Incense Stories

The ancient kingdom of Saba cast a spell over the Greeks and Romans. Cut off by the sun-scorched deserts of central Arabia,these remote southern regions with their exotic exports of incense and spices were considered mysterious and fantastic by the early classical writers. And the Sabeans played up the mystery. They guarded their myrrh and frankincense groves fiercely, deliberately spreading rumours that the groves were watched over not only by them, but also by winged quadrupeds and serpents. Fabulous tales and mythologies sprang up about Arabian perfumes and Indian spices: cinnamon was said to be gathered from the nests of phoenixes, and bats were rumoured to snatch out the eyes of anyone who went cassia picking. Stories like these kept the prices high and the trespassers away, which was exactly what was intended.

As early as 2000 BC incense was considered essential for eternal life; it was thought to be the gateway to the spirit world and, by 450 BC, Herodotus was recording that Arabia ‘was the only place producing frankincense,myrrh .. . and cinnamon,, The privilege of tending the trees and gathering the incense was the preserve of three thousand families who cloaked the whole process in religion and mystery, which also helped maintain its high price. Herodotus wrote that ‘The [men]…of these families are called sacred and are not allowed to …[meet] a woman or [to attend] funeral processions when they are engaged in making incisions in the trees in order to obtain the frankincense.’

Incense was used not only as a spiritual cleanser but also as an early form of hygiene. Strabo mentions the Assyrian post-coital custom of burning incense for purification, while in other parts of the classical world incense was burnt to arouse passions before sex. Writers such as Sappho and Ovid emphasize the erotic properties of incense, and it is said that Egyptian women used to fumigate their vaginas with myrrh smoke. Yemeni women today still stand with their skirts over incense burners.

The Scythians, the trans-asiatic nomads of the Steppes, were addicted to perfume. Herodotus wrote that ‘The Scythian women bruise under a stone wood of the cypress and cedar, with frankincense; upon this they pour water until it becomes of a certain consistency. This imparts an agreeable odour and gives the skin a soft and beautiful appearance.’ They invented a novel vapour-bath too by throwing this paste and some hemp seed on to hot stones beside the bath. It is said that the Scythians enjoyed these scents so much that they squealed with pleasure.

The Greeks attributed a fabulous origin to the resin of myrrh, telling that it came from the tears of Myrrha, daughter of the King of Cyprus, who had been metamorphosed into a shrub after she fell in love with her father and tricked him into sleeping with her for twelve nights.

Myrrh was also believed to have magical effects; its elusive fragrance was thought to have supernatural powers and the ability to banish bad luck, and incense burners filled with juniper and myrrh were placed on thresholds to protect the household from evil spirits.

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Sandalwood

Eight-five percent of the sandalwood grown for perfume comes from the province of Mysore. Sandalwood trees are parasitic and scraggy. They absorb the roots of neighbouring trees and plants, such as guava and bamboo, and suck the life out of them. But once sandalwood trees are mature they are felled, and it is the oldest trees, those between thirty and fifty years old, that yield the best-quality oil. Sandalwood is a heart note in perfume: it has both a cool and yet an aphrodisiac odour and it is also an excellent fixative.

The trunks and roots of sandalwood trees are pulverized and the dust is distilled. The best oil comes from the heartwood, and from the roots. In the first distillation process the oil is siphoned off in a funnel, then it is redistilled. The steam distillation method is used,without chemicals, and the whole process takes four days. After distillation the oil is boiled in great cylindrical drums, then separated from the water by siphoning and decanted into flasks. When sandalwood is being distilled there is a lovely, balmy, oily aroma from the steaming copper cauldrons, which has a wonderfully calming effect.

About 1,000 kg of sandalwood dust yield 55 litres of oil. In its purest form, sandalwood oil looks like liquid red gold. Sandalwood is usually associated with incense and soap, but a sublime,voluptuous perfume is also made from the warm, expansive essential oil.

Sandalwood has been highly prized for centuries. Its oil is mentioned in Indian texts from as early as 500 BC: the sandalwood trade was established between India and the Mediterranean in ancient times. Indian courtesans rubbed their breasts with sandalwood paste – it contains a steroid similar to testosterone – and sandalwood paste was also used for fumigation, religious purification and for embalming royal corpses. It was so lavishly used that Confucius recorded that the great sandalwood forests of the East were in danger of depletion. There is a shortage today, too. Supplies of sandalwood have dried up because the trees have been culled but not replanted. Sandalwood trees are now listed as a protected species to prevent excessive culling; each piece of Mysorian sandalwood is registered and stamped to ensure its authenticity and there is now a five-year waiting list for sandalwood oil.

Sandalwood retains its sweet, penetrating scent for years and Indian cabinetmakers and craftsmen still carve ornaments and chests from it because of its scent. In Kashmir a statue of Buddha was carved entirely from sandalwood, and after the Queen of Sheba visited Solomon and presented him with many scented gifts, he commissioned pillars for his temple, and harps and lyres to be carved from sandalwood.

 

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Scent: Sacred and Secular

According to the Vedic texts, some of the world’s most ancient documents, in ancient India fragrant woods were lit and fed with consecrated perfumed ointment and offered to the Hindu gods. In Hindu mythology there are five heavens and they all abound in perfume. The Jupiter of the Hindus, Indra,is always portrayed with his breast tinged with sandalwood, while Kama, the god of love, had a bow and arrow tipped with flower blossoms. The god Brahma was born from a lotus flower which grew from Vishnu’s navel, and the principal ornament of Brahma’s heaven is the blue champak flower, which, on earth, is white and belongs to the Magnoliaceae family. It has a lovely, overpowering scent and is still cultivated for perfumery.

In the first millennium BC the priests were the perfumers, and the skill of grinding up pastes to make incense and unguents, using hundreds of ingredients, was considered a mysterious and esteemed art. High priests kept the sacred fires burning by sprinkling incense on charcoal in censers at the altars. At Heliopolis the sun worshippers burnt gum resins at dawn, myrrh at noon and kaphi (more commonly spelled ‘kyphi,),a mixture of aromatics,at sunset.

In Europe, in the Middle Ages, gardening was restricted – because of the constant threat of invasion – to protected places. Aromatic and medicinal plants were cultivated in the cloistered herb gardens of the monasteries, where the monks and nuns manufactured scent for its medicinal properties. Their knowledge of alchemy and their recognition of the curative powers of scent helped them in their development of new recipes for perfume and medicine. Monks had their own distilling equipment and various orders like the Dominicans, the Carthusians and the Franciscans vied with each other to make the best scents and herbal extracts. When they began to distribute them, their perfume preparations made their monasteries famous throughout Europe.

Perfume has been made by the Dominican monks at the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica at Santa Maria Novella, in Florence, since the 1220s. It is the oldest pharmacy in the world and was founded when the friars began to distil herbs and flowers to make essences, fragrant waters and elixirs. The perfumery and pharmacy still exist, and as you walk into the Officina Profumo the aroma of the herbs, leaves and flowers of the Tuscan countryside, its woodsmoke,lilacs and pine, the twiggy smell of rosemary in summer, the herbal mimosa-like smell of the yellow broom and the wild woody smell of the cypress haunt the vaulted chapel.

