The History of Perfume – Years of Fragrant Potions

In keeping with people’s desire to look the best, smell the best, feel the best – be the best – perfume has played an important role throughout history. Most of us don’t think of how long perfume’s been around – we just know that we like to apply the fragrance we love, to make ourselves feel attractive. Well, if you look at the history of perfume, you’ll see that its original purpose wasn’t quite the same. And we’re going to do just that right now.

The first perfumes were part of religious rituals

The beginnings of perfume use can be traced back thousands of years to the early Egyptians. The first perfumes were actually incense, which explains the actual origins of the word "perfume". It comes from the Latin words, “per” and “fumus”, which mean “through” and “smoke”. So it was through the burning of resins and woods that these fragrances were achieved. And they were used for religious ceremonies.

Perfume was developed together with the first cosmetics, but they weren’t made to attract the opposite sex; they were made to attract the goodwill of the gods. The Egyptians were very spiritual people. That’s why they took the art of making perfume so seriously – they thought the gods would smile down on them if they smelled good, and if they surrounded themselves with these perfumes. In fact, they took that idea with them after they died. Many containers of perfumes were buried in tombs. They were also used for embalming. The more perfume they used, and the stronger the perfume, the more likelihood they’d have of going to heaven.

As an example of this, when Tutankhamen’s tomb was discovered, there, surrounding the body, were pots of oils and fragrances. When the tomb was opened, there was still a trace of the strong fragrance detected. And that was 3,300 years ago! Now that’s strong perfume!

Perfume use started becoming more personal

For many years, perfume use had been restricted to the priests who performed the religious ceremonies, and also to the very wealthy. Those rich enough and influential enough to have perfume, started to indulge in it for more personal reasons. In keeping with the idea of being spiritually clean, they figured that they could please the gods even more if they not only filled the air with perfume, but covered themselves with it, too.

This led to the practice of soaking fragrant woods and resins in water and oil, and rubbing the liquid all over their bodies. As this practice continued, the priests relinquished their hold on the precious fragrances, giving others the right to use them. In an effort to create a perfectly clean society, people were commanded to perfume themselves at least once a week.

The next logical step for this was for the people to start using perfume in their baths. The idea of the luxurious bathhouses of the Greeks and Romans came from the Egyptians. They bathed themselves enthusiastically. The oils helped to protect their skin from drying out in the hot climate. This was also the beginning of creams and ointments for moisturizers.

Perfume containers have always been attractive

The Egyptians treated their perfumes with great respect, and believed that only the best containers were good enough to hold them. Every effort was made to produce especially beautiful containers. They used exotic materials, such as alabaster, ebony and porcelain. When glass was first made in Egypt, it was considered more precious than jewels, so that became the preferred material for their perfume containers.

Take a look at the bottles and containers that perfumes are sold in today, and you’ll see that this practice hasn’t changed for thousands of years. Today’s perfume bottles are as attractive as they always were. And now, manufacturers are getting very innovative with their bottle designs.

Perfume making is passed on through the ages

When the Greeks and Romans moved into Egypt, they loved the perfume oils and ointments the Egyptians used. They quickly learned how to produce them, and started adding their own touches. It’s said that the Greeks were the first to make liquid perfume, although it wasn’t anything like today’s perfume. To make their perfume, they used a mixture of fragrant powders and heavy oils – no alcohol.

The Greeks had high regard for certain flowers, especially the lily and the rose. So any fragrance similar to those was considered to be the best. They used oils, like olive oil and almond oil, to capture the fragrances of the flowers. Added to the lilies and roses were anise and orris root. The Greeks loved to bathe with these fragrant oils, men and women alike, and they used them on all parts of their bodies, both before and after their baths.

This practice was rampant in the Roman baths, where there would be all kinds of jars and pots of fragrant oils, in all shapes and sizes. The Romans bathed three times a day, so they needed to keep lots on hand. They even put perfume on their pet dogs and horses. And at their feasts, they’d put perfume on birds’ wings, and let them fly around the room, releasing the fragrance as they went. They also put perfume on their furniture. And the servants wore a variety of aromatics, too. It was quite a fragrant society!

Perfume makes its way around the world

There was a slight decline in the use of perfume for a while when Christianity started to spread. The Christians thought it was too indulgent. And then when the Roman Empire fell, the use of perfume really decreased. But, because they didn’t believe in Christianity, the Islamic community kept the use of perfume alive.

As the ages wore on and international trade routes opened up, the art of making perfume spread throughout the known world. This led to it’s revival around the 12th century. As more countries got involved in the art, different aromatics were discovered to make new fragrances.

The possession and use of perfume became a status symbol, a sign of prestige. Only those with money to spare could afford the expensive fragrances. Rich Europeans bought aromatic gums that had been shipped from China. Those who owned large amounts of fragrant oils were well respected.

