How Fragrances Were Born: A Short History of Perfumery

The history of perfumes dates back thousands of years. Not only the Ancient Egyptians, but also the Romans and Persians discovered various types of fragrances. Fragrances were a symbol of cleanliness and hygiene in ancient times rather than an accessory as they are today. Over time, the use of perfumes evolved, but they remained expensive and difficult to obtain. For nobility, who were often the only people who could afford it, perfume was a way to distinguish oneself. One of the first recorded perfume factories was the Tapputi chemist, whose story was discovered on a clay slab from Mesopotamia dated back to the second millennium BC.

Fragrant Greetings from Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt's famous perfumes were of great importance. Even in their mythology,there exists the god Nefertem, the master of perfume. The Egyptians produced fragrances using the distillation of natural ingredients with essential oils. The most frequent ingredients were, of course, flowers and fruits. The scents were not only used on the skin, but also as home fragrances and in public festivities. Fragrant baths and households played a significant role in the history of Egypt. The rulers even took their favourite perfume with them to the grave.

Oil-based Perfumes

The Persian kings were famous for their distinctive scent. Perfume was like a personal signature for them; no one else was allowed to use the same scent. The Persians even ruled the perfume trade and are considered the inventors of oil-based perfumes. According to ancient Persian documents, many workshops existed for the production of perfumes, where perfumers experimented with distillation processes and the creation of new fragrances. Ancient Persia was another huge milestone in developing perfumery as a craft.

Greco-Roman Scents

Thanks to the thorough documentation of perfume production by the ancient Romans and Greeks, you can still find Greco-Roman scents today. One of them dates back to 1850 BC, from the world's oldest perfume factory. Perfumes were associated with Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and with services and temples. They often used frankincense and myrrh to scent temples and public baths, or in the production of body balms and perfumes. Despite their love of fragrances, some Romans condemned the use of perfumes as a wasteful indulgence for the wealthy. As Rome fell, the use of fragrances also fell. As a result, the perfume market in Europe stagnated for hundreds of years to come.

Perfumes in Europe

During the Crusades around the 11th century, the Crusaders brought to Europe from the Far East the materials and techniques to produce various fragrances. The popularity of perfumes rose, and it was perfected by the Italians in the 13th century, who replaced liquid perfumes with solid ones. Marco Polo imported unique, aromatic substances from his travels, and so Venice soon became a trading venue for fragrances. The spread of perfume to the rest of Europe is often attributed to Catherine de Medici, the Italian noblewoman and wife of King Henry II of France. Her Italian perfumer Rene le Florentin created for her a signature perfume of orange blossom and bergamot. From that moment, perfumes became personal accessories. European men and women wore it on their bodies, and in their clothes and wigs. Perfumers began to incorporate more complex ingredients into their products, such as ambergris, civet, and musk derived from animals. Scents were a way to mask body odours, as personal hygiene as we know it today was still not widely practiced. Perfumes were also a way to distinguish between the social classes.

The changing tastes and developments of modern chemistry later laid the foundations of perfumery as we know it today. Even the French Revolution did not reduce the appetite for perfumes; a fragrance called Parfum a la Guillotine was born from it. In France, under the post-revolutionary government, people again dared to express a taste for luxury, including perfumes. Thanks to its shops, the city of Grasse in Provence established itself as the largest production centre of raw materials for the production of perfumes.

Fragrance Creation, Then and Now

Although perfumery is thousands of years old, the methods of production have changed over time. Some fragrant materials were initially turned into balms, while, for example, flower ingredients were part of scented oils. During frequent trade trips, perfumers also began to use imported exotic raw materials, which they often added to water. The first perfume bottles were wooden and clay-made, and with time they gradually evolved into orante, coloured glass bottles.

Today, perfumes are everyday personal accessories, made from both natural and synthetic ingredients. They are no longer only for nobility. In recent years, however, the emergence of small and exclusive brands of fragrances has reappeared on the market. They are known as niche perfumes, and are made by perfumers who often believe perfumery is an art form. These fragrances contain the best oils from around the world and have revived a passion for this ancient craft. If you crave such a perfume, don't forget to read our article that explains how to choose the perfect perfume for you. Like a piece of jewellery made just for you, your perfume is more than just a scent.