The preparations made in the monastery became celebrated not only in Italy but throughout Europe, and medicines were ordered from as far afield as China. Over the years each new abbot set out to devise a new recipe to add to the fame of the Order. In the middle of the nineteenth century the Officina was handed over to the Italian state, but all the original recipes – which the friars invented and perfected over the years – are still kept there. In the fifteenth century Fra Angelo Paladini made an almond paste, a lily water and a cosmetic vinegar, which were very popular with the Tuscan courtiers. In 1707, another abbot, Fra Ludovico Berlingacci,discovered and made his famous ‘Life Elixir’, which included viper flesh.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the scents were bottled and put into small boxes or cases shaped like books, whose covers were embossed with ornamental devices in gold or coloured pigments, and in Pepys’ Letters it is recorded that his nephew John Jackson, who was making a grand tour of Italy, sent his uncle ‘one small book of Florence essences’.

Curative potions made by the monastery, such as ‘Vinegar of the Seven Thieves’,which restored those prone to fainting, and an anti-hysteric water, are all still made, as are all kinds of scented and antique pharmaceutical preparations – from pomegranate soaps to rose elixirs – made from every ingredient you can imagine. There is an iris toothpaste, a myrrh mouthwash and colognes made from Aqua sicilia, mimosa, honeysuckle, tobacco and Spanish leather. A medieval pot-pourri was also made which was left to mature for months and lasted for years.

The Greeks and Romans were known to have anointed different parts of the body with appropriate scents: mint for the arms, palm oil for the breasts, marjoram for the hair, ground ivy for the knees, perfume extracted from vine leaves kept the mind clear and white violets were used to help digestion. St Hildegarde, in her twelfth-century book Le Jardin de Sante (The Garden of Health), wrote about the therapeutic properties of sage, aniseed, thyme, rosemary and, above all, lavender. Plants and animalic substances were researched for their uses to combat plagues and, in the fourteenth century, Olivier de la Haye recommended spreading aromatic plants and sprinkling vinegar and wild roses on floors, as well as burning incense pans of rosemary and juniper berries to disinfect houses. People with maladies disinfected their mouths and hands with an aromatic wine flavoured with pepper, cinnamon, ginger, musk, cloves and mace. Then in 1370 a remedy for many illnesses appeared. It was called a boule de senteur – literally a ball of scent – and was made from aromatic vegetals and animal extracts which people inhaled. These boules de senteur later developed into the more sophisticated pomanders.

Directions for making holy oil can be found in Exodus 30:23-4: ‘Take thou also … three principal spices. Of pure myrrh, 500 shekels, and of sweet cinnamon half so much, even 250,and of sweet calamus 250 shekels. And of cassia, 500 shekels, and of olive oil a hin.,A shekel is an ounce and a hin is a gallon, so this is a huge quantity. Incense was made from pulverized spices – especially cinnamon and perfumed cyprinum, the odoriferous leaves of henna – into psagdi (pastilles of incense), which were tinted green with extracts of henna flowers, Cinnamon also infused holy anointing oil.

In the Middle Ages, perfume was also, naturally, used in the churches of the orders who made it. At Mass, resinous incense billowed from censers and vases of scented water were used at baptisms. But perfume also came into general use. Maisons de bain, or bath houses, were built and filled with aromatic herbs and perfumes. A sybaritic scene from a medieval miniature of one of these public bathhouses depicts couples immersed in huge wooden tubs of water, while servants dispense flacons of wine to the bathers. Beside the bathers another couple lie resting in a four-poster bed.

Banqueting rooms were filled with chaplets of roses on feast days and by the fourteenth century violet, orange and lavender waters were used by ladies of noble birth. In 1365 Charles V of France planted a garden of sage, hyssop, lavender, roses and violets. Musk, amber and civet, and oriental cinnamon, benzoin and sandalwood were also much in vogue. Agnes Sorel, the mistress of Charles VII of France, was so enamoured of ambergris that she had her cloaks soaked in the stuff. One of the most popular scents of the time was made from a melange of chypre, Damask rose, sandalwood, aloes, musk, ambergris and civet. Iris roots were also ground into a powder that gave off a soft violet scent, which responded well to the smell of skin and was thought to be aphrodisiac.

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Fragrant Pharmacy, or Aromatherapy

In the 1920s Renne-Maurice Gattefosse discovered that essential oils could penetrate the skin through the blood and lymphatic systems. He coined the term aromatherapie and his book of that name, published in 1937,examined the anti-microbial effects of oils. Since then work with aromatic oils has been called Aromatherapy.

It is said that Gattefosse conclusively proved that oils contain therapeutic properties when he burned his hand in a laboratory explosion and then plunged it into a bowl of lavender oil. Others in the laboratory were amazed at the speed of the healing process on his hand, proving that lavender is the most curative of oils for burns and wounds.

All oils are natural antiseptics, and some are anti-biotic, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory or anti-bacterial; some are stimulant and others are sedative. Oils are collected in different seasons; for instance, pepper oil is extracted from unripe berries; coriander oil when the fruit is ripe; and sandalwood – which is becoming increasingly rare – can be extracted only when the tree is more than thirty years old.

It is a popular misconception that aromatherapy is a relatively new form of treatment and/or a fad. All the ancient civilizations used essential oils, not just for anointing themselves but also as palliatives for pain and as mood enhancers. Traces of cedarwood, clove, nutmeg and cinnamon have been found impregnated in mummies, bandages.
Indian Ayurvedic medicine and aromatic massage is three thousand years old. The use of oils spread to Greece and Rome and around the time of Ovid, when Jesus was born, Rome had as many perfume shops as Greece. Petronius wrote, ‘Wives are out of fashion, mistresses are in; rose leaves are dated; now cinnamon is the thing.’

Hippocrates advocated that, ‘The way to health is to have an aromatic bath and scented massage every day.’ During a plague he urged Athenians to burn aromatic oils to protect them from infection and there are many treatises by ancient physicians and botanists, such as Marestheus, Pliny and Theophrastus, on herbal medicine. The consensus was that the best recipe for health was to apply sweet scents to the brain. Knowledge of oils and their properties was gathered over thousands of years and, in the eleventh century, a Persian physician and philosopher called Avicenna discovered distillation and the healing properties of oils.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries several books on aromatherapy were written, often containing advice that is still followed 400 years later. We know today, for instance, that eucalyptus oil can prevent viruses from spreading, just as the famous sixteenth-century English herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper, wrote: ‘The oil drawn from the leaves and flowers [of eucalyptus] is of sovereign help. Touch the temples and nostrils with two or three drops for all diseases of the brain.’

Herbalists passed their knowledge down from generation to generation right into the eighteenth century, but then herbalism was eventually replaced by new chemical drugs and was not reinstated until Gattefosse burnt his hand in the early twentieth century.