The Arabs played an important part in the progression of the perfume industry. An Arabian doctor/chemist named Avicenna, developed a distillation process that extracted oils from flowers. The first flower he tried his process on was the rose. Up until then, liquid perfumes had been made from mixtures of oil and crushed herbs or petals, which made quite strong perfume. Avicenna’s process produced much lighter rose water, and it quickly became very popular.

Fragrances flourish in France

In the 17th century, perfume caught on in France. Being the romantics that they are, perfume was a natural for adding a sensual touch. The French used perfume on their clothing, like perfumed gloves. They also put it on their furniture to make their rooms smell fragrant.

But the big advance in perfumery came in the 18th century, with the creation of eau de Cologne, which was a blend of rosemary, neroli, bergamot and lemon. The use of eau de Cologne didn’t stop at fragrances – the French used it in their drinks, in their food, as a medicine to be taken orally or injected, and even as an enema.

Another part of the perfume legacy that the French had adopted was the ancient Egyptian art of making perfume containers. The French made all kinds of fancy perfume bottles, prompted by the opening of the Baccarat glass factory in 1765.

As the 19th century rolled around, developments in science and chemistry opened up a whole new world for the perfume industry. And the French didn’t let anything stop them from their wide use of perfume, not even the French Revolution. In fact, they actually used it for an excuse to introduce a new perfume, called “Parfum a la Guillotine.” Sounds like a “heady” fragrance, doesn’t it?

The town of Grasse created their own French Revolution

There’s a little town in the southern French region of Provence called Grasse. It was here that a revolution in the perfume industry began. Grasse became the world’s largest supplier of raw materials for the perfume industry. Here’s how they did it.

Every year, in May, the people of Grasse harvest their “crops”. You could see dozens of people out in the fields, carefully hand-picking the pale pink flowers of the Rosa centifolia, or May Rose, as it came to be known. Their petals are the most sought-after ingredient for making fine perfume. But many petals were needed to produce a small amount of perfume. Just to produce one kilogram of rose absolute, which is what they called the fine concentrate made from the petals, they needed 300,000 May Roses.

The process of making rose absolute took quite a while, using solvents for a long period of extraction. The result of the process is a waxy, blood-colored substance which, when treated with alcohol and distilled, leaves the pale yellow rose absolute. Because this is such a lengthy and refined process, rose absolute is very expensive – one kilogram costs over $9,000 USD, and is enough to make a few hundred bottles of perfume.

This extract became very popular all around the world. However, countries like China, India, South Africa and Morocco, using their cheaper labor and larger farms, produced a copy of rose absolute that they’d sell to perfume makers around the world, undercutting the price of the authentic Grasse product.

But the French continued to produce the best perfumes in the world. One of the pioneers of French perfumery was Jean Patou, who introduced his world-famous perfume, Joy, known now as “the costliest perfume in the world”. Joy is made exclusively with rose absolute and jasmine, and costs about $120USD for 50ml. Joy was originally created in 1930 for Jean Patou’s rich American clients who’d lost both money and heart, as a result of the Wall Street crash.

Two other perfumes made with the fine rose absolute are Guerlain’s Shalimar and Chanel No 5. These are the frontrunners in authentic, high-fashion perfumes, as are most of the expensive French perfumes.

The perfume industry takes off

Over the last forty years, the perfume industry has boomed. To give you an idea of how fast it’s expanding, in 1993, there used to be about one new perfume launch every week. Now, there’s one every day, with each company trying to one-up their competition with expensive, innovative, and glamorous launches.

Through the second half of the 20th century, there were many changes in the styles and fragrances of perfumes. It seems that they change in accordance with the dominant lifestyle of the day. For example, in the 70s, white florals and florientals (a combination of florals and orientals) were the popular perfumes. Then, in the 80s power fragrances took over. And in the environmentally-aware 90s, fresh ozonic and sweet notes were the preference. Now, in the new Millennium, freedom of style is the theme.

Perfume launches rocked the 70s

We’ll mention some of the leaders in the perfume race, as the years went by. One of the earliest in the big launches was in 1970, when Yves St Laurent introduced Rive Gauche in France. But it was the United States that really started the big launch explosion. Women were becoming more independent, and were buying scents to wear throughout the day, not just for evening occasions. They started creating fragrance wardrobes, with a variety of perfumes, one to suit every occasion.

One of the first US launches was in 1973, when Revlon introduced Charlie. The women loved it! And that was the beginning of the powerful American influence on the perfume industry. All the famous fashion designers adopted a fragrance that would match their own unique style.

