The Birth of Modern Perfumery

The history of fragrances is as old as mankind itself. The Ancients sacrificed man, then beast, then precious fragrance. Even before people began to decorate themselves and their surroundings, they were attracting each other and their gods through the use of fragrances. In the beginning, they simply used flowers, herbs and resins, but soon discovered that resins and balms gave off fragrance with a special intensity under the influence of heat. The ancient Egyptians used perfumed resins which they often burnt as offerings to their gods and as a physical pathway connecting heaven to earth: this phenomenon was to give us the name perfume from the Latin per fumum—through smoke.
The raw materials were so rare, so precious they were reserved solely for kings and gods. To make your gods merciful, you sacrificed the most precious things you had—gum resins such as frankincense and myrrh—a practice that continued throughout the centuries. En-route, for example, certain discoveries such as that of alcohol and solvent extraction (which produced oils that were both pure and stable), and the development of synthetic chemistry, were to facilitate the advent of modern perfumery which started at the end of the nineteenth century, blossomed in the twentieth century, and is bourgeoning in the twenty-first century.
The ancient Egyptians associated perfume with immortality; their Pharaohs were wrapped in bandages impregnated with aromatic oils such as pine, spices, myrrh, and cedarwood. Perfume was to become a way of life and the spices and resins entering Europe from the Middle East became more precious than gold.
Egypt was one of the first countries where fragrant oils were used to smooth and perfume the skin; Egyptian women even wore cooling cones of perfumed wax on their heads. It contained a wick which was lit; the wax would gradually melt and trickle down their faces and bodies, enveloping them in fragrance. Egyptian enthusiasm for perfume reached its zenith during the reign of Cleopatra, who was probably one of the most avid fragrance worshippers of all time. She used so much scent on the sails of her barges it was said that her approach could be detected miles downstream—which begs the question did men really fall at her feet because of her beauty or were they intoxicated and beguiled by the amount of scent she wore? This is a theme which re-appears in Greek mythology when sirens used scent to lure unsuspecting sailors to their death.
Fragrance was so prized in ancient Egyptian culture that Pharaohs were buried with scent to take with them on their journey to the after-life. One of the most important fragrances of the period was known as Kypi or Kyphi. This fragrance was used in association with worship of the god Ra and was burnt at sunset. Its formula was found written in the hieroglyphs in the tomb of Tutankhamen along with small vessels containing the scent which was still fragrant after thousands of years. Kypi is the oldest known documented fragrance formula and, in a way, is the perfumery equivalent to the Rosetta Stone. It is interesting that Egyptian alchemists truly understood not only the subtlety but also the inherent power that fragrance has to produce a desired effect. (As the University of Japan researched and recreated this fragrance, they found that it had the ability to induce a soporific state—one has to ask was this something that the Egyptians somehow knew or was it discovered just by chance?)
During their enslavement the Hebrews learnt the art of perfume-making from the Egyptian priests who they often assisted in the manufacture of fragrance. This knowledge travelled with them in their exodus as they fled their captors. Many of the aromatic oils the Hebrews used are recorded in the Old Testament and some of them, such as rose, jasmine, and ambergris are still used by perfumers today.
The Greeks adored perfume too and many of their legends and poems refer to the Greek gods’ love of scent. Their poets often talk about the uses of fragrance—Homer extolled its use in bathing and massage—its healing properties, as well as other aspects of what we would call aromatherapy today. Many of their thoughts and practices still influence us: as it was Apollinius who said “perfumes are sweetest when the scent comes from the wrist”, and who is not familiar with that habit today?
This love of perfume continued with the Romans who were greatly influenced by the Greeks. Essential oils were used in abundance. The Romans scented everything—their wives, their slaves, their horses and saddles, even their houses were made with mortar that contained scent so that when the sun shone on them the very fabric of the building itself exuded aromas. It was an olfactory orgy—they even founded a separate woman’s senate whose role was to decide both the quality and style of perfumes, thus setting the idea of ‘fashionable’ scent and etiquette for its use.
