The history of perfumes is as rich as the list of fragrance notes. Scents fascinated man from time immemorial – therefore he tried to tame them and maintain their elusiveness. It wasn’t easy, but today – after years of trial and error – a bottle of our favourite perfumes can accompany us anytime anywhere.
Smoke and incense
Early developments of perfumery are shrouded in mystery. Scientists managed to discover that thousands of years ago our ancestors burnt aromatic resins and gums on sacrificial altars, so that their gifts and prayers reached their Gods along with clouds of fragrant smoke. In return, they counted on favours of their gods bought over by the beautiful smell. From these practices derives the name “perfume” – from Latin “per fumum”, literally: through smoke.
In the antiquity, perfumes were produced on the basis of only natural materials and mostly had the form of various oils and balms. Initially, the right of using fragrances was available only to kings and the wealthiest citizens, but over time this privilege became accessible to all social classes. Unfortunately, the price of incense and perfumes restricted their popularity. Not everyone could afford them.
In many cultures perfumes were linked with magic rituals and they were believed to have a divine origin. Greeks thought that perfumes were created by goddess Aphrodite: her disloyal servant stole her secret recipes and gave them away to people. Egyptians perceived somewhat different origins of perfume making. For them, the creator of the first perfumes was the God of Wisdom – Thot, known as the guardian of magi and doctors. Thot shared his secret knowledge of perfume with his priests. Only they had the right to produce fragrances and for this reason, they enjoyed great respect.
Numerous stories about fragrances can be found not only in ancient mythologies, but also in the Old and New Testament. Queen of Sheba gave perfumes to King Solomon, and the Magi from the East to newborn Christ.
Scent for body and soul
What is interesting, is the usage of scented products in different parts of ancient world differed. In Egypt aromatic pomades were put on hair, and Assyrians perfumed their beards. Apparently, Greeks had a habit of anointing every body part with a different oil after bathing. The Romans were definitely the record holders in that field. They sprinkled perfume on almost everything, body, equipment, and animals, even sprayed their favourite smells in the air, and bathed in scented water. They could do that even a few times a day. In wealthy Roman houses, in a special room called unctuarium, beautiful slaves were waiting to perform relaxing massages and anointing the body with various fragrant oils from countless bottles. No wonder then, that a lot of protests were made – Plinius the Elder deemed the lavish use of perfume by the patricians as being a blatant waste.
Beautiful smells were also an integral part of religious rituals and funeral rites. Corpses of the dead were embalmed with aromatic substances in almost the entire ancient world. In Greece and Egypt amphorae with perfume were put into the graves next to the deceased, as it was believed that their aromas had healing properties. Sumerians had similar beliefs; they used essential oils in medicine 5,000 years ago. That became the beginning of the perfume making branch known today as aromatherapy. What is more, perfumes since the ancient times belonged to the realm of love and eroticism. According to many sources, in Mesopotamia, the fiancé on his engagement day would pour aromatic liquid over his future wife. Egyptian Queen Cleopatra before Caesar’s visits bathed in milk and rose petals, so that her body picked up a beautiful floral aroma. Rumour has it that before the meeting with Mark Anthony she ordered to have the sails of her barge soaked in aromatic water. As you can see, it was a long time ago when it was discovered that a beautiful scent is the best aphrodisiac.
Although today it is hard to believe, the usage of perfume was banned when Christianity was developing. Firstly, the smell and attributes of perfumes were deemed by the Church as being too sensual and seductive. Another reason for the prohibition was because it was alchemists who occupied themselves with perfume creation, and they were often accused of witchcraft. The tradition of creating different scent compositions survived thanks to Muslims. When Christianity forbade using perfumes, the Koran was encouraging it. Muslims could use aromatic substances not only during religious rituals, but also enjoy them on an everyday basis. This is probably why we owe the first revolution in perfume production to them. At the beginning of the 11th century the Persian physician and chemist Avicenna perfected the process of distillation. Thanks to that the production became more efficient. Despite the Church’s ban on perfumes in the Middle Ages, their prestige was not affected. It was believed that scent is a domain of good people. This conviction was reinforced by many legends and hagiographies stating that some saints’ bodies released a beautiful floral scent (odor sanctialis). In time, strict bans were loosened – in the 12th century aromatic baths for medicinal purposes were allowed, and mouth-washing with rose water to improve the quality of breath were not forbidden anymore.
It took quite a long time before Europe returned to perfume production. But it was the Old World that made the milestone in this field. In 1370, a Hungarian court alchemist created for Elisabeth, Queen of Hungary a special alcohol-based tonic, which is known as “Hungary Water.” This was an original combination of lavender, marjoram, mint, orange flower and lemon aroma. Interestingly, that tonic was successful not only as perfume but also as a medicine for various ailments. In the 15th and 16th century perfume making was influenced by geographical discoveries. Vasco Da Gama, Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan and other famous travellers brought from America and India new materials of characteristic scents: cocoa, vanilla, Peruvian balm, tobacco, pepper, cloves and cardamom. At first, Italy excelled at perfume production, primarily because of the trade of the Italian Peninsula with countries from the East, and later with the New World as well. It was in the 16th century in Italy that chemical formulae began to supplant secretive alchemy. Distillation process was perfected even more. Moreover, in Venice perfumes were poured into beautiful and colourful glass bottles, which undoubtedly increased the value and price of perfumes. Along with the Florentine Medici dynasty, the knowledge of perfume production came to France – after marrying Henry II, Catherine de’ Medici brought her court perfume makers to Paris. The most famous one was Renato Blanco (René le Florentin), who taught French craftsmen the art of perfume accessories production. Recipes according to which he prepared fragrances (and also poisons) for the Queen were closely guarded secrets. René le Florentin laboratory was connected to the royal chambers by a secret passage in order to prevent the recipies from being stolen.
Ups and temporary downs
In Great Britain, perfume making was developed thanks to Elizabeth I. Historians report that the Queen encouraged her subjects to experiment in this field and that she introduced the fashion for scented gloves (records say that when Elizabeth received a pair as a gift from Earl of Oxford, all the ladies-in-waiting spent fortunes in order to have the same fragrant treasure). Perfume making in Britain went through a temporary crisis in 1640-60 with the English Civil War, as the Puritans banned its production and usage. A breakthrough came along with restoration of the monarchy and Charles’ II accession to the throne. Perfume madness began in 17th century’s France. Beautiful scents were sprinkled not only on clothes, but also on everyday equipment, and rooms and chambers. The main centre of perfume making was Paris, Versailles was called the best smelling court in Europe. The second, as important, capital of world perfume making was Grasse, still famous for jasmine and rose fields. The dynamic growth of the perfume industry was briefly interrupted by the French Revolution. However in Napoleonic times, France returned to the manufacture and use of perfume.