Then other countries followed the American lead. In the United Kingdom, Mary Quant introduced Havoc in 1974. Havoc was a perfumed body spray that was geared to the younger generation who didn’t have as much disposable income to spend on expensive perfume. It was also lighter because the spray was dispersed on a larger area. And if they so wished, women could spray a little into the air, then just walk into it, giving a total coverage.

Japan was also entering the fragrance market with their own creation, a fresh green floral perfume. Shiseido used it in their launch of Inoui. The green floral caught on quickly, and was used in similar perfume launches, like Chanel No 19 in 1971, Estee Lauder’s Alliage in 1972, Private Collection in 1973, and Hermes’ Amazone in 1974.

Not to be left out of the profitable perfume business, jewelers started introducing their own fragrances, like Van Cleef and Arpels, who launched First in 1976.

Then the men’s fragrances started to appear. Christian Dior introduced Eau Sauvage, a scent that drove the women wild!

And the launches got wild, too. In 1977, YSL (Yves St Laurent) launched Opium, which was so controversial, it was nearly banned in the US. Estee Lauder countered with Cinnabar soon after.

In 1978, a slight turn was made in perfume trends, when Cacharel launched Anais Anais, which was a white floral, as opposed to the popular green of the day.

Flamboyancy and impact were the trends of the 80s perfumes

The 80s came with a booming economy and a trend towards showy creativity. Strong and powerful fragrances were designed for the yuppies. All kinds of big names created their own perfumes, led in 1981 by Giorgio, by Giorgio of Beverly Hills.

Then Christian Dior outdid themselves with Poison, a perfume that was advertised to create love-hate feelings. It’s floriental fragrance was so powerful (37%) that some New York restaurants banned it because it was overcoming the aroma of the food.

The trend in powerful perfumes continued with the introduction of Calvin Klein’s oriental-scented Obsession in 1985. That was followed in 1989 by Samsara by Guerlain, which was heavily overdosed with sandalwood.

Some of the other showy florientals introduced in the 80s were Clandestine, by Guy Laroche, Panthere by Cartier, Lou Lou by Cacharel, Happy Diamonds by Chopard and Boucheron by Boucheron.

Some of the less powerful scents introduced in the 80s were Paris, by YSL, Jardins de Bagatelle by Guerlain, and Beautiful by Estee Lauder.

The less successful 90s lead to softer, quieter perfumes

One of the first fragrances launched in the 90s proved to be the most successful. Within four years of its introduction, Tresor, by Lancôme, had become one of the top five best-selling fragrances in Europe. Another fragrance that became a global hit was Amarige by Givenchy.

The 90s also brought a freshness in perfumes, prompted by growing environmental awareness. Fragrances had oceanic and ozonic notes, for example, New West for Her by Aramis, followed soon after by Escape by Calvin Klein, and Dune by Christian Dior.

As the world shrunk, more countries joined the perfume industry. The Middle East and East Asia created many designer perfumes, but they also came out with what they called “me-toos”, or “copy-cat fragrances”. This helped to broaden the perfume market to include those who had smaller budgets.

Today’s perfumes are for men and women

Although the women’s fragrance market is the bulk of the industry, men’s fragrances have taken a firm foothold. Some examples of men’s cologne available today are Pi by Givenchy, Baldessarini by Hugo Boss, Pleasure for Men by Estee Lauder, Miracle Homme by Lancôme, and Eternity by Calvin Klein. Men are becoming more fashion conscious these days, as is evident in a surge in the use of men’s cosmetics.

Now, fragrance counters are a favorite place to go to buy gifts, whether it’s for a man or a woman. And speaking of gifts, keep in touch with all the perfume launches – many of them come with gifts with purchase, which means you spend a certain amount at the counter, and you get a free gift. And those gifts are usually quite substantial.

And if you don’t have a lot of time to spend shopping for fragrances, then try shopping online. Once you know what kind of perfume suits you best, all you need to do is sit down at your computer, and after a few clicks, you’ll have your favorite fragrance ordered, soon to be delivered to your door. What could be simpler?

So, although the history of perfume is a long one, it’s by no means over. The perfume industry is rapidly expanding, changing with the times, and forever bringing you the best in fragrances. So get with the times, and find a fragrance that enhances your natural scent. And soon, you’ll be greeted by those wonderful words, “Mmmm, you smell good!”

About the Author:

Arden Mellor is a successful home based freelance writer, one of experience and diversity. The knowledge brought to you through Arden's articles has been designed for simplicity. The world is much too complicated, and Arden’s contribution to the world is to bring the complexities of life into a simpler arena, one that anyone and everyone can understand and use. Arden writes many informative articles on such topics as beauty & makeup, discount fragrances and cosmetic dentistry, and our wishes are that you benefit from the wisdom presented in these articles in making life simple.

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