In the Middle East, the paradise of Mohammed was said to be filled with perfumes and mosques which were typically buildings of great beauty were often made even more perfect by the addition of a small quantity of musk added to the mortar. Rose oil and rosewater date from the period when the famous Persian physician and philosopher, Avicenna perfected the process for distillation of oils and discovered alcohol-the universally usuable miracle. A byproduct of this process is scented floral water and, hence, the common use of rosewater, both in edible delicacies and finger bowls in this region today.
Meanwhile, the ancient Britons’ toilette was far from sophisticated and consisted mainly of protecting the body from harsh weather by body painting—distinguishing a freeman from a slave as well as an allegiance to a particular tribe or ruler. Eventually freemen transferred these designs, or arms, from their bodies to their shields, becoming the origin of a family’s coat of arms.
However, the Roman conquest of Britain was to change the country beyond recognition as they brought with them civilisation, scents, cosmetics, and luxurious baths. The Romans introduced many fragrant plants, as little grew naturally. Bay, which takes its name from the Anglo-Saxon word for “crown”, was one of the few to grow and was made into crowns for returning generals, as perfume itself was either too scarce or too expensive. They also put bay leaves into their baths to not only perfume them but soothe tired limbs and muscles. This is where the expression “keeping at bay” derived as it was believed that the plant could ward off the plague. Whilst the Romans were the first to bring perfume to Britain, the luxury and extravagance of its use was relatively short-lived. As the Romans left Britain so the general use of perfumes and the many toiletries which the Romans had brought with them ceased.
Whilst incense was already being used in the English Christian Church as early as the consecration of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey on 28 December 1065, perfume was to go out of fashion during the Dark Ages and interest in it was not really stimulated until the Crusaders brought exotic essences back with them from the Middle East during the fourteenth century.
In Hungary, during this epoch, a ‘potion’ was created that became legendary throughout Europe, as it was thought to have almost magical properties. It was made for Queen Elisabeth of Hungary (Elisabeth of Kujavia, 1305-1380, Queen consort of Hungary and Regent of Poland) by her apothecary. This scent was first known as “The Queen of Hungary’s Water”, and later just as Hungary Water; it was a perfume based on rosemary and was the first known alcohol-based fragrance. It is the precursor to eau de cologne and was still being made until the turn of the twenty-first century. The Queen used it to refresh her skin, and also drank it—it was believed to keep her forever young; a myth perpetuated until she died at the age of 75—an impressive lifespan for the time.
The little town of Grasse, with its perfect microclimate, nestling as it does in the area of the Alpes-Maritimes, has a longstanding association with the use and production of aromatic oils. Grasse was to shape what has become a multi-billion pound industry. Traditionally, it was where some of the worlds finest leather gloves were made, however, as the skins were soaked in urine as a means to softening the leather they needed to be scented. Local glove-makers looked to the perfumed oils which were readily available in the region and used them to further soften the skins whilst affording them a somewhat more pleasant scent!
When Catherine de Medici married King Henri II of France in 1547 she brought with her, her own perfumer, Rene le Florentin. He found an abundance of beautiful materials in Grasse and used them to create scented leather for the gloves being made for King Henri II. Upon receipt of the scented gloves Henri ordered more: the Kings court followed suit so that the new rage, the must have accessory, were scented gloves—scent and fashion literally did start ‘hand in glove’.
This union of gontier-parfumeur, glove-maker cum perfumer, continued and, by the nineteenth century—as Paris became one of the worlds great cultural centres—the demand for perfume and perfume materials out-weighed the demand for leather products from Grasse. Inevitably leather-makers either closed down or transferred their manufacture to scent.
In Britain, King Henry V had commissioned a golden ball filled with scented materials including musk and ambergris. In 1422, he carried his gold ‘pomander’ at Agincourt believing it to have protective properties against plague (this is most likely to also be the inspiration of the clove-covered orange. However, scent really came into general use in Britain during the fourteenth or fifteenth year of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign: whilst they were used directly on the skin for enjoyment, it was precious scented leathers that were all the rage. Charles Piesse wrote in his book, The Art of Perfumery, 1880, that the Earl of Oxford gave Elizabeth a suede jerkin, which complemented the shoes she favoured made from scented Spanish leather, or peau d’Espange (which he states was sold in Bond Street at one shilling per square inch). So whilst scenting the body was accepted by the wealthy, washing was viewed with scepticism by the masses, a fact that was compounded in 1630 when Charles I introduced an excise duty on soap, making the stench from the unwashed so strong that fashionable gentlemen fround that civet was the only smell which would mask it, and thus the civet cat became the sign of the perfumers shop in London.
