The History of Perfume

When we smell a particular fragrance, such as, say, clean laundry or a fresh peach, we instantly and unconsciously connect that smell to a portion of our memory. Smell can evoke feelings and bring back memories that we forgot we had. Perfume is, quite simply, a mastery of some of the most frequent scents, and the artful combination thereof to produce a unique smell for an individual person. To understand perfume, we would need to start at its inception, back in the time of the ancient Egyptians.

Origins & History

Egyptians were responsible for the origin of perfume. They utilized scents in everything from religious ceremonies to burial preparations and even daily wear. The rich elites of Egyptian society, male and female alike, would adorn themselves with aromas like lily to denote their status. The Persians took over the use of perfume as a sign of political status, but it wasn’t until the Greeks and Romans became acquainted with it that it began to be viewed as a form of art and produced en masse and in consistent quality. Archaeologists recently uncovered a perfume factory from 2,000 BC, located in Cyprus, which seemed to have specialized in the production of scents like coriander, laurel, myrtle, lavender, and rosemary. Perfume slowly spread throughout the globe, and for a while, scents were reserved mainly for use in religious ceremonies. However, in 1190, perfume began to be produced commercially in Paris, and from there, it blossomed into a massive industry once more.

  • Perfumed Textiles (PDF) – Scent is an irreplaceable part of life. It played a major role in historical life as well, and Katia Johansen explains in this paper from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, how she went about it and what she learned from her research about the rich history of scent.
  • Coco Chanel, No. 5 & History’s Scent – What made No. 5 so popular – and what’s the story behind its creator? Discover the history behind one of the most famous scents in history with this radio story from WBUR.
  • From Industry to Luxury: French Perfume in the 19th Century (PDF) – Perfume has been an industry since the time of the Romans, but what was it that elevated perfume to a symbol of true luxury? Find out here in this paper from Harvard Business School.
  • Lydion Perfume Jar – The design of a perfume’s container wasn’t a 20th century invention. Take a look at one of the earliest “iconic” perfume containers from the 6th century BC, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  • Body Arts: Scent – We know how perfume is marketed today, but how did the Egyptians tackle the problem? Take a peek at an ancient Egyptian perfume bottle, and compare it to its modern cousins in this short but sweet article from the PittRivers Museum.

How Perfume is Made

The Egyptians used to create ointments and balms with essential oils mixed in to provide scent. Today’s perfume, however, utilizes a much more complex method of preparation. The desired scents, in specific quantities, are combined with either ethanol or ethanol and water. The concentration of the scent depends on what kind of perfume is being made. True perfume, for example, may have a composition of up to 40% of scent material. Eau de Parfum will only have up to 20% of scent material in its mixture, resulting in a lighter, more subtle aroma. It all depends on the desired perfume profile and the scents that the perfumer wants to include.

  • Smells Like Julius Caesar: Recreating Fragrances – Aside from providing a recipe for Roman perfume, this article from Science in School covers how perfumes were made, what some of the most common ingredients were, and how to reproduce a Roman perfume in your own home. If you’re interested in historical scents, this is an article not to be missed!
  • The Role of a Perfume Chemist (PDF) – There is a surprising amount of chemistry behind perfume, especially those produced synthetically. The Royal Society of Chemistry offers you a peek inside a perfumer’s lab – and job – with this interview of Judith Gregory, a senior perfume chemist.
  • Perfume, in This Case, ‘Made by Nose’ – Perfumers are a unique breed of professionals. Get to know one of the up-and-coming greats, Roja Dove, in this article from the New York Times.

Types of Perfume

True perfume, as discussed above, is a highly concentrated mixture of scent. The next “step” down from perfume is Esprit de Parfum, which is comprised of up to 30% of aromatics. Eau de Toilette will never have more than a 15% concentration. As to whether a scent appeals more to a male or female demographic, the identifier is in the fragrance notes. The most common fragrance families are floral, chypre (scents like bergamot), oceanic, citrus, fruit, and gourmand (scents like vanilla and honey), and a perfume is defined by the concentration and dominance of its contained scent notes.

  • Sniff Out the Right Scent – Understanding the history of perfume is one thing; using that knowledge to help select a scent of your own is another. Learn about the seven basic types of perfume and how to understand the notes of a fragrance with this terrific guide from SheKnows.com.
  • The Difference Between All-Natural and Chemical-Based Fragrances – Why would perfumers choose synthetic scents over those naturally acquired? The Learning Channel has an article that explains some of the pros and cons of both perfume sources.

Aroma Sources

Today, many perfumes utilize synthetic scents. Historically, and with some modern all-natural perfume manufacturers, scents are derived from the essential oils of plants, animals, and even seaweed. Synthetic creations, conversely, offer scents which do not exist in the natural world. The scent of Calone, for example, has hints of ozone and metal. Many “musk” scents are now produced artificially as well, both to provide perfumers with a more neutral scent undertone and to alleviate the need for harvesting from animals. There is debate as to whether synthetic scents are better or worse than natural aromas, but ultimately, it comes to the question of the personal preference of the customer.

  • The Perfumes of Aphrodite and the Secret of Oil – In this extract from the Musei Capitolini, you can learn more about the discovery of the oldest known perfume factory in the world, and what scents were produced there. There are even some photos of recovered perfume jugs that you can view online!
  • Essential Oils and Discussion – Fine oils are part of the secret to a perfume. Discover oils you never knew existed, like orris and calamus, in this resource provided by the University of California, Riverside.
  • Secret Scents (PDF) – Egypt was once the center of perfume manufacture, but a recent discovery of 4,000 year-old perfumes on Cyprus sheds new light on the history of the perfume industry. Learn all about perfumes, essential oils, and the history behind them in this slideshow, courtesy of the University of Washington.

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