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Lancome – The Story of a Brand Name

When Armand Petitjean founded Lancome in 1935 he was already fifty years old, with several careers, several countries, and several lives behind him. These previous lives were to influence the development of the brand’s identity, and he was never to forget South America,whe he had long worked as an importer of manufactured goods from Europe; nor would he forget his successful period with the French Foreign Office. And then there was his collaboration with Francois Coty, who had initiated him to the perfumer’s subtle art, and from whom he had just parted, to create his own brand.

Coty was renowned as the father of modern perfumery, and had created rare and exclusive fragrances, but in Petitjean’s eyes he had committed the ultimate crime: in search of volume, he had gone down-market. Armand Petitjean was going to take up the challenge; his was to be a prestige brand, or nothing.

And he was not alone. A group of colleagues was ready to undertake the adventure with him. Among them were the d’Ornano brothers, the chemist Pierre Velon, and Georges Delhomme, Coty’s former design director. All of them had admired their leader, all had felt deceived by the new turn of events.

While they were creating their first products, Armand Petitjean was also searching for a name for their new business. At one point he considered using the name of the village where he was born, Saint-Loup, but it did not sound feminine. He dreamed of a name that should have a truly French sound, that would echo famous historical names like Brantome, Vendome… Guillaume d’Ornano suggested the name of a chateau in the Indre department, named Lancosme. All they had to do was to change the silent “s” for a circumflex , and the result was perfect – a French name that everyone could pronounce, written with the specifically French circumflex. Lancome, symbol of Franee.

Armand Petitjean was short, with a meticulously kept moustache and pointed beard, always impeccably dressed with pastel shirts, white collar and cuffs. He was extremely courteous, always taking his hat off to even his humblest employee, but his eyes—an innocent sky-blue when he wanted to charm someone——could change in a second to a steely gaze. He was, it seemed, always on his guard, always totally self-controlled, in the service of the task he had set himself.

“Why did I create Lancome?” he said one day, “Because I had seen that two American brands had taken control of the beauty industry. A French brand should be up alongside them.”

Petitjean orchestrated Lancome’s first appearance with great skill. In 1935, he launched five new fragrances simultaneously, presenting them to the world at the June opening of the Universal Exhibition in Brussels. For the period, these were surprising perfumes, surprisingly packaged, with a richly baroque character at odds with the fashion for minimalism. Tropiques, Conquete, Kypre, Tendres Nuits, and Bocages, as well as their bottles ornamented with gold, orchids, green forests, or moldings of cargo ropes, were a snub to the ascetically geometric Art Deco of the moment. As their creator, Georges Delhomme, was to say later, “During the thirties, less of anything was more chic. In your apartment, nothing on the walls. If you had a new painting, you showed it to visitors, then put it away. Perfume bottles were square or rectangular, flat. We wanted to do the opposite.” This quintuple launch had been carefully calculated. For Armand Petitjean, a perfumer didn’t exist unless he had international status. He had to offer fragrances to suit every taste, for all women, on all five continents. In fact, Petitjean succeeded in capturing a world of multiple cultures in each fragrance. Here’s how he described his perfumes some years later to a class of techniciennes at the Ecole Lancome:
“…Tropiques is like honey. With its heavy coating of spices and aromatics it frightens off most of the English and the northerners, although it may appeal profoundly to women of society and artists. Conquete, a concentrated fragrance of roses on a chypre base, will please any woman who likes to be noticed when she enters the theatre or a restaurant. The freshness and relaxed style of Bocages is perfect for younger women and will seduce Swedes, Norwegians, Belgians, Germans, and the women of northern France. Kypre should be treated like a Burgundy; it needs to age in the bottle, like the wine. In our climate, it is more of a perfume for winter and for festivities, but in the East and in South America, it appeals in all seasons…”

The man who created these five fragrances was, bien sur, ver attracted to women. And whether they were from the north or the south, society ladies or artists, he dreamed of them as, above all, elegant. One of the earliest advertisements for Lancome shows us two women, a brunette and a blonde, wearing sumptuous negligees and seated by a long oval dressing mirror. The silky garments flow over their bodies, illustrating without revealing; their hair is permed, their eyebrows plucked; and the blonde is holding the special Lancome perfume bottle, its stopper encrusted with glass jasmine flowers. It is the quintessence of thirties’ elegance and of Petitjean’s idea of beauty, which he saw as inextricably associated with elegance. And isn’t elegance what France does best?
The result of the launch was excellent for the image of Lancome; the five fragrances won a double medal at the Brussels exhibition. But sales figures were less brilliant – perfumeries didn’t know what to make of this new-born brand and didn’t support the product. Petitjean’s bold gesture, however; clearly revealed the heights of his ambition.
The following year, he nevertheless had his feet firmly on the ground and let fall this historic description: “Perfume is prestige, the flower in your buttonhole. But beauty products are our daily bread.”

Because he wanted to reinvent the concept of beauty he turned to science, with the aid of Dr. Medynski, a professor at the veterinary research establishment in Maisons-Alfort, just outside Paris. He had recently discovered how to stabilize horse serum, an essential step in creating more effective skin-care products. Together, Medynski and the industrial chemist Pierre Velon perfected a nutrient cream which contained not only natural serum but also active ingredients based on proteins and vitamins. This innovation was called Nutrix. “La Nutrix,” as it was known, was described as “a regenerating night cream,” and quickly became a panacea, used for sunburn, stings from plants and insects, chilblains, frostbite, and razor burn. The British minister of defense even recommended it in the fifties as the only known remedy for radiation burns in case of nuclear war….
The sales promise, too, was astonishingly in advance of its time: “Nutrix guards against skin deficiencies by encouraging the skin’s self-defense mechanisms.” It is an approach which foreshadows the biomimetic research that is one of the major activities of Lancome today. In passing, it is noteworthy that Nutrix has become a skin-care product fetish and still has many supporters.

In 1938, Lancome makeup, which had been in existence since 1935,took its turn center stage, when Armand Petitjean created another counter-current product. At that time, the fashion was for indelible lipsticks that lasted because they dyed the lip tissues. Unfortunately, they also dried out the lips. Petitjean created Rose de France, a pale pink lipstick with a soft texture that would give the customer “lips…soft and gleaming like a baby’s.” It was a sensual product, with a rose fragrance, and, supported by the Conquete line of face powders (in eighteen shades, from golden brown to palest ivory), it was to be a best seller until the fifties.

The brand had rapidly established itself with three branches of cosmetic activity, each with its own emblem: a rose for perfumery, a cherub for makeup, and a lotus flower for skin-care products. In 1939, Lancome was only four years old but had already established its international ambitions by opening up markets in all the corners of the world. Orders were coming in from Oslo, Bogota, Algiers, Shanghai… And it was at this point that World War II broke out.

The War in 1914 had changed Armand Petitjean’s destiny in South America, from importer to international man of affairs and spokesman for the French government. And in France, his new-born business had been a cosmetics producer like its competitors until World War II. But the shortage of materials meant halting production of fragrances, makeup, and skin-care products. The product catalog shrank. As happens with brilliant minds, this setback inspired a brilliant response. If production is restricted, we must use what we’ve got. Why not concentrate on training our people to the highest levels?

