A Treat For Our Senses - The History Of Perfume
A Perfume is born
The journey of perfumes has been a very exciting, complex, and intrinsically linked one which goes back thousands of years, and mostly the nobles used to wear it for hygienic and cleanliness reasons because it was expensive and the raw materials were not easy to come by.
The meaning has been derived from the Latin word ‘per fumus’ meaning ‘through smoke’ and the art of Perfumery has been refined by a lot of cultures and although perfumery existed in East Asia much of it was incense based.
The first perfumer was logged in during the Second Millenium BC and was a woman chemist named Tapputi, whose stories have been inscribed on a cuneiform clay tablet in Mesopotamia which is incidentally also the first place where they discovered incense 4000 years ago. Ancient civilizations started the use of perfume when they made offerings to the Gods because it was thought that the same would cause sublimation of the body and can make it more ‘God-like’.
Now known as the Middle East comprising mostly Iraq, Syria, and Iran, this area was all under Babylonian Mesopotamia. Tapputi was the overseer of Mesopotamian Royal Palace and was the one who developed methods for scent extraction techniques that have laid the foundations for perfume making and they have been passed down, with using solvents being the most groundbreaking technique of them all
Keeping true to their Mythology, the God of Perfume is Nefertum who is often depicted as carrying water lilies which was a major ingredient in ancient perfuming, which made the Egyptians associate fragrances with good health and well-being. They started using scents in religious ceremonies where they burned resin, essential oils, and fragrant unguents which were thought to be essential in ensuring that the Gods will protect and show benevolence and also, were used in conveying messages and prayers to the dead, purify one’s body and for embalming ceremonies.
With increasing intensity in the trading of spices, resins, and aromas which were already abundant in Egypt the perfumes were set free from its confinements of only using them ceremoniously and were introduced in daily hygiene.
Susinum, Mendesian, and Cyprinum were the most sought-after perfumes in those times and later on, the Egyptians used their first perfume bottle around 1000 BC.
Natural ingredients were distilled with non-scented oils to make perfumes and it is said that Queens Cleopatra and Hatshepsut used scents on their bodies, quarters, baths, and even took some to their graves.
Fragrances when first introduced encapsulated the whole world and Ancient Persians were too wooed with its magic. They ruled the perfume trade for centuries and were the ones who are accredited with inventing the non-oil-based perfumes. During the rule of the Sassanid Empire, producing fragrances with infused water was highly prevalent. Perfumes held a high place in the noble society and many kings had their own ‘signature scents’ which no one else was allowed to use or have. It is also documented that the Persians had abundant fragrance-making equipment and workshops which gave way to their love of experimenting with different scents and unfamiliar distillation techniques.
The most careful out of all, Romans and Greeks carefully documented their perfume-making process and techniques which paved the way for recreating them even now. Perfumes transformed Rome into the epicenter of global trade and it was estimated that the Romans used something around 2,800 tons of imported frankincense and 550 tons of myrrh every year as they used to scent their public bathrooms and was also used in body-care items like balms and oils.
Even though Rome is referred to as the ancient cult of Aphrodite (the Goddess of Love), some Romans like Pliny the Elder condemned the use of perfumes because of its wastefulness which led to the ban of such luxuries when Rome fell and the popularity dwindled only to return after hundreds of years.
Known as Aphrodite’s island, Cyprus has been the home to the oldest perfumery that existed 4,000 years ago but it was destroyed by an earthquake around 1850 BC. But, in excavations of 2004-2005 lead by the Italian Archeological Team, they found evidence of the 4,000 m2 enomorsity, and many artifacts dating back to the Bronze Age are already on display in Rome. The Bible mentions a sacred perfume (Exodus 30:22-33) consisting of liquid myrrh, fragrant cinnamon, fragrant cane, and cassia, and its use was forbidden, except for the priests.
Perfumery is an art that the Indians knew since the Indus Valley civilization which existed from 3300 BCE to 1300 BCE which was confirmed when in 1975 archeologist Dr. Paolo Rovesti discovered a terracotta distillation apparatus carbon-dated to 3000 BCE. The Hindu Ayurvedic texts Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita, written as Sanskrit Slokas, have references of one of the earliest distillations of Ittar, and as such perfumes have always been at the heart of sacred Indian Tantric rituals and ceremonies.
Not only using perfumes for their usage and religious ceremonies, but the Chinese also used scents in other ways as well like infusing them with their stationery and ink making perfumes much more mainstream. The ancient Chinese also used different fragrances for ‘purification’ and medicinal purposes by applying perfume to rooms and objects rather than on themselves and laid heavy emphasis on oriental herbs and spices in producing their scents. The use of perfume was spread much more widely across the general populace which was established by the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties.
With the advent of steam distillation, the Islamic cultures were the ones who perfected the extraction with the technique and were the ones who introduced new raw materials into fragrance making. Perfumes have been used since the 6th Century and are considered as a religious duty, which is a prominent part as they also mixed extracts with the cement with which the Mosques were built. Rosewater was also an invention of a Muslim doctor and chemist Ibn Sina (aka Avicenna), which was more delicate and became widely popular very quickly.
Grasse, now the perfume capital of the world, had grown into a major industry in the perfume-making business. The Renaissance period gave way to another milestone in the perfume’s journey to domination when perfumed gloves became popular in 1656 and the royalty and wealthy used perfumes for personal sanitary reasons
During the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and Henry VIII, the popularity of perfumes peaked and the queen ordered for all public places to be scented as she could not tolerate any bad odors.
The Italians had almost perfected the perfume-making process by the 14th Century A.D when solid perfumes were replaced with liquid perfumes and when Marco Polo brought unique aromatics back with him from his travels, Venice turned into a major fragrance trading port. With the popularity increasing exponentially because of the royalty, is when perfumes became a fashion accessory.
Perfume in the modern world
Wearing cologne or scent has now become a fun way to express yourself and is not only reserved for royalty and wealthy people as synthetic ingredients have also come into play which when blended with the natural materials gives you an expansive range of options to choose from.
Modernization started in the 20th Century and is when perfumes became a real work of art and gave way to original creations which were then sold worldwide. The names in the starting were evocative because what message a perfume conveyed mattered.
To scent it down
The perfume was born as an expression of the rite and prerogative of an elite and went from sacred element to luxury and then again from a seductive instrument to precious therapeutic remedy and now perfumery has become a global industry rather than luxury craftsmanship. Not ignoring the experiential and sensorial dimensions, the perfumes today know the need for being unique as now perfumes accompany us in our everyday lives and have become the original expression of our identity.