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Perfume: Essence of Seduction

January 4, 2015


The history of perfume is as old as the human being exists, as speaking about paradise; you imagine a luxuriant garden, full of scenting flowers. But nobody knows exactly when the perfume culture originated. In first instance perfumes were being used to conciliate the gods, fragrances used to have only a divine value. As in the Stone Age the people discovered the fire, and with this the scent of burning wood, they dedicated this to the gods. The word perfume derives from the Latin ;”per fumum”;, which means “through the smoke.


The Perfume in  Egypt

The Egyptians were the first who used perfume for personal enjoyment, but the production of perfume was reserved for the priests. Only they were allowed to work with the perfumery. Therefore a special lab had been arranged in temples. Much later, also queens and emperors were allowed to make use of the perfumes. The Egyptians used to mummify and embalm their dead bodies with myrrhe and cassia (a kind of cinnamon). Only the highly placed persons received scented water in their graves for the hereafter. This was discovered in 1992 by the archaeologists. When they opened the grave of Tutankhamen, he was embalmed and mummified, and they found several oil jugs in his grave. 40 years BC, under the supervision of Cleopatra, the use of perfumes in Egypt reached a climax. When she threatened to loose her power, she called for the assistance of the Roman emperor Julius Caesar. She tempted him with her beauty and large amounts of perfume. After her death, an end came to an era in which beauty and a luxury life were highly appreciated.


The Perfume in  Greece

historia-del-perfumeThe perfume arrived in Greece via the Phoenicians. This was the nation that after the Egyptians dominated the trade in the Mediterranean. The female perfumers of the Old Greek improved the Egyptian techniques. The Greek used an extraordinary amount of perfume, and for each part of the body a different fragrance. About 640 years BC the politician and poet Solon judged that this use was overdone. He restricted the sale of perfume by decree., he didn’t succeed, as perfume remained the best sold product. 

The Perfume and The Romans

436px-Pompeii_Fresco_001.jpgcon incienso

Under the influence of the Middle East and Greece, very soon the Romans became also attached to perfume. In the beginning of the Roman Empire perfume was only used at religious events and funerals of highly placed persons. On the other hand, under the domination of Nero, real orgies took place. When Nero’s beloved Popea died, he used more incense than the Arabic world could deliver in one year. The Romans were also very ingenious in creating new fragrances. They indulged, even sprinkled perfume on floors and walls. They rubbed horses and dogs with it, and during parties with highly placed persons, they spouted fountains of perfumed water.



The Perfume and the Arabs

Ernst_Rodolphe_The_perfume_makerThe rise of the Christianity made an end to the use of perfume in the Middle East. Not only in daily life, but in the religious life as well, perfumed was seen as useless. However, the Arabs did preserve it. The followers of Mohammed mostly loved musk, but also roses and amber. They used to blend the substance even with the cement of which mosques were built. One of the largest discoveries originates from the 10th century, when the still was invented, as a consequence of which the distil techniques improved. 

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The Perfume From Middle Ages till Classicism

The fall of the Roman Empire, the invasion of the barbarians and the endless wars did the Western world subside in a dark period for which perfume was hardly a place. In the 12th century this changed: the trade emerged. The knowledge of the perfume production could develop thanks to the increase of the universities in large cities, the competence of alchemists and the use of the distillation process, introduced by the Arabs. Incense and myrrhe were still the holy fragrances. In these days ladies sprinkled their fineries and homes with brushes like aspergilla for religious ceremonies. Contrary to what people often think, is that in the Middle Ages people were champion of washings and bathing.

elizapomander2A new perfume holder arose, the pomander, which was invented to preserve musk, amber, resin and perfumed oil. The metal ball had little holes through which the perfume could escape. To these scents therapeutic strengths were attributed, which would eradicate pestilence and other epidemics, and stimulate the digestion and potency. Soon Venice became the perfume capital. Within the city walls several spices, originated from the Far East, were traded. A traveller named Marco Polo, took pepper, nutmeg and clove from his journeys. The Arabic seaman brought spices from the Dutch East Indies and Ceylon. They also brought spices which were taken from China and Malaysia for Asian traders. In the second half of the 14th century the fluid perfumes on basis of alcohol and ethereal oils appeared. These scents were called ‘toilet water’. There is a legend about the toilet water ‘eau de la reine de hongrie’ made on the basis of rosemary.The legend tells that queen Elisabeth of Hungary received this perfume from the hand of a monk. The health of the 70 years old queen was poor, but from the moment that she took the extract, she completely recovered. She rejuvenated so much, that the king of Poland proposed to her.