It was in this spirit that he created the Ecole Lancome, whose first classes were held in Paris on February 9, 1942, at the height of the war. Petitjean, who after the first great European conflagration had refused offers of posts as Ambassador and as Minister of Propaganda in Clemenceau’s government, was now preparing to train a battalion of women to be ambassadors for Lancome. It was his philosophy that these ambassadors would be the most elegant, most efficient communicators of the Lancome message. They could accomplish more than advertising. They were to promote the values of the brand and of French culture by demonstration and through what he called “propaganda.” He was convinced that direct word-of-mouth communication was the surest way to build a reputation. And, who better than women, trained and knowledgeable women, to talk to other women about beauty? Lancome, already the first cosmetics company to be conceived as a vehicle for cultural values, thus evolved a purpose-designed training center, where technical representatives were trained to promote Lancome—and thus, France – far and wide.

Hand-picked students——never more than twenty—— received a thorough scientific and artistic training at the Ecole Lancome. They studied anatomy and physiology, the technology of skin-care products and the techniques of selling (hence the name “techniciennes”). They had courses in drawing and modelling, in makeup – Charles Dullin, one of France’s leading theatrical personalities came to teach stage makeup – and of course, massage and auto-massage. Massage was at that period very much in vogue, with books on beauty devoting whole chapters to the subject.

“The true preventative against the stigmata of premature aging is facial massage,” reads Marie Marelli’s Les soins de beaute scientifiques, a very popular book published in 1936. One of the great names in this field was Professor Leroy, recognized as a master of massage at the Imperial Court of Japan, and it was one of Leroy’s pupils with an international reputation, Dr. Durey, who became the Ecole Lancome’s massage teacher. Surprisingly, he taught a special system of facial massage without cream or oil, le massage a sec, developed especially for Lancome, because it enabled a more precise massage of the delicate facial tissues.

But Dr. Durey’s massage went further than the simple physical treatment. He insisted that the body and mind had to be treated together. “You can only give an effective treatment if you are sympathetic,” he wrote, “The beauty adviser who feels, ‘How pleased I shall be to see this woman become more beautiful,’ already has hands that have unconsciously become more tender, more adaptable and benefic; waves of energy flow through her in an instinctively beneficent rhythm. As the treatment begins, movement by movement a harmony is created between the two people. The aura of the beauty adviser is activated. The patient relaxes, even sleeps.” This is a massage, and a message, that the Institut Lancome could still be proud of today.

The perfumery course was given by Armand Petitjean himself. There exists a copy of his course notes, typed on onion-skin paper. And as he left no interviews, it is the only record of the way he spoke. Here we find the trace of Coty, the great Coty at the height of his powers and fame: “Coty was a builder. In front of his chateau at Montbazon, he had a terrace built that created the same impression as his fragrances: clear, solid, magnificent. In his view, a drawing room could not be other than circular or oval. Galleries had to be broad. His fragrances were conceived along just these lines.”

Petitjean regretted the passing of the fashion for clear fragrances – those from a single flower. This was mostly because of the influence of the couturiers, who introduced far more complicated perfumes and made women accustomed to violent and powerful scents.
In expressing his strong opinions, Petitjean was a master of the sound bite, once saying, “l’art du parfumeur est de fixer l’aerien” – “the perfumer’s art is ‘to give to airy nothing a local place of habitation and a name'” (borrowing an equivalent turn of phrase from Shakespeare). Explaining that certain perfumes change in contact with different types of skin, especially if the woman is taking medicines, he said, “Arthritis and red hair are the death of jasmine.” His character comes through clearly from these notes: “Conquete was a demonstration of willpower. Mine. Conquete was a symbol. It was necessary to conquer the world to make the reputation of Lancome.”

After the war, Petitjean was indeed able to survey a number of conquests. While his perfumes hadn’t in fact conquered the world – events were, to say the least, unfavorable – he had been able to conquer a wide feminine market: the skin-care market. Because of his rigorous “no substitutes” policy of quality at all costs, he had created “Nutrix hunger” and an effective word-of-mouth support for Lancome skin-care products.
But Armand Petitjean the perfumer was fretting with impatience, and in 1947, he launched Marrakech. The bottle, an amphora flanked by palmettos in solid glass, had been designed by Marc Lalique, but the technical problems were too great. He passed the project to Georges Delhomme, whose hands-on knowledge of glass and glassmakers was unequalled (“You have to get your face burned over the furnace to understand”). He got it right the first time. This beautiful bottle and its magnificent presentation case, which today earns record prices at auction, were the forerunners of the brilliant launches to follow.
In 1950, perhaps the apogee of Petitjean’s administration, Lancome launched Magie. Petitjean had dreamed of this perfume for years. He had conceived of the fragrance, based on aromatic woods and splashes of jasmine, and had made over a thousand tests with George Leplieux,the Lancome “nose.” His conception for the bottle was a crystal torsade, which was brought to life by Georges Delhomme. It was perhaps one of the most spectacular creations of the fifties.

Two years later Tresor, the first Tresor, was born. This was refined oriental perfume, presented in a sumptuous crystalline container cut like a diamond. To celebrate the launch, Petitjean held a grand fete at the Palais de Chaillot, in Paris, at which guests could watch Tresor dance with Magie in a ballet by Serge Lifar, with music by Henri Sauguet. Some very pretty pages of advertising from the period still exist in the Lancome museum. One shows the bottles set against a starry night sky; the other, also against a background of stars, has two fairy-tale characters, the Eastern Prince Tresor tenderly holding the hand of the fairy Magie. The two were inseparable, at least in the world of advertising.

During these early years of the fifties, Armand Petitjean was a contented man. His family life made him very happy. He lived at Les Vallieres, a villa surrounded by extensive grounds, dominated by one of the most majestic Gingko trees in France, with a rose garden that was celebrated for its perfection. His wife Nelly was a passionate orchid grower and a talented flower arranger, whose bouquets and table decorations were a delight. Sunday lunch was a real family institution, with fifteen people (including seven children) and at least two or three guests whom Petitjean wished to honor. These included writers such as Jean Giraudoux, eminent medical specialists, and also potential Lancomian high-fliers being given a look-over by the patron himself.

On weekdays, he was a regular restaurant-goer. Lunch at Maxim’s or Lucas Carton, meals at Laperouse with the techniciennes, and every New Year a grand dinner at the Plaza Athenee for all the executives. Women got out their long dresses; men rented dinner jackets; and after speeches and a meal of splendor and elegance, all worked out to the last detail, there was music and dancing until dawn. Petitjean loved to dance, especially the waltz and the tango.

For the great charity balls and other high society events which were held at this period, he provided gifts of his fragrances in specially created, limited-edition bottles. Some, such as Bouquet de Violettes or Les Danseurs, have become extremely rare.
Petitjean the businessman was as happily situated as Petitjean the family man. His succession was assured—not by his son, Armand-Marcel, who had always said he would never work for his father, “that magnificent tyrant,” but by his grandson, Jean-Claude, who accompanied his grandfather everywhere, studied perfumery at the plant, learned ten languages, was an accomplished sportsman and athlete, and was being brought up as the future Lancome Superman.