In 1680 Louis XIV of France was referred to as “the sweetest smelling king”, and perfume became the rage at court. In Britain it was still largely used for the purpose of hiding the somewhat unpleasant rather than pleasurable aromas. In 1643, Louis renewed the Perfumers’ Charter, which decreed that, for a perfumer to be admitted into the Company of French Master Perfumers, they had to serve an apprenticeship of four years, followed by three years as a ‘companion’ to a master perfumer.
The differences across the Channel grew as, in Britain, scenting the skin was far from being uppermost in people’s minds (during the Great Plaque of 1665, the stench was made even more unbearable by the dead and dying, so the Lord Mayor of London ordered sulphur, salt-petre, and ambergris to be burnt constantly in the streets). Today this idea of fumigation seems strange to us but, in the nineteenth century, the Pasteur Institute found that cinnamon and thyme killed yellow fever micro-organisms, while other research concluded that cinnamon killed typhoid bacillus in 45 minutes and lavender oil tuberculosis bacillus in 12 hours. After the Plague, hygiene became more of a priority, perfumed baths became fashionable and ‘sweating houses’ emerged, becoming as common as ‘gin shops’.
However Britain was not a pawn to France and, in some ways, developed perfumery as quickly and inventively as its neighbours. Britain’s approach was very different. Whereas the French had been using scent to hide the stench of urine emanating from their leather, one of the first British perfumers, Charles Lillie, started to add scent to snuff, (which was so fashionable that The Spectator announced, on 11 August 1711, that he would give two hour lessons in how to use it ‘fashionably’ in his shop situated at the corner of Beaufort Buildings in the Strand). It was said that he was the only man in Britain to have been “bred in the business of perfumery”and he remained in business for 30 years.
Other London perfumers contemporary with Lillie were Perry of Burleigh Street, and William Bayley who, perhaps, inspired by the article in The Spectator, opened a perfumery in 1711, in Long Acre. (He later moved to Lockspur Street under the sign of “Ye Olde Civet Cat”).’
As early as the seventeenth century civet paste could be purchased easily in Britain from chemists and by the eighteenth century, it was the essential ‘must have’ for any fashionable gentleman. It is interesting to think that civet, with its inherent faecal odour, was the scent of choice for the discerning gentleman. It is most likely the only material that was able to mask the rank stench of the all-pervading bestial natural emanations of London and those who inhabited it.
In 1712, a process developed that revolutionised the extraction of citrus oils. Until this date such oils had to be extracted by softening the skin in warm water before squeezing the oil out by hand: this was very labour intensive and gave small yields. The newly developed process used mechanical grinders which pushed the skin against rows of spikes forcing the oils out in greater quantity than had previously been possible. This enabled the universally popular citrus notes, which are the main component of eau de colognes, to be more readily available.
1730 saw Juan Famenias Floris set up in Jermyn Street and, in 1800, he supplied George IV, the then Prince of Wales, who gave him a Royal Warrant in 1812. The Floris Eau de Cologne was made for them by the Farina Brothers who created the original eau de cologne in Cologne during the 1730s.
Another important perfumery opened in Britain in 1770, launched by William Yardley who started macerating Norfolk lavender in bears’ grease. By 1824, the year of his death, his lavender was famous and, by the end of the nineteenth century, Yardley was the largest lavender manufacturer in the world. Over time the firm gained a worldwide reputation for lavender scented products, to such an extent that the names Yardley and lavender have become inseparable today.
