“Perfume serves the purpose of the most superfluous of all forms of luxury. The highest recommendation is when a woman passes by, her scent may attract the attention even of persons occupied by something else."
The Egyptians were one of the first ancient civilisations to make the greatest mark on the history of perfume. It was an intrinsic part of their everyday life and used in mystical practices such as embalming the deceased. This method required large quantities of myrrh, balms & perfumed oils which were rubbed all over the corps then wrapped in cloth (like a mummy). Why would they bother going to so much trouble?... well they believed that the act of inhaling the perfumed scents (from the bodies) would fulfil their desire to 'unite with the world of the gods'. The Egyptians were also very well groomed, taking great pride in their appearance, (exhibit A. Cleopatra and her signature make-up look) so perfume was used as adornment and also in the home by burning oils or incense.
Most perfumes from ancient Egypt were produced from flowers: Blue water lily, marjoram, iris, resins from the terebinth tree (turpentine), balsam tree (myrrh), Benjamin tree (benzoin), rockrose tree (labdanum).
Picture: Rock carving of Kawit Queen being dressed
The production of perfume crossed through many other ancient civilisations but was prolifically used during the Renaissance period as a means to disguise the bad stench of barbarian odours & cooking smells. (It’s no wonder the poor people smelt considering the heavy garb they wore and type of hard, laborious work they would carry out!). To make matters worse; at that time, the water supply was connected with all sorts of evil and suspected of spreading the plague, so a nice, long bath was out of the question for these people. Instead they would conceal their odours with strong, heady perfumes of amber, musk, jasmine & tuberose.
Beautiful, ornate vessels, pomanders & perforated balls were created by craftsmen to diffuse the perfume. Crystal makers also devoted their talents to designing elegant perfume bottles. (It's interesting how some things never change... even today sometimes half of the allure of a perfume comes down to the elaborate bottle it is housed in.)
Perfume came to France due to a strong demand for perfumed products mainly imported from Italy. Often leather goods such as gloves had a bad smell due to the tannery process, so perfumed oils were used to conceal the smell. This demand encouraged France to develop it’s own Industry and the beautiful Grasse Region in the south of France was picked as the best place to establish this due to its climate and weather, which was was perfect for the production of raw materials used to make perfumes.
Historically only natural ingredients were used for perfume creation, however today some raw ingredients have been replaced with synthetic products. This evolution has some advantages in that it enables a much wider range of fragrances, a higher consistency of production and put's less pressure on Mother Earth’s natural resources.
Raw materials used in perfume production include (some pictured above): Flowers (petals, flower, leaf buds, roots, leaves, stems & stalks) aromatic herbs, fruits & their peels, spices & seeds, roots, leaves, woods, bark & mosses, resins & gums.
Raw materials of animal origin are less well known today and are now in all instances, synthetically reproduced so that no species are harmed. It's quite interesting though to hear about the obscure animal substances they used during early perfume production; one of them being a substance secreted from the intestine of a sperm whale. The scent ‘Musk’ acquired its name from the Himalayan Musk deer as it was hunted for it’s strong smelling granules in the pocket, under belly of the deer in mating season. Now that’s just strange if you ask me!
(Above) Vintage, French perfume labels. I think there is something so charming about them!
Ref for pictures and text: 'Fragonard, 80 years of passion'
Blogger, designer, beach babe and colour obsessed textiles geek Monique Luchterhand is a frequent contributor, correspondent and close friend of the brand. Follow her blog creatureofcolour.com to find out more about her colourful world…