EkaterinaMedichiAs a consequence of the discovery of America in the 15th century, Venice lost its prominent position. The Portuguese and Spaniards extended their trade. Through the Spaniards and the crusaders the perfume arrived in Europe again. Catharina de Medici initiated the perfume industry when she left Italy in the 16th century and married the French crown prince. Suddenly everyone wanted gloves of perfumed leather. The best glove perfumers came from Grasse in France. Grasse developed in such a way that this became a leading perfume city, and still is important today.In the 16th century the Dutchman played an important role in this area. Contrary to their predecessors, only occupied with trade, they also guarded the local production and improved the agricultural techniques. The amount of toilet waters increased, not only the single, containing only one ingredient, but the compound waters, containing flowers, herbs, musk and amber, as well. They were used for their medical effect, as well as blurring body odours, because despite the attention to hygiene in the Middle Ages, the opposite concerned the Renaissance, in which water was seen as a carrier of pestilence and other diseases. 


Perfume was preserved in phials, ampoules or blown glass. Next to this there was Venetian glass, crystal and white milk glass, reminding of old Eastern china. There were many kinds of pear-shaped metal bottles, made of simple or precious materials. The pomander had meanwhile got small compartments in the shape of orange parts, all filled with a different scent.


In the 17th century perfume became a tremendous success. People were so obsessed by perfume that hygiene was out of the question! In 1656 de glove perfumer appeared. Since several years the aristocracy showed no interest anymore in leather gloves, leaving a nauseating odour of paint on the skin. It was decided to sprinkle the gloves with dominating smells. The glove industry, under the direction of Louis XIII and subsequently Louis X1V took the opportunity of taking a monopoly position in the field of perfume, which was at the expense of the pharmacists, the distiller, the alchemists and the chemists.

galerie_atena_artfinding_charles_x_perfume_bottles_12060124704787 In the 17th Century the ingredients for perfume were extended with jasmine, bulbous plants and roses. Also the bottles varied more and more. The pomander became common practice and would remain fashionable till the end of the 18th century. Many pear-shaped little bottles of transparent glass and crystal existed. In the baroque period perfume cases and bottle holders with exotic illustrations appeared.

The History of The Enlightenment

The age of the French revolution is also the age of the philosophers and perfume. The court of Louis XV got the nickname the perfumed court, because every day toilet water was sprinkled on fans, furniture and clothing. Toilet water was still used a lot, however, had quite a competition with toilet vinegar, which had an incomparable disinfecting effect. The most famous is the ‘vinaigre des quatre voleurs’; this conjured miracles during the terrible pestilence epidemic of 1720.

There were four men having no fear whilst robbing dead bodies, but thanks to this invention, they were not contaminated. The arrested men would be set free provided that they would divulge the recipe of the medicine. After they did this, the recipe was published through posters which were suspended through the whole city. The secret was probably that insects kept distance.

eau-de-cologneBut the real revolution came in the 18th century. The decisive improvement in the world of perfume was caused by the introduction of eau de Cologne. This refreshing water was used in bath, wine, at a little bit of sugar, as mouth spray, enema, injection or as bandage.


The origin of eau de Cologne is very debatable. You could dedicate a whole book to this. One anecdote is about a battle between two families: Feminis and Farina. The unbelievable story of the Farine family from Emilia is that they had developed the new water which actually should have been named eau de Bologne. The most accepted anecdote is the one of the convent of Santa Marina Novella in Florence where in the 14th century nuns prepared acqua de Regina. The success was so enormous that in the 17th century a certain Giovanni Paolo Feminis tried to seduce the Mother Superior of the convent in order to fish the secret recipe out of her. This man was pharmacist in Cologne and he wanted to trade his discovery as soon as possible. First the scent appeared under the name of eau admirable, which later was changed into eau de Cologne. Feminis asked his cousin from Italy to come over in order to develop his business till 1766. But the story doesn’t end here. In Colgone in the year 1865 39 boutiques with a sign named eau de Cologne could be found. A certain Jean-Marie-Farine (true or not) distinguished himself and settled as perfumer in Paris in 1806. He had a talent for doing business and the quality of the product was good. Napoleon, one of the biggest users of this water, used this with sugar. Another version from 1792 leads us to the establishment of the Muelhens bank in Cologne, where Wilhelm, son of the banker, married. One of the guests, a monk, gave the young couple a parchment with the recipe of the healing water ‘l’acqua marabilis’. The just married couple introduced the water on the market under the name 4711, La veritable eau de cologne. Two centuries later, it was still traded by Ferdinand Mulhens, as an heir of the family.

4711-fabrik-blechschildThe bottles in the 18th century consisted of as many shapes, as scents and applications. In a gold-plated vinaigrette a sponge was soaked with aromated toilet vinegar. Liquid perfumes were contained in pear shaped bottles in the Louis XIV style. The glass was very successful in France, particularly since 1765 when the glass factory of Baccarat opened. And also thanks to the glass works in Saint Louis, specialized in perfume bottles. The crystal glass became very famous and still is.


