We can say with conviction that perfume is as old as humanity, for there were surely herbs and flowers with beautiful scents long before human beings arrived on the worldly scene. But our knowledge of the earliest history of the use of perfume is vague and and has recently become even more so.
Perfume historians, working through time, felt they had reached firm ground with the series of murals in Queen Hatshepsut’s temple in Thebes, which show an Egyptian fleet sailing off to fetch myrrh and other exotic aromatics from the Land of Punt 3,500 years ago. Myrrh and frankincense, staples of ancient perfume, grew only in south Arabia and Somalia, so somewhere there, after sailing down the Red Sea, lay Punt. Or so it always seemed.
Now it has been convincingly shown that the Egyptian ships journeyed up the River Nile, going further than ever previously believed possible and finding the land of Punt on the shores of Lake Albert, in Uganda. But frankincense and myrrh do not grow in that region, so we are back into uncertainty. Perhaps it is just as well. Perfume has always thrived on a little mystery and mystique.
In those very early days incense was as important as fragrant oils. Our very word perfume is Latin for “through smoke.” Incense wafted prayers to the gods in heaven as much as it pleased the olfactory nerves and concealed bad drains. The famous kyphi incense, a heavy concoction, was burned in the temples at every sunset as well as in the homes at night.
The Greeks and Romans
The Egyptians made perfumes and unguents too, steeping fragrant plants in oil and wringing out the liquid through a cloth, or soaking flower petals into fat which absorbed and preserved their fragrance. The ancient Greeks, whose perfumers were women, enlarged and improved their Egyptian inheritance, and by Roman times vast quantities of myrrh and frankincense imported from Arabia were being supplemented with magical new ingredients collected by sea from India. The richer Romans indulged to excess. Floors and walls were sprinkled with perfume, pet horses and dogs rubbed with it, the standards of victorious armies sprayed with it. Rose petals were scattered in abundance. But the Empire, like the perfumes, did not
The Arabs and Europe
A major step in the history of perfume occurred in the early Middle Ages, when the Arabs developed a technique for the large-scale distillation of plants. Huge areas of Persia were put to growing roses for rose oil and Baghdad of the Arabian Nights tales became a city of fragrances. Powerful new scent materials were found, too, like musk, which was even mixed into the mortar used to build new mosques and palaces to make them scented.
For centuries perfumery was an Arab art, almost forgotten in northern Europe. Then Crusaders began to return from the Levant with wonderfully fragrant concoctions in their luggage – gifts for wives and girlfriends – and a new demand was stimulated.
The first stage of European perfumery really began in the sixteenth century when Catherine de Medici, coming from Italy to marry the future king, made perfume the fashionable thing in Paris. Suddenly everybody wanted gloves of perfumed leather. The best place to get them from was Grasse, which was to thrive on this trade and develop its fragrance industry so effectively that it was soon the perfume capital of the world.
Right into Victorian times the basis of perfumery had changed little from the days of Queen Elizabeth I of England. Techniques were improved, of course, and the “juice,” as perfumers now name their product, became more sophisticated, better lasting, finer scented. But then the industrial age arrived and the middle classes, suddenly much richer, found perfume being produced on an industrial scale which they too could now afford. The change was made possible by the development of synthetics. With them splendid fragrances could be produced on a large scale. But perfumers had to learn a lot more about chemistry in order to do this.
Fragrance and Fashion
Once clothes began to be mass-produced, fashion gave perfumery another huge fillip. As the couturier Paul Poiret was the first to understand, a well-dressed woman was a fragrant one, perfume adding to her glamour. Jean Patou echoed this; to him perfume was “one of the most important accessories of a woman’s dress.” At first couturiers such as Worth would give their clients little bottles of perfume as gifts； then, like Lanvin, they began to sell them within the store. Soon they found they could make more money from the perfumes than from the dresses.
Nowadays, a dress designer will add glamour to his or her reputation by issuing a profitable signature perfume, while the couture of famous firms like Dior, Givenchy, or Yves St Laurent may be completely subsidized by their revenues from successful fragrances.
Perfume does not, of course, sell itself, and a huge industry has built up around the processes of marketing it. First and foremost it must have an attractive bottle. But the packaging too can greatly influence sales and there are now large companies that specialize in providing this.
Advertising has always been important, as the high artistry of early advertisements reveals. The press and television are now used lavishly and in a major launch several million “scent strips” with samples of the fragrance may be placed in magazines. Extra glamour is often introduced by using a famous model or film star as the face to be associated with the perfume——like Kate Moss with Obsession or Elizabeth Hurley with Estee Lauder Pleasures.
Launching one perfume into the worldwide market nowadays can cost several million dollars. But the rewards of success make that well worthwhile. If it is a real success it may become a classic, an overused word these days which ought really to be reserved as an accolade for a perfume that has defied fashion changes and lasted on the market for at least a generation. If you can still buy the perfume your mother used when she was a girl, you can be assured that it will be a very good perfume indeed.
Ingredients and Processes
Until late in the nineteenth century the preparation of liquid scents was almost entirely a matter of blending fragrant oils extracted from plants, although a few ingredients of animal origin were used as well. Sometimes this extraction was an easy operation, sometimes prolonged and the yield very small. Occasionally it was impossible, so the perfumer’s skill would instead be directed toward mixing other fragrances together to provide a passing imitation of the original.
Most people will think of plant fragrances as the scent of flowers, but it is surprising how many different parts of a plant can produce fragrance. Essential oil, also called essence, is obtained from flowers, buds, leaves, stems, wood, fruit, seeds, bark, gum, and rhizomes. In some cases the whole of a plant contains fragrance; in other cases different essences can be conjured out of different parts of the same plant. The bitter (or Seville) orange tree, for example, provides both neroli and, by another process, orange-flower oil from its flowers, together with oil of bigarade from the fruit peel and oil of petitgrain from the leaves, twigs, and small, unripe fruits; all of these oils have a different fragrance and are used in perfumery.