The brand image was equally satisfying: Magie and Tresor had raised Petitjean to the status of a great name in perfumery, and women fought for his lipsticks in their finely wrought golden cases, manufactured at his jewelry plant near Annecy.
And his techniciennes, his international ambassadors, were spreading the good word all over the world. In Moscow, Nina Gaucher,of Russian descent, charmed President Khruschev and won an order of grandiose dimensions. Cecile Cristofini was sent to Central America, where Armand Petitjean asked her to persuade the local agent to pay her expenses – her ticket alone had already cost him a small fortune. The local agent agreed – and in the next few months Cecile gave personal makeup instruction to more than a thousand women … In New York, Simone de Reyssi, the little Parisienne, had an outrageous impact. She lunched every day at La Potinierev surrounded by buyers and journalists. One of them wrote, “Before you’ve finished your coffee, Simone’s magic has worked its spell and you’re convinced that Magie is the only fragrance in the world …” Wherever they went, Lancome’s ambassadresses were received like stars. In Africa, heads of state and governors welcomed them to their palaces. In Australia, there were television interviews; everywhere they went there was a half-page in the biggest daily paper…. But to win this influence, these women had had to learn it all, not just the physiology and drawing and languages, but how to do everything, from skin-care treatments and makeup to assisting a regional representative with local customs, obtaining import licenses, packaging shipments, replacing a representative at a moment’s notice, developing new markets, and, of course, sending a daily report to “Monsieur P.”

Monsieur P. had succeeded in his effort to expand his markets. Restrained during the war and the years immediately after it, exports were now booming. In 1955, Lancome products were on sale in 98 countries through 33 general agents, of which nine were direct subsidiaries. Lancome’s representatives were tireless – some of them even went literally around the world twice a year. Naturally, some countries were less welcoming -China, for example. But Armand Petitjean made no secret of his ambition – “I dream of one day selling a lipstick to every woman in China.” He had built his empire; he was its uncontested sovereign and deserved his nickname – Armand the Magnificent.

But states of grace do not last long, and suddenly it seemed that fortune, so long at his elbow, had deserted him. In 1955, Petitjean’s wife died. He was devastated by her loss and seemed to lose something of himself. The following year, his adored grandson, Jean-Claude, decided that he was going to go his own way and that he would not join Lancome. Suddenly, Petitjean felt that he had built his castle on sand – His control of the company – especially his emphasis on performance and quality in new product development – led to complications.

For the next surge of activity, he had put all his hopes in the newly developed Oceane line. It was in advance of its time – this was nothing new for Lancome – but it was too complicated. Based on the use of seawater and marine extracts, there were too many products with complicated classical names – Aphrodite, Triton, Neree, Neptune, and so on. Add the problems of a new system of classifying skin types that had five different categories, and it was clear that both representatives and distributors were going to lose their way, not to mention the consumers.

As he faced personal difficulties, he held on tighter to old certainties. At this period, he turned down an idea that was to revolutionize makeup sales, because it upset his notions of elegance. The new invention he was offered was the disposable lipstick case. “No woman worthy of the name would ever put such a horror in her handbag!” he exclaimed. He could not imagine for one second that an elegant woman, who chose her accessories with care, could ever prefer a shoddy plastic tube to his jewel-like gold-plated cases with their finely sculpted designs…The competition seized on the novelty, and Lancome’s magnificent lipstick holders – Shaker, Cle de Coquette and similar masterpieces of cosmetic jewelery – went into a free fall.

And it was just at this uncertain point in his fortunes tha work had been started on Petitjean’s show-piece production plant at Chevilly-Larue, located on the National 7 highway near Orly, the main airport for Paris. The ground had been purchased back in 1950 and marked off all around by an imposing iron grill. Within this fence was a superb estate consisting, for the moment, of shrubs and rose bushes. Early in 1957, the first stone was laid. The walls were to be of creamy Poitou stone, which keeps its color over time, and the roofing of Fumay slate, which at sunset takes on a purple tinge. Petitjean was driven to the site every day and told himself and many others that visitors leaving France from Orly would carry away, as their last memory, the sight of Lancome’s name spelled out in gold letters along the road to the airport. He had not foreseen the A6 motorway to Orly nor the new international airport that would be built at Roissy, north of Paris.

In 1961, the company’s financial situation became critical. Believing that he had no successor, Petitjean had poured his own fortune and that of Lancome into the construction of the new plant at Chevilly, just at a time when the cosmetics market was changing. The debts mounted up until the director of the company’s bank contacted Armand-Marcel Petitjean to tell him, “We no longer have confidence in your father. Lancome is a family concern. If the family doesn’t shoulder its responsibilities, we shall cut off all credit. You have 48 hours to make your decisions.”

It would shake anyone. But although Armand-Marcel had no business experience – he is a writer – he squared up to the task and took over from his father as provisional managing director, just at the moment the new plant was completed. So it was under his guidance that the move from Courbevoie to Chevilly was carried out, and on June 20, 1962, this aesthetically superb but functionally flawed “Versailles de la Parfumerie’ was inaugurated with great pomp and circumstance. The Garde Nationale formed an honor guard for personalities from politics and society. The weather was superb. The official photograph is a curious and moving document. It shows Armand and Armand-Marcel. Armand-Marcel is certainly looking at his father – watchfully? anxiously? But what is Armand the Magnificent really looking at with that quizzical expression? He seems to be gazing past his son at the splendid buildings, his lifetime’s achievement, which he is now powerless to touch.
Armand-Marcel was to spend three years at the helm of Lancome. Three years during which he had to try and adapt the brand to the new realities of the market. The Lancome team closed ranks and backed him loyally. Agents around the world responded nobly, often ordering products for a year or two ahead. Naturally, once they were overstocked, they would not be able to reorder easily, but Lancome desperately needed the money, both to pay off the mountainous debts and to maintain a viable level of activity in product creation and sales development.

Slowly at first, but then with increasing weight, the evidence piled up. Not only the banks realized the gravity of the situation, but the whole family was finally forced to see that the time had come to sell the business.

Suitors were not lacking. Rumor spoke of Revlon, Yardley, Payot. They all had a defect in common – they were not French.

When Frangois Dalle contacted the Petitjean family, his offer was built around the new financial vigor he could provide, using L’Oreal’s wide market penetration and very deep pockets to rejuvenate and give fresh impetus to the rich Lancome heritage. Negotiations were opened and finally concluded under conditions that satisfied both sides. Armand Petitjean died on September 29, 1970. He was 84 years old and had lived enough for three lifetimes. He had started modestly, had made and lost fortunes, had been an influential figure in the fierce excitements of the twentieth century, consorting with presidents and princes and the leading intellects and creative spirits of the day. It would please him to know that Lancome today sells thousands of lipsticks to the women of China, even if they are in disposable containers.