The History of Perfume during 20th Century

At the end of 19th century nearly 2 000 people were working in the French perfume industry, and with 1/3 of the export profit was made.The gold and silversmiths produced gold bottles wrought with silver, combined with jasper or rock-crystal. The designs broke with the baroque lines, and were based on fashion, the return of the nature – which was so beloved by Rousseau – or chinoiseries. The last decorated the china bottles from Chantilly. The factories of Saint-Cloud distinguished it selves by gold-plated ornaments and the factories of Sévres by pear shaped bottles.

The china is particularly heritage of the German, Austrians and English. A factory in Chelsea specialized in statues of which the head forms the lid. Wedgwood introduced blue-white bottles, and in the German Meissen china was produced for the first time in Europe. Preference was shown for the illustrations in rococo style of flowers, fruit, Eastern designs and battles. There were also bottles in the shape of human beings, like the bottles from Chelsea, which depicted mainly persons from the commedia dell arte. In the 18th century also the toilet bag and cases containing little bottles filled with aromatic oils were introduced. Often these cases contained also tooth brushes, pencils, cotton swabs and a little funnel for filling up bottles.

laliqueThe world exhibition of Paris in 1900 became the crown at this success. The perfume pavilion was magnificently decorated with in the middle a fountain connecting the different exhibitors.


These exhibitors had asked famous art nouveau artists to decorate the spaces. Hector Guimard, a famous designer, had designed bottles for perfumer Mailot, and the graphic designer Alfons Mucha distinguished himself at Houbigant. Gradually a new perception of perfume existed. Besides the scent, other elements became important, such as the bottles, the wrapping and the advertising. Perfumers started to cooperate with famous glass manufacturers such as Lalique and Baccarat, designers and the world of advertising. The cooperation between the perfumer Francois Coty and Rene Lalique became one of the most fruitful.


perfume-1The crystal manufacturer Lalique had the possibility to improve his techniques and produced, next to perfume bottles for Coty, also bottles for other perfumers, like Guerlain and Molinard. Other glass manufacturers contributed to the development of the industrial era, for example Baccarat who produced many bottles for Guerlain, and glass manufacturer Brosse, who broke through in the Twenties with the austere and pure bottle for ‘Chanel no. 5’ as well as the famous black ball of arpege for Jean Lanvin. Perfumes developed more and more, and got increasingly on solid ground. Francois Coty was the first perfumer who mixed natural and synthetic scents. His l Origan from 1905 is the first famous modern perfume. In 1917 he created chypre. This perfume was at the head of a whole perfume family with the same name and with a touch of oak moss, laudanum, patchouli and bergamot, and with so-called oriental scents, also called amber, they developed and had a pervasive, soft spicy, vanilla or sensual aroma. These we can still smell in l Heure bleue and Shalimar of Guerlain, as at the end of the 19th century the synthetic products caused a revolution in the composition of perfumes.

descarga (2)And so a new generation of perfumers would radically change the perfumery. In 1911 Paul Poiret, a couturier, became already famous by liberating the woman from the corset. He was the first who got the idea to create a perfume as supplement to a fashion line. He called his first perfume Les parfums de Rosine in honour of his elders daughter, but his commercial approach was not so good. Gabrielle Chanel did much better when she introduced the perfume Chanel no. 5 at the market, developed by Ernest Beaux.

In the Thirties scents appeared with the indication cuir (leather). This indication referred to the scent of leather and floury scents (Scandel of Lavin, or cuir de russie of Chanel). The flower scents expressed in perfumes like Je reviens of Worth (1932), Joy of Jean Patou (1935). After the second World War chypre-like perfumes such as Femme of Rochas (1944) and l’Air du temps of Nina Ricci (1947) caused a new dimension in flower scents. In the Fifties the French perfumery reached the climax of its glory. After Poiret, Chanel, Worth, Lanvin and Patou all big fashion names were engaged with perfume. Elsa Schiaparelli (the temptation of her bottles was caused by the original design). France had the most famous perfume designers in the world, among others Edmond Roudnitska, who caused a small revolution in the perfumery, by using hedion in his beautiful creation for men: Eau savage’. In this period the perfumes for men because rapidly very popular, and the competition increased by the introduction of overseas fragrances.

cp4Today the perfume is a luxury industry as never before In recent years the emergence of small and exclusive fragrance brands have been marketed. Known as niche fragrances, brands such as, Amouage, Montale perfume, Xerjoff, Parfumerie Naturelle, Bois 1920, Odori perfume are bringing back the high quality fine fragrances of the past perfume artisans. These fragrances contain the finest oils from all over the world and have revived the passion of perfumery for so many. 

The exclusiveness of these niche brands also appears in the handcrafted and sophisticated bottles that makes that art becomes perfume.


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