Among flowers, those with the thickest petals contain the most oil and, with the exception of the rose, white flowers generally tend to be the most fragrant.
Over time more and more plants yielding essential oils have been discovered, so that the perfumer, primarily a chemist, must also be a botanist, with some 500 to 600 different usable plant fragrances at his or her disposal. But this quantity of perfume ingredients is nothing compared with the huge range of synthetic fragrances, with complicated chemical names, which the perfumer can now use. Here the number available is several thousand. They are not often mentioned by name when writing about perfumery – hexahydro hexamethyl cyclopentabenzopyran doesn’t sound very romantic in a perfume context, but it has been widely used to synthesize the fragrance of musk. In Worth’s Je Reviens it is indeed a chemical, amyl salicylate, that provides the key floral element in the fragrance.
Nowadays, chemical ingredients will usually form the majority of a perfume’s constituent parts, providing not only fragrance but also the means of improving other fragrances, making them more compatible with each other or inducing them to last longer. Such chemicals are referred to as fixatives. While we needn’t say much about the chemicals (or synthetics) because the matter is a highly technical subject, one group has to be mentioned, and that is what are known as aldehydes. They’re derived from alcohol and some natural plant materials, and were discovered at the end of the nineteenth century. They were first brought into perfumery by Ernest Beaux when he created Chanel No.5. They have various uses: anisic aldehyde, for example, provides the scent of hawthorn； decylic aldehyde helps to reproduce the smell of violets; and they can give a fragrance a distinctive odor of its own and a new richness and strength.They must also be used extremely carefully and only in minute quantity——one drop of the raw material spilled accidentally on your clothing can make you smell unpleasant!
The ability to make a perfume last is a key element in a perfumer’s skill. These days older women often comment how the great classic perfumes seem to fade much more quickly than when they were young. One of the reasons for this is that modern perfumes are mostly made on a large commercial scale in a factory and no longer contain the rare animal ingredients which, besides being so powerful, were so long-lasting and such excellent fixatives.
The principal animal ingredients that were once staples of the top perfumers were:
Ambergris For centuries nobody knew its source; it is a substance excreted by a sperm whale after eating cuttle fish and found in lumps of varying size floating in tropical seas or washed ashore. It must be weathered for at least three years before use.
Musk Grains (or seeds) from a walnut-sized pod removed (harmlessly) from the male musk deer of the Himalayas. The strongest fragrance of all. A drop left on a handkerchief can last for 40 years.
Civet A butter-like secretion taken from a pouch under the tail of the civet cat, found in Ethiopia, Burma, and Thailand.
Castoreum (castor) A creamy, reddish-brown secretion taken from sacs on the beaver; used – at first by Arab perfumers – since the ninth century AD.
In their original state these ingredients are so powerful that they are quite nauseous – they must be enormously diluted before they become fragrant. But, in any event, on top of animal-rights objections, the available supply is far too inadequate for them to have any place in modern commercial perfume manufacture. Their use is confined to the specialist perfumer using older methods, and perfumes containing them will be extremely expensive. Nowadays, in the mainstream of commercial practice they are all synthesized.
We’ve already touched on the processes for extracting essential oils, but these need clearer definition. They are：
Distillation When plant material is placed in boiling water the essential oil containing the fragrance evaporates with the steam； the steam is then condensed back into water, where the oil floats on top and can be collected.The process may be repeated to obtain an even purer oil. Late in the nineteenth century the process was much improved with steam distillation, under which the steam was condensed in narrow pipes passing through cold water.
Extraction by volatile solvents Fragrant material is placed on a perforated metal plate in an “extractor” and a volatile solvent, such as ether, is passed over it and led into a still, where it condenses into a semisolid mass called “concrete.” Concrete consists of essential oil plus a waxy substance known as stearoptene. The two can be separated by another technique using alcohol, leaving the oil in the purest and most concentrated form possible, termed as the “absolute.” It is an extremely expensive product. Tuberose absolute, for example, now costs more than its weight in gold.
Enfleurage This is a technique used by the ancient Egyptians and continued right through to the twentieth century. By laying flower heads on oil or fat, which absorb fragrance, perfumers could take advantage of the fact that some flowers continue to produce essential oil for a while even after they have been picked. In France this was done commercially from the seventeenth century, particularly with jasmine, using sheets of glass coated with treated fat, which was then dissolved with alcohol to recover the oil. The method was extremely labor-intensive and is no longer used.
Expression This is the method usually used to obtain fragrant oil from the rinds of citrus fruits. The rinds are crushed between rollers and the oil is then separated by centrifugal force (in other words, spinning so that the oil is thrown out from the pulp).
There is one other way of making fragrant material for use in perfumery that has only recently been developed. It is a system called “head space technology,” or “living-flower technology,” and enables the fragrance of, in theory, virtually anything to be reproduced – a flower scent or, should you so want, the smell of old boots.
In effect, a fragrant object, say a flower head, is placed inside a special container and a vacuum is induced. For a while the flower will exude its scent inside the vacuum. After, say, half an hour the exudation is drawn off into a gas chromatograph machine, which exactly analyzes and measures the constituent elements of the fragrance exuded.
By assembling the same chemicals in the same proportions on a much larger scale, the fragrance can then be reproduced in much greater quantity. The technique is new, sometimes impossibly expensive, and presents many complications, but it has given perfumers an entirely new approach to perfume creation and many recent commercial perfumes now include fragrances made in this way.