Perfume. The word evokes impressions of flowers, spices, muskiness and sweetness. Love, romance, desire and joy. Beautiful bottles and precious ingredients. But how did perfume originate, and how did it evolve into the luxury item it is today? Please join us as we trace the origin and evolution of perfume and fragrance design.
Hieroglyphics found in Egyptian tombs show that Ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians were making perfume as long ago as 3,000 BCE
. Chemical analysis of Egyptian perfume amphoras reveal the presence of myrrh, cardamon, olive oil and cinnamon among other rare and costly materials. The base of the fragrances would have been much heavier than the fragrances we know today and would have produced a strong, sweet scent that lasted a long time on the skin. In perfume, the amount of time a scent lasts on the skin is referred to as longevity
, and the distance the fragrance projects from the wearer is known as sillage
. Egyptian fragrances would have had both impressive longevity and sillage. Because of the preciousness of the ingredients used to create fragrance, only the wealthiest and most important would have worn them. Egyptian pharaohs were entombed with scents, and when their tombs were opened in the late 19th century, it was discovered the fragrances were still strong and remarkably vibrant.
Ancient Roman Gold Glass Unguentarium
The Ancient Greeks and Romans were also enamored of fragrance. The Greeks refined the process of suspending aromatic plants and resins in oil to be applied to the skin, and through Alexander the Great’s conquests in the East, new spices and other costly, exotic ingredients were introduced into the perfume-making process. Animal-based ingredients including musk and ambergris, a waxy substance produced in the intestines of sperm whales also began to be used.
The word “perfume” derives from the Ancient Roman “per fumum” meaning “through smoke” and the upper classes used fragrances in balms, oils, and perfumes for skin and hair. Emperor Nero reportedly loved the scent of roses so much, he had silver pipes installed so that his dinner guests could be spritzed with rosewater. With the advent of glassmaking techniques, Romans were also able to create lovely vessels to store their fragrances in, and we are fortunate that many examples survive today. The ancient Roman glass unguentarium above dates from between the 1st and 4th centuries CE.
While the Crusades were responsible for spreading the use of makeup and perfume through Western Europe, as knights returned from the East with exotic fragrances, it is the Arabian physician Avicenna who is said to have been the first person to have mastered the distillery of rose petals in the 10th century. Italy also made great strides in perfume formulation, inventing a scented alcohol close to 95% proof. This revolutionary clear liquid was variously known as ‘aqua mirabilis’ (marvelous water), or ‘aqua vita’ (water of life). However, t
he first iteration of the modern perfume as we know it was created for Queen Elizabeth of Hungary in 1370. A fusion of lavender and rosemary, it became known as “Queen of Hungary Water.”
Thanks to the influence of Queen Catherine di Medici, France became the fragrance capital of the world in the 16th century. Bringing with her from Italy scented gloves to mask the terrible odor of badly tanned leather, and her personal perfumer Renato Bianco, di Medici popularized fragrance and introduced French society to its power and possibility. Bianco established a shop in Paris, and was immediately successful. The first known French book of perfumes is identified as Les Secrets de Maistre Alexys de Piedmontois, which contained numerous fragrance recipes with reportedly alchemical origins.
Spring, or the Allegory of Smell by Jan Brueghel the Younger
A remarkable glimpse into ancient perfume making is presented in the allegorical painting Spring, or the Allegory of Smell
, by one of the premier artists of the Dutch Golden Age,
Jan Brueghel the Younger. Painted circa 1640, Brueghel sought to demystify the process of perfuming. By revealing the use of vials and stills, Brueghel showed it was scientific and not based in magic or realms of sorcery as was commonly believed at the time.
This painting depicts Chloris, the goddess of flowers, in the act of creating a fragrance. Her classical beauty is juxtaposed against the traditional tools of the perfumer’s trade. At her left, Brueghel illustrates the tools and process of steam distillation. Petals or flower extracts are placed into a still with boiling water. The steam transports the essence into the first glass flask, called a condenser, then into a second flask called a separator. Since the essence is less dense than water, it rises to the top of the flask to be easily separated. The foreground presents boxes of ointment recalling the technique of enfleurage. With cold enfleurage, petals are placed in drawers filled with cold fat; with hot enfleurage, the petals are plunged into a bath of hot animal fat. Once the flowers have released all their essence, they are discarded, and the fat is washed until the absolute essence has been obtained. The last raw material, the civet, or “musk cat,” lying down in the foreground, provides musk, the base and fixative of perfumes. We also see perfumed gloves, possibly in a nod to Catherine di Medici. Brueghel also included native flowers and new species recently introduced to the area. This painting is not only absolutely beautiful, but insightful and instructive as well.
French Enamel Perfume Bottle
Jacob Petit Miniature Porcelain Perfume Bottle
By the mid-18th Century, Paris boasted numerous perfume shops and fragrance artisans, and aromatic plants were being grown in the
Grasse region of France to provide the growing perfume industry with raw materials allowing Parisian perfumers to create their own fragrances, one of the most famous being Jean-Louis Fargeon. A fragrance of his containing tuberose, jasmine, orange blossom and sandalwood was beloved by Marie Antoinette.
Victorian Cut Glass Perfume Bottle
England made its mark on the fragrance world in the 19th century. Queen Victoria disliked scents that were too strong or “heady” so fragrances during this era were light and largely floral-based, with violet scents being particularly popular. Breakthroughs in chemistry allowed Victorian chemists to create stable synthetic fragrances, allowing perfumers to faithfully, consistently reproduce scents, as well as access scents they were previously unable to extract with natural methods.
Duncan Perfume Bottle by Lalique
20th Century Scents
Perfume got really exciting in the 20th century. In addition to a wider array of ingredients and production methods, a 1907 collaboration between French perfumer Coty and glass maker Rene Lalique
ushered in a new era of perfume presentation, with Lalique’s perfume bottles
for Coty, Nini Ricci, Guerlain, and Roger et Gille, among numerous others becoming instantly iconic. Coco Chanel’s launch of Chanel #5 in 1921 has been referred to as a “revolution in a bottle,” and Coty’s incredible international popularity inspired many new perfumers and perfume manufacturers as well. Though new technology and production methods made fragrance accessible to more people, the finest fragrances were still made with the rarest and most costly ingredients, with an emphasis on beautifully balanced notes, longevity and sillage, which remains true to this day.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this brief glimpse into the fascinating history of perfume art and history. We invite you to explore M.S. Rau’s stunning collection of antique perfume bottles from a variety of eras and artists.
Leach, Ken. Perfume Presentation. Toronto, Kres Publishing, 1997.