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History of perfume

Perfume Bottles

From the Latin word “per fumus”, “perfume” means “through the smoke”, an obvious allusion to the art of creating irresistible aromas, an art that is thousands of years old. Over its history, the perfume has played several roles: a sacred substance, a therapeutically one, a form of embellishing the body and a weapon of seduction.

Primitive perfume

Once man had discovered fire, he quickly learned that burning some types of wood, resins and herbs, released pleasant aromas and everything that was pleasant the primitive people used to please the gods. This practice was adopted by the Egyptians who, through specific rituals, burned different aromatic substances at different times of the day. The perfume’s role in religious rituals was dominant until the 16th century B.C. From then on, especially between the years 1580 and 1085 B.C., perfumes were used in two ways: either burned in the form of incense or applied on the body through perfumed balms and oils for medical, but also cosmetic purposes. This appealed to the Egyptian women who began to frequently use the products as weapons of seduction. It is said that Cleopatra was a specialist in this art, but also in the art of making her own perfumes. In fact, the Egyptians began to use their vast knowledge in this area to create the oils necessary to embalm the dead, a practice that they dominated like no other. From their contribution to the history of perfume also resulted some of the first glass perfume bottles.

A lasting aroma

The perfumed fragrances later travelled around the world. In India, and after an initial and strictly religious use, it became one of the Indian women's greatest pleasures, as they spent hours and hours submerged in perfumed baths or anointing their bodies with divine oils. During that time, a woman that was not perfumed was a woman that was not well! In China and in Japan, perfumes were not applied directly on the body, but were sprayed on kimonos or worn in a pouch around the neck.

Greece makes history

A stop in Greece was next, where perfume experienced the first of three very important historical marks. The Greeks improved the Egyptians’ technique as they mixed oils perfumed with flowers, with spices, balsams and creams. In reality, they introduced the maceration technique, that implicated the immersion of organic substances (in this case they used mainly roses, lilies and violets) in hot oils. In Greece, the heroes who died in combat were honoured with rituals that included burning perfume and Hippocrates used them in medicinal practices, however, these aromas continued to be the source of many pleasures.

Perfumed Rome

As the centre of all luxuries and excesses, it is not difficult to imagine the success of perfume once it was introduced to the Roman Empire. From spraying the soles of their sandals and the heads’ of their guests during banquets, to the door sills and the military flags, in hopes of attracting good luck, Roman life was drowned in intoxicating perfumes! An ancient story tells that when Cleopatra left Mark Antony, she ordered that the candles of her ship be soaked in perfume, so that the wind could leave a trail for her lover. Above all, the Romans stood out for the way that they developed and improved the art of making perfumes, namely the maceration and enfleurage (saturation of a fat through perfumed petals) techniques. However, the barbaric invasions, the fall of the Roman Empire and the times that proceeded, made everyone quickly forget the sumptuous world of perfumes.  

An Arabian perfume

Specialists in spices and odoriferous powders, we owe the Arabs the second most important mark in the history of perfume: the invention of the distillation method, as well as the instruments used for doing it – the coil and the still. What made this discovery so special? The experimentation and subsequent use of alcohol as the base of all perfumes, just as we know them today! But the Arabs went even further and also invented the purification technique of pastes and resins, with the use of distilled rain water. The perfume had returned, and this time, for good!

Middle Ages and Renaissance: the consecration

The European taste for perfume is undeniable during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period where, besides being used in countless therapeutic and medicinal treatments (without forgetting the use of rosemary in fumigations against the plague!), perfume obtains a new status as it is applied in perfumed collars, rosaries and aromatic "cushions", these last ones worn around the neck or in the form of a bracelet. The famous "Hungary Water" – probably the first personal perfume – was conceived in 1370 based on the essences of rose, mint, lemon-balm, lemon, rosemary and orange blossom, and was number one in the perfume market during several centuries.

16th to 18th Centuries

The Italians, Spanish and French were in charge of divulging this precious fragrance to the rest of Europe and the timing could not have been more perfect, seeing as during the 16th and 17th centuries strong perfumes literally substituted personal hygiene! In this era, the definition of being "clean" was not to take a bath and wash your hair, but to perfume the entire body (hair and breath included!) with powders, ointments, oils and aromatic waters. A total perfume madness that included other everyday gestures and where everything from letters and cushions, to wigs, fans and religious objects was perfumed!

With the release of perfumed gloves in France during the 17th century, the French were wooed over and the perfume industry was quickly established, being Paris the main headquarters. The perfumers of that time were also known for creating poisons disguised as perfumes, one of which killed a French duchess that died after putting on a pair of "perfumed" gloves, that in reality allowed the poison to infiltrate her skin. Also during this time, the court of Louis XV was baptized as the "perfumed court", because of the amount of perfume that was sprayed in the clothes, fans and furniture of the palace.

The 18th century brought with it sweeter and softer perfumes, presented some of the great names of the perfume world (Fargeon, Lubin, Houbigant...), introduced the first eau de cologne and a variety of bottles that were just as appealing as the perfumes they contained. Not even the French Revolution put a halt to the perfume frenzy – there was even a fragrance called "Parfum a la Guillotine"! Napoleon's preferences (he used 60 bottles of jasmine every month!) were also made known and since he only tolerated eau de cologne, masculine and feminine perfumes were differentiated from then on. His wife, Josephine, preferred more intense musk-based fragrances, so much so that sixty years after her death, the scent of perfume still lingered in her boudoir.

19th century, aromatic century

With the turn of a new century, the world of perfumes also witnessed many innovations! The French perfume houses were joined by the English ones, among many others, and wearing perfumes from this or that house became a symbol of status. Alchemy – which up until now privileged the use of natural, animal and vegetable substances through enflourage, distillation and pressing techniques – gave way to chemistry and the synthesis of odoriferous products, which in turn opened up the horizons of the perfume industry, introducing an almost infinite combination of aromas! This was the perfume’s third historical mark as it continued to appeal to all the senses, even the eyes, especially due to the growing importance of perfume bottles and their visual presentation. After the release of the famous Chanel No. 5 in 1921, designers and stylists from around the world stood up and took notice of the industry’s unequalled success and then quickly set off in search of the perfect perfume… and found it!

20th and 21st centuries, perfume is indispensable

Today, the perfume industry is thriving, with more than thirty thousand top name fragrances in the market. Signed by a designer, actor or rock star, perfume has become an indispensable accessory for men and for women, it is accessible to anybody and is one of the most offered gifts in the world. Of course a lot has changed in terms of production techniques, raw materials, presentation forms and advertising, but one thing stays the same: the aura of mystery and romance that surrounds each new perfume.

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