In Paris in 1767, another very important house was founded when Michael Adam opened a boutique entitled La Reine des Fleurs (which, in 1774, became the House of Piver, under the name LT Piver et Cie). This firm, alongside Houbigant, which was established in 1775 was to become one of the great French perfumery houses. Jean-Frangois Houbigant opened his perfumery on the fashionable rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore; it was to become one of the most influential houses in the development of modern perfumery when, in 1882, their perfumer, Paul Parquet created the first fragrance to contain coumarin—a naturally occurring synthetic known as a natural isolate. This scent—Fougere Royale—was revolutionary, being the first to be part of what are now recognised as fragrance families. It was ground breaking and and forged the way for the birth of modern perfumery; influencing the creation of Guelain’s Jicky in 1889, which is generally recognized as the world’s first modern perfume. Both houses were established as gantiers-parfumeurs, but the French revolution was to create a new taste for more delicate scents, in the guise of 4711 Cologne, sold by a young banker named Mulhens in the 1790s. It was used as a medicine as well as a perfume and Napoleon became highly addicted to the fragrance. When the French occupied Cologne Napoleon insisted all properties should be numbered; Mulhens’ was the number 4711, which was scratched on the door and circled with a sabre—the circled number can still be found on the labels today.
These great houses were joined in 1798 by Pierre-Frangois Lubin who founded the House of Lubin with the sign “Aux Armes de France” in rue Sainte-Anne, Paris. Together with Houbigant and Piver they were to shape, and make possible, what was to become the French perfumery industry as we know it; that industry was developed by several other ‘founding fathers’, one of the most important of which was Guerlain.
Pierre-Frangois-Pascal Guerlain studied medicine and chemistry in England but returned to Paris with the hope of becoming a perfumer. He was unknown and no shop wished to sell his products. Fortunately for him, his uncle owned the fashionable Hotel Le Meurice, and allowed him to open a small boutique there in 1828. He was very successful; through his work at the boutique, he got to know his customers tastes, creating individual fragrances for them. Later he trained his son, Aime Guerlain, to become a perfumer, and this belief in his son proved worthwhile as it was Aime who created Jicky; the foundation of the great Guerlain dynasty.
As the perfumers clientele looked for greater novelty and, as the rivalry between the houses grew, a very important development was to take place that would change the face of perfumery forever. In 1832, J Mero et Boyveau formed a specialist company in Grasse to distil essential oils and were the first company to use solvent extraction (which had been invented by Joseph Robert, the founder of the influential dynasty of perfumers—Henri Robert who created Chanel No 19, and Guy Robert who gave us Caleche and Madame Rochas). This was the perfumery equivalent of the big bang as it allowed oils to be extracted in a stable and intense form from a myriad of materials, most of which had not been available before. This resulted in the expansion of the perfumers palette and, along with the discovery of synthetic materials brought about modern perfumery as we know it.
Two other important houses to open in this period were Bourjois and Molinard. In 1863, Alexandre-Napoleon founded the House of Bourjois in rue Meslay in Paris. It specialised in theatrical cosmetics before extending into perfumery and, in 1928, it launched the perfume for which it became best known, Soir de Paris, which was made by the creator of Chanel No 5, Ernest Beaux. Bourjois was eventually to merge with the House of Chanel, whereas, at the opposite end of the country, the chemist named Molinard opened a perfumery in Grasse, at La Place du Cours-Honore-Cresp. The Parfumerie Molinard became widely known for the quality of its perfumes, particularly Habanita, 1921, which was one of the pioneering oriental scents, and their solid scents known as Concreta.
Modern perfume still had not been born when the first great houses of Houbigant, Piver, Guerlain et al emerged, and the scents of this period were mainly floral, whilst for men, anything more adventurous than civet was frowned upon as effeminate. Even the days of Bay Rum had yet to come.
As the nineteenth century drew towards its final phase the Industrial Revolution, which both facilitated and fuelled the modern industry, had changed life as it was then known. This was no more prevalent than in the world of perfumery, which in the second half of the century moved from the alchemist, the herbalist, and cottage industry, to the nebula of the industry we recognise today. As scientists unravelled the molecular structure of fragrant oils and their constituents, and latterly started synthesising them alongside other fragrant chemicals unknown in nature, combining them with further experimentation, many new irresistible components were discovered. These, when skillfully blended with a high proportion of natural materials, gave rise to true creative perfumery, such as the aforemention fragrances of Fougere Royale and Jicky, heralding the golden age, and fame and fortune for many houses. After a slow start, each olfactory discovery gave way to an unstoppable momentum.

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