Lancome today is the leading French brand in selective perfumery, present in 163 countries. The infusion of energy and marketing know-how provided by L’Oreal has provided the strength needed to ensure Lancome’s survival without compromising the values that make up “the Lancome spirit.”

French cultural values and the French perception of elegance and beauty as a whole are still at the heart of the brand’s identity, The spirit of conquest and adventure is dynamically successful on a world-wide scale. The spirit of innovation has been amplified and perfected thanks to the extraordinary capacities of the L’Oreal laboratories, which reserve their most striking discoveries for Lancome, the group’s flagship brand. Almost every recent advance in skin-care products has been the fruit of this integrated effort. The spirit of creativity and joy is fully expressed through Lancome’s renowned makeup branch, with explosions of energy and imagination in every new collection. And the spirit of Petitjean’s original concept, of Lancome as a great perfume house, is demonstrated in all its subtle glory with successes such as Tresor, Poeme, and 0 oui!

Today, Juliette Binoche, Ines Sastre, Cristiana Reali, and Marie Gillain, like Isabella Rossellini before them, offer their multiple appeal to every woman in every country in the world. And in every major airport you will find the smile of one or the other of them and the phrase, “France has a word for beauty: Lancome.”

Armand Petitjean himself could well have chosen such a description of his dream, a dream which has today become a planet-wide reality.

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2012 FiFi Awards

Luxe Women
ANGEL Eau de Toilette by Thierry Mugler – Clarins Fragrance Group
Beyoncé Pulse – Coty Inc.
Bottega Veneta – Coty Prestige
ELIE SAAB Le Parfum – Beauté Prestige International
Fan di Fendi – LVMH Fragrance Brands
Gucci Guilty Intense – P&G Prestige
Prada Candy Eau de Parfum Spray – PUIG USA
SOMEDAY by Justin Bieber – Give Back Brands, LLC
WINNER: Tom Ford Violet Blonde – Tom Ford Beauty
Wonderstruck Taylor Swift – Elizabeth Arden

Luxe Men
A*MEN Pure Havane by Thierry Mugler – Clarins Fragrance Group
Armani Code Sport – Giorgio Armani Beauty
Eau de Lacoste L.12.12 Collection: Blanc, Bleu, Verte – P& G Prestige
WINNER: Gucci Guilty Pour Homme – P&G Prestige
Guess Seductive Homme – Coty Inc.
John Varvatos * USA – Elizabeth Arden
Juniper Sling – Penhaligon’s Inc.
L’Homme Libre – Yves Saint Laurent
Original Penguin – Falic Fashion Group
Un Jardin Sur Le Toit – Hermès – Beauté Prestige International\

Nouveau Niche Women
Armani/Privé la femme bleue – Giorgio Armani Beauty
Dahlia Noir – Parfums Givenchy
Dior Addict to Life – Parfums Christian Dior
Dolce & Gabbana The Velvet Collection: Velvet Vetiver/Wood/Love/Patchouli/Sublime/Desire – P&G Prestige
Jersey – CHANEL
live in love – Oscar de la Renta
Madison Square Park – Bond No. 9 New York
Maison Martin Margiela (untitled) – L’Oréal
Sweet Redemption, The end – by Kilian
WINNER: Tom Ford Jasmin Rouge – Private Blend – Tom Ford Beauty

Nouveau Niche Men
34 boulevard Saint Germain – diptyque
Andy Warhol – Bond No. 9 New York
Boss The Collection: Cotton & Verbena, Silk & Jasmine, Wool & Musk, Velvet & Amber, Cashmere & Patchouli – P&G Prestige
Incense Oud – by Kilian
L’Homme Cologne Gingembre – Yves Saint Laurent
New York Amber – Bond No. 9 New York
New York Oud – Bond No. 9 New York
Sweet Redemption, The end – by Kilian
WINNER: Tom Ford Jasmin Rouge – Private Blend – Tom Ford Beauty
YUZU – Caron

Broad Appeal Women
Christina Aguilera Royal Desire – P&G Prestige
Curve appeal for women – Elizabeth Arden
WINNER: Heidi Klum Shine – Coty Inc.
Moment de Bonheur Yves Rocher – Yves Rocher North America, Inc.
Outspoken Intense by Fergie EDP – Avon Products, Inc.
Samba Sport Woman – The Perfumer’s Workshop International, Ltd.

Broad Appeal Men
Bath & Body Works Signature Collection for Men Classic – Bath & Body Works
WINNER: Curve appeal for men – Elizabeth Arden
Samba Sport Man – The Perfumer’s Workshop International, Ltd.

Specialty Brand Women
WINNER: Anthropologie 1922 Lily Sanguine Eau de Parfum – Inter Parfums USA
Banana Republic Wildbloom Eau de Parfum – Inter Parfums USA
Bath & Body Works Signature Collection Carried Away – Bath & Body Works
Bath & Body Works Signature Collection Paris Amour – Bath & Body Works
bebe Gold Eau de Parfum – Inter Parfums USA
Lane Bryant Cacique Eau de Parfum – Inter Parfums USA
Lily – Crabtree & Evelyn
Victoria’s Secret Angel – Victoria’s Secret Beauty

Direct To Consumer Men
WINNER: Comme une Evidence Green – Yves Rocher North America Inc.
Zipped Premier – The Perfumer’s Workshop International, Ltd.
Zipped Soho Noir – The Perfumer’s Workshop International, Ltd.

Best Packaging of the Year – Luxe Women
ANGEL Eau de Toilette by Thierry Mugler – Clarins Fragrance Group
Armani/Privé la femme bleue – Giorgio Armani Beauty
Betsey Johnson Too Too Eau de Parfum – Inter Parfums USA
Beyoncé Pulse – Coty Inc.
Daisy Marc Jacobs – Eau So Fresh – Coty Prestige
ELIE SAAB Le Parfum – Beauté Prestige International
Fan di Fendi – LVMH Fragrance Brands
Madison Square Park – Bond No. 9 New York
Maison Martin Margiela (untitled) – L’Oréal
WINNER: Prada Candy Eau de Parfum Spray – PUIG USA
Sweet Redemption,The end – by Kilian
Wonderstruck Taylor Swift – Elizabeth Arden

Best Packaging of the Year – Luxe Men
34 boulevard Saint Germain – diptyque
Armani Code Sport – Giorgio Armani Beauty
Boss The Collection: Cotton & Verbena, Silk & Jasmine, Wool & Musk, Velvet & Amber, Cashmere & Patchouli – P&G Prestige
Eau de Lacoste L.12.12 Collection: Blanc, Bleu, Verte – P&G Prestige
Gucci Guilty Pour Homme – P&G Prestige
Guess Seductive Homme – Coty Inc.
Incense Oud – by Kilian
WINNER: John Varvatos * USA – Elizabeth Arden
Original Penguin – Falic Fashion Group
Sweet Redemption, The end – by Kilian

Best Packaging of the Year – Broad Appeal Women
Banana Republic Wildbloom Eau de Parfum – Inter Parfums USA
Bath & Body Works Signature Collection Paris Amour – Bath & Body Works
bebe Gold Eau de Parfum – Inter Parfums USA
Christina Aguilera Royal Desire – P&G Prestige
Curve appeal for women – Elizabeth Arden
Heidi Klum Shine – Coty Inc.
Lane Bryant Cacique Eau de Parfum – Inter Parfums USA
Moment de Bonheur Yves Rocher – Yves Rocher North America, Inc.
Step Into Sexy Eau de Parfum – Avon Products, Inc.
WINNER: Victoria’s Secret Angel – Victoria’s Secret Beauty

Best Packaging of the Year – Broad Appeal Men
Comme une Evidence Green – Yves Rocher North America Inc.
WINNER: Curve appeal for men – Elizabeth Arden
Samba Sport Man – The Perfumer’s Workshop International, Ltd.
Zipped Premier – The Perfumer’s Workshop International, Ltd.
Zipped Soho Noir – The Perfumer’s Workshop International, Ltd.

