evaporated the water, leaving traces of fragrant oil. The latter got retrieved along with the oil.

  • Cold pressing

Pressing the skin of fruit or flower petals produced liquid base oil. The latter got incorporated in perfume.

  • Steam distillation

Proof of Steam distillation in history of perfume goes back to as late as 2000 B.C.

An inseparable relationship  History of perfume in Arab culture

The Arab perfumes are dense. Upon opening, the tomb of Tutankhamen, one could smell a lingering distinct scent. It was 3300 years after his death that we are talking about. 

There is a reason. Arab perfumes contain a much higher concentration of essential oils and natural essences. This speaks volumes of the intense relationship of perfumes with Arab culture. Though we visualize France as the synonym of fragrance. It was the Arabs who introduced diverse scent combinations.

It would not be wrong to say Arabs were the pioneers in laying down the foundations of modern perfumery. They introduced techniques and methods to derive exotic scents. Their inspiration? It came through the huge collection of raw materials;

Identified, recognized and collected over thousands of years of trade.

They had the exposure. Coupled with the science of chemistry. Arabs introduced scents and fragrances from around the world in exotic combinations. That is why some of the most expensive scents of today include perfumes from the East.

The innovation _ The Chinese era

Europe fell prey to the condemnation of perfume-use by Pliny the Elder and his cohorts. They based their opinion on account of waste of human efforts and richness. Asia continued its endeavor of scent indulgence.

History of perfume shows prevalent use of fragrant items in religious festivities. Hindus and Buddhists had their temples refreshed with scents of all kinds. Chinese had a sense of finesse about the use of scent. They not only used the essences for aromatic ambiance and lifestyle. They also used to infuse inks and paper with such pleasantries.

As trade flourished via the Silk route, it brought along different spices and herbs. It added to the list of aromatic ingredients. The use of scented products flourished. As the economy improved, different scents became a social symbol and luxurious insignia. The Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties saw an increasing trend of oriental smells. Prevalent in noble and common man alike. Because, many essences had a culinary use so it was convenient and cheaper to incorporate them in perfume-making for everyday use.

The revival  the medieval era and renaissance

The Middle Ages underwent the theory of miasma. It meant disease-causing agents hung in the air with bad scent. Since it was a bad air, so carrying a pomander with lovely scented ingredients was the solution. It warded off the bad scent as well as the disease.

So when the crusaders came back to Europe, they brought along with them the Arab art of perfumery. The endeavor, thereby, introduced fragrance back into the West after the Pliny censure. Arab perfumes were oil-based. So they made use of them as bases for scented products.

It was the Italians who introduced the art of liquid perfume-making. They created aqua mirabilis. A clear liquid made of 95% alcohol and the rest 5% with scent essence. History of perfume takes a turn to include finesse and delicacy.

For several hundreds of years, Venice of Italy held the fort for perfume making and trade. Marco Polo made a lot of contribution to the perfume trading post of Venice. He brought with him many aromatic raw ingredients from around the world. With the influx of aromatic ingredients from around the world. Its infusion with liquid perfumery. The world saw a new zeal and fervor in the subject field.

The credit of introducing perfume to the rest of Europe goes to Catherine de Medici. She was a wealthy woman of Italian origin who married the French king in 1519. She had a personal perfumer assigned to herself named Rene-le-Florentin. He created a signature perfume for her out of Orange blossom and bergamot. Queen Elizabeth of Hungary also went on to create for herself liquid perfume. Distilled alcohol and herbs comprised her perfume. The rest is as we say, ‘history’ _ of perfume.

Liberty and deliverance  History of perfume as of today

Liberty and deliverance  History of perfume as of today

Perfumes are the latest fad of modern times. Not only because they make a luxurious accessory. But because they represent your persona.

The fragrance industry is busy creating striking combinations of scents. Every kind of raw material is making its way to the designers' counter. From natural essences to synthetic, there is no limit to what you can use in a fragrance. A chic brand may comprise layers of smells. Complex notes make contrasting characters.

History of perfume will mention the 21st-century chapter as independent and exceptional. It is because the men and women of today do not find themselves confined to societal restraints. They are as independent as their attire which includes the fragrances as well. From unisex varieties to gender-specific ones. The different brands encompass timeless classics to celebrity tags.

Today fragrances have come a long way from essence-waters and greasy scented ointments. The different notes feature tact and skill of age-old perfumery processes. Carrying finesse and delicacy, they are not an element for maintaining hygiene. Rather, they act as an adjunct that makes you ready to take on the world.

That is why we see a new emerging trend. It targets to bring back the traditional craftsmanship. So focus on unique and tailor-made scented products is rising. The perfume brands of today feature a specific olfactory character that one can own.

History of perfume – from a ceremonial manifestation and entitlement insignia of the elite class to an authentic expression of one's individuality. Not only sacred but luxury statement. Not a seductive tool but a necessary aide-de-camp. Nothing overawes adding more chapters to the history of perfume.


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