Media Campaign – Men
A*Men by Thierry Mugler – Clarins Fragrance Group
Armani Code Sport – Giorgio Armani Beauty
CK One Shock for Him – Coty Prestige
Eau de Lacoste L.12.12 – P&G Prestige
WINNER: Gucci Guilty Pour Homme – P&G Prestige

Media Campaign – Women
Burberry Body – Interparfums Luxury Brands
WINNER: Coco Mademoiselle – Chanel
Daisy Marc Jacobs – Coty Prestige
J’adore – Parfums Christian Dior
Wonderstruck Taylor Swift – Elizabeth Arden

Bath & Body Line
WINNER: Acqua di Gioia – Giorgio Armani Beauty
Bath & Body Works Signature Collection Paris Amour – Bath & Body Works
Cartier Baiser Volé – Cartier Parfums
Elie Saab Le Parfum Bath & Body Line – Beauté Prestige International
Maison Martin Margiela – L’Oréal
Ojon Full Moisture Collection – Ojon

Interior Scent Collection of the Year
WINNER: 34 boulevard Saint Germain – diptyque
Crabtree & Evelyn Pomegranate Grove – Crabtree & Evelyn
Juliska Candles – Nest Fragrances
Madison Square Park – Laurice & Co., Bond No. 9 New York
Niquea D Candles – Nest Fragrances
Papyrus Scented Candles – Nest Fragrances
Sir Elton John’s Holiday by Nest Fragrances – Nest Fragrances
Slaktin & Co – Island Resort Collection – Bath & Body Works
Slaktin & Co – Marshmallow Fireside – Bath & Body Works
Slaktin & Co – Winter Nights Collection – Bath & Body Works
West Elm Scented Candlepot – Nest Fragrances

Perfume Extraordinaire
Cartier
WINNER: International Flavors & Fragrances
Mane
Symrise
Takasago

Fragrance Hall Of Fame: Women’s Nominees
WINNER: 24 Faubourg – Hermès, Beauté Prestige International
Jivago 24K for Women – Ilana Jivago Inc.
Elizabeth Arden Red Door – Elizabeth Arden

Fragrance Hall Of Fame: Men’s Nominees
WINNER: Acqua di Gio – Giorgio Armani Beauty
A*Men by Thierry Mugler – Clarins Fragrance Group
Chrome by Azzaro – Clarins Fragrance Group
Issey Miyake L’Eau d’Issey Pour Homme, Beauté Prestige International

2012 FiFi Consumers’ Choice Award – Women’s
Anthropologie 1922 Lily Sanguine Eau de Parfum – Inter Parfums USA
BBW Signature Collection Paris Amour – Bath & Body Works
bebe Gold Eau de Parfum – Inter Parfums USA
Beyoncé Pulse – Coty Inc.
Bottega Veneta – Coty Prestige
Christina Aguilera Royal Desire – P&G Prestige
curve appeal for women – Elizabeth Arden
Dahlia Noir – Parfums Givenchy
Dolce & Gabbana The Velvet Collection:
Velvet Vetiver, Velvet Wood, Velvet Love, Velvet Patchouli,
Velvet Sublime, Velvet Desire – P&G Prestige
Heidi Klum Shine – Coty Inc.
Jersey – Chanel
Lily – Crabtree & Evelyn
live in love – Oscar de la Renta
Maison Martin Margiela (untitled) – L’Oréal
Moment de Bonheur Yves Rocher – Yves Rocher North America, Inc.
Outspoken Intense by Fergie EDP – Avon Products, Inc.
Prada Candy Eau de Parfum Spray – PUIG USA
Someday By Justin Bieber – Give Back Brands, LLC
Tom Ford Jasmin Rouge – Private Blend – Tom Ford Beauty
Tom Ford Violet Blonde – Tom Ford Beauty
WINNER: Victoria’s Secret Angel – Victoria’s Secret Beauty

2012 FiFi Consumers’ Choice Award – Men’s
Armani Code Sport – Giorgio Armani Beauty
WINNER: BBW Signature Collection for Men Classic – Bath & Body Works
Boss The Collection:
Cotton & Verbena, Silk & Jasmine, Wool & Musk, Velvet & Amber, Cashmere & Patchouli – P&G Prestige
Comme une Evidence Green – Yves Rocher North America, Inc.
curve appeal for men – Elizabeth Arden
Gucci Guilty Pour Homme – P&G Prestige
Incense Oud – by Kilian
John Varvatos – U.S.A. – Elizabeth Arden
L’Homme Cologne Gingembre – Yves Saint Laurent
L’Homme Libre – Yves Saint Laurent
New York Oud – Bond No. 9 New York
Samba Sport Man – The Perfumer’s Workshop International, Ltd.
Tom Ford Jasmin Rouge – Private Blend – Tom Ford Beauty
Un Jardin Sur Le Toit – Hermès – Beauté Prestige International
YUZU – Caron
Zipped Premier – The Perfumer’s Workshop International, Ltd.
Zipped Soho Noir – The Perfumer’s Workshop International, Ltd.

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The Origins of Perfume

The origins of perfume are as layered as the ‘notes’ in a classic scent. Some say scent was discovered in Mesopotamia, others that it originated in Arabia, which is still known as the ‘Land of Perfumes’. The earliest records date from Egypt, in 2000 BC, when incense was offered at the burial of mummies and perfume was believed to be the sweat of the gods.

So, when man first discovered scent he used it as an offering: aromatic gums were burnt on altars and the word ‘perfume’ (from the Latin per – through – and fummum – smoke) aptly evokes its earliest use, but it wasn’t long before men and women began anointing themselves with unguents. Chinese maidens gathered aromatic grasses for fertility rites and Pharaonic courtiers wore wigs perfumed with unguents of lilies. In Kodo,the Japanese art of perfumery (which was introduced to Japan by the Chinese in AD 500),the main ingredients were cloves and nutmeg blended with sandalwood, musk, fennel and the prized agar wood.

The first record of the secular use of perfume appears in a passage that describes a ‘chest of perfumes’ that accompanied Alexander the Great on his campaigns in the fourth century BC. The first record of trade in perfume – in the form of incense – is in Genesis, when Joseph’s brothers sold him to merchants who arrived bearing ‘spicery, balm and myrrh down to Egypt,. It is said that Cleopatra immersed herself in clouds of incense,while Alexander the Great was said to smell naturally of musk – hence his attraction to women.

Walls were sprayed with scent and musk was often mixed with mortar to make muscadine walls in the hammams. In Mecca, the mosques were drenched in perfume. When the Temple of Minerva at Elis was built, the plaster was mixed with saffron and milk so that – even today – if you wet your thumb with saliva and rub it on to the plaster it will give off the taste and smell of saffron.

The Ramayana, an ancient Indian epic,recounts that nobles were perfumed with sandalwood and warriors carried perfumed powders as part of their battle kit. The perfumer, or attarwalla, was a pillar of the Indian community and effigies of Hindu gods were washed down with musk, sandalwood and agarwood water.

Much of our knowledge of early Arab perfumes comes from a book of perfume recipes by Yakub al-Kindi (AD 803-870) called The Book of Perfume Chemistry and Distillation. In seventh-century Persia, under the Abbasid caliphate which ruled until the thirteenth century, perfume-making was refined into an art. The caliphs who controlled Persia traded with India, the East Indies and China, bringing back new materials from which to make perfume. Baghdad became the centre of the seventh-century perfume trade – there were fifty perfume shops and some fifteen hundred public baths in the city 一 and Arab perfumers traded all over the Arab empire. Returning Crusaders brought back Arab perfumes to the Christian world and, as late as the Elizabethan era, Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth bitterly complained that ‘All the perfumes of Arabia, could not wash her hands of the blood of the murdered King Duncan.

The Persians invented the distillation process and the philosopher Avicenna was one of the first to apply the principles of chemistry to perfume and preserve the volatile aromas of flowers by distillation. By the thirteenth century Persia was producing most of the raw materials for scent. These were exported to Venice from where they, together with exotic merchandise and spices, were traded with the Middle and Far East.

The enduring quality of Egyptian perfumes was recognized when Tutankhamen’s tomb was excavated in 1922. The archaeologists found oily unguents that, after three thousand years sealed from the elements, still gave off a sublime smell. The most significant of these perfumes was the Egyptian sacrificial oil called kyphi (thought to be spikenard, whose literal translation is ‘Welcome to the Gods,). Pliny thought kyphi allayed anxiety and made dreams vivid. The priests made kyphi from sweetflag (odorous roots similar to iris roots that smell of aniseed), aromatic grasses, a tree resin, cassia, cinnamon, peppermint, juniper, mimosa, henna and raisins, all of which were steeped in wine for days with a mixture of honey and terebinth, a resin to which myrrh was added. Plutarch also records a recipe for kyphi which includes twenty-two ingredients: it must have had an overpowering intensity.

The Roman unguentum Parthicum Rhodicum was described by Dioscorides in his Materia Medica as a pomander of roses. This is his recipe:

Of fresh roses, beginning to fade but without any dampness, forty dragons; of Indian nard [spikenard], ten dragons; of myrrh, six dragons. When all these have been pounded, they must be shaped into little balls and then laid up in jars of clay and left to dry. Two dragons of costus [an aromatic northern Indian incense] and as much again of iris of Illyria may also be added.

The Florentine Medici family encouraged research into the medicinal properties of plants and Italian perfumers increased their production of scent compositions for the rich and mercantile classes, while Italian aristocrats also invented new scents. The Medici and the Dukes of Ferrara collected alembics, made essences and aromatic waters and hundreds of recipes were exchanged.

‘Frangipani’ – made by the old Roman family of the same name – which is a powder of every known spice added to orris root, with a touch of civet, became popular when Mercutio Frangipani, a learned botanist, sailed to the New World with Columbus and, as they approached the shores of Antigua, he breathed in the delicious scent of the sweet-smelling flowers that were called Plumerta alba. They were subsequently renamed Frangipani, after Mercutio, who distilled the flowers and made the perfume long-lasting with rectified spirits of wine.

Perfumers were also spice-sellers and alchemists, and perfume was bought from apothecaries. There were hundreds of therapeutic perfumes with as many as sixty ingredients each, which were burnt as incense. During the plague in Venice in 1504,Venetians applied Damask water made from a dozen aromatics together with civet and musk; and the Italian alchemist Girolamo Ruscelli made a perfumed oil for the hair and for beards from rose water, Damask rose oil, cloves, cinnamon, gum Arabic, musk and civet. In the sixteenth century, when the clergy and doctors ordered the closure of public baths because they thought that baths encouraged the spread of epidemics, bodily smells had to be counteracted by perfume. Courtesans carried sponges impregnated with musk, amber and civet between their thighs and under their armpits and their garters were soaked in scent. Perfumed sachets were sewn into their clothes to mask the smell of their unwashed bodies, while rose water acted as a disinfectant.

In the twenty-first century, we are apt to underestimate the role that scent and incense played at a time when foul odours pervaded the world and clouds of sweet-smelling smoke were required to mask them. As recently as the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries London’s air was foul and the gentry carried scented handkerchiefs and pomanders to disguise the smells. Burning incense was often used to scent clothes, spices were used to scent bedding and were burned in houses to drive out reptiles and pests. And through the ages scent has always had as much to do with sexual attraction as with rituals and rites. Plutarch said that most men would only make love to their wives if they were powdered with spices and scented with ointments.

Perfume has also always possessed curative powers. In ancient times, frankincense and myrrh were known to have fumigating and cleansing properties and an old Chinese proverb stated that ‘a perfume is always a medicine’. The ancient Persian Pharmacopoeia has hundreds of perfumed preparations for healing; narcissus was used to treat melancholia while Megalium – an ancient Greek perfume made of myrrh oil, sweet rush (which is redolent of sweet basil) and cassia (which resembles cinnamon) -was thought to be good for wounds.

An antidote to poison, prepared for Mithridates of Armenia in about 80 BC, included thirty-six ingredients. Among them were frankincense, myrrh, cassia, cinnamon, pepper, saffron and ginger mixed with wine and honey. It was said that poultices of spices had a healing effect on wounds and tumours.

The first eau de cologne was made in the seventeenth century by a young Milanese commercial traveller called Paolo Feminis, who eventually settled in Cologne from where he sold his Aqua Mirabilis. When we think of citrus smells we associate them, rightly, with eau de cologne. Feminis,s cologne was a divinely citrus aroma of spirit of rosemary, essences of bergamot, neroli,citrus cedrata (lemon zest) and lemon.

Guerlain opened for business in 1828 and this perfumer’s attempts to evoke moods and reproduce atmospheres, especially sensual ones, through scent were revolutionary. In focusing on the philosophy behind the making of perfume, Guerlain changed the way perfume was made and others followed his ideas. ‘L’Heure Bleue‘, which is made from roses, iris, musk and vanilla, was inspired by that crepuscular time of day just before sunset, while the bewitching ‘Shalimar’ conjures up a Mogul garden.

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