LE MONDE

Our Fragrant Past

By
Lisa Tant
The Roses of Heliogabalus by Alma-Tadema (1888)
Portrait of Louis XIV, 1701 (copy by Hyacinthe Rigaud studio)
Vintage perfume bottle
Estée Lauder. Photo courtesy of Estée Lauder
Coco Chanel by Boris Lipnitzki, 1936

A symbol of seduction.

The hallmark of wealth.

A holy grail.

A toxic murder weapon.

Flowers are at the heart of all perfumes, and an ongoing obsession for Fleurs de Villes. We’ll bring you the latest news and fascinating fragrant facts but first, a brief history of perfume …

 

“Per fumum” the Latin phrase meaning “through smoke”.

 

The Ancient Egyptians treasured perfumes believing them to be the sweat of the gods. Legend has it that Cleopatra coated the sails of her ship with fragrant oils as a sign of her seductive powers. The Ancient Greeks named their scents after Greek goddesses, while affluent Ancient Romans luxuriated in scented baths. The world’s first recorded “nose” (perfume creator) was a  Babylonian woman named Tapputi. Her wizardry using solvents to extract scents from resins and woods laid the foundation for a history of perfume. All around the globe, ancient cultures dabbled in scent making with perfumes reserved for royalty or religious figures.

 

Perfumes were blended from flower petals but also fruit (oranges, lime, vanilla), resins (myrrh and incense), roots (vetiver and verbena), spices (cinnamon), woods, and even animal fats (musk and ambergris). They were refined over the centuries as different cultures and personalities – royalty, conquerors and later celebrities – added their twists. In the 11th century, crusaders brought perfume made from musk, amber, jasmine and roses to Europe from their voyages across the Arab World and Far East. Venice, the travel hub for Marco Polo, flourished as the fragrance capital of Europe.

A fusion of scented lavender and rosemary oils in an alcohol solution, the first modern perfume was made in 1370 by the decree of Queen Elizabeth of Hungary. It became known as Hungary Water, and was further refined in Italy and France where the latter became the European centre for perfume production. Flash forward a few hundred years and perfume was used by the wealthy and royalty to mask body odour. A common belief that disease spread in water, made perfume more popular than soap. It was dabbed everywhere, including furniture, and perfumed gloves became a major industry. (Fragrance also hid the scent of the leather.) Crafty chemists also mixed formulas with poisons to become an unfortunately popular way to murder a troublesome member of court. These toxic scents were rubbed into gloves or fabric that was then absorbed by the skin.

The overwhelming heady fragranced world hit its peak in Louis XIV’s French court which became known as “la cour parfumee” (the perfumed court). The King demanded a different fragrance every day for his apartments. Members of his court also had their own personalized blends.

In the late 19th century, the introduction of synthetic ingredients revolutionized the concept of perfume. Instead of a regal luxury, the mixes of flowers, spices and herbs became a mass produced delight that was quickly incorporated into daily beauty routines. Many of the world’s best known perfume brands including Guerlain, Roger and Gallet, and Coty took root in France. Cultivation of flowers for their essence was centered in the warm sunny south in Grasse which is known today as the capital of perfume. Miles of fields of roses, lavender and jasmine are cultivated here and then blended into new scents by professional “noses” based in the French Riviera.


A symbol of seduction.

The hallmark of wealth.

A holy grail.

A toxic murder weapon.

Flowers are at the heart of all perfumes, and an ongoing obsession for Fleurs de Villes. We’ll bring you the latest news and fascinating fragrant facts but first, a brief history of perfume …

 

“Per fumum” the Latin phrase meaning “through smoke”.

 

The Ancient Egyptians treasured perfumes believing them to be the sweat of the gods. Legend has it that Cleopatra coated the sails of her ship with fragrant oils as a sign of her seductive powers. The Ancient Greeks named their scents after Greek goddesses, while affluent Ancient Romans luxuriated in scented baths. The world’s first recorded “nose” (perfume creator) was a  Babylonian woman named Tapputi. Her wizardry using solvents to extract scents from resins and woods laid the foundation for a history of perfume. All around the globe, ancient cultures dabbled in scent making with perfumes reserved for royalty or religious figures.

 

Perfumes were blended from flower petals but also fruit (oranges, lime, vanilla), resins (myrrh and incense), roots (vetiver and verbena), spices (cinnamon), woods, and even animal fats (musk and ambergris). They were refined over the centuries as different cultures and personalities – royalty, conquerors and later celebrities – added their twists. In the 11th century, crusaders brought perfume made from musk, amber, jasmine and roses to Europe from their voyages across the Arab World and Far East. Venice, the travel hub for Marco Polo, flourished as the fragrance capital of Europe.

Portrait of Louis XIV, 1701 (copy by Hyacinthe Rigaud studio)
Vintage perfume bottle

A fusion of scented lavender and rosemary oils in an alcohol solution, the first modern perfume was made in 1370 by the decree of Queen Elizabeth of Hungary. It became known as Hungary Water, and was further refined in Italy and France where the latter became the European centre for perfume production. Flash forward a few hundred years and perfume was used by the wealthy and royalty to mask body odour. A common belief that disease spread in water, made perfume more popular than soap. It was dabbed everywhere, including furniture, and perfumed gloves became a major industry. (Fragrance also hid the scent of the leather.) Crafty chemists also mixed formulas with poisons to become an unfortunately popular way to murder a troublesome member of court. These toxic scents were rubbed into gloves or fabric that was then absorbed by the skin.

The overwhelming heady fragranced world hit its peak in Louis XIV’s French court which became known as “la cour parfumee” (the perfumed court). The King demanded a different fragrance every day for his apartments. Members of his court also had their own personalized blends.

In the late 19th century, the introduction of synthetic ingredients revolutionized the concept of perfume. Instead of a regal luxury, the mixes of flowers, spices and herbs became a mass produced delight that was quickly incorporated into daily beauty routines. Many of the world’s best known perfume brands including Guerlain, Roger and Gallet, and Coty took root in France. Cultivation of flowers for their essence was centered in the warm sunny south in Grasse which is known today as the capital of perfume. Miles of fields of roses, lavender and jasmine are cultivated here and then blended into new scents by professional “noses” based in the French Riviera.


Estée Lauder. Photo courtesy of Estée Lauder
Coco Chanel by Boris Lipnitzki, 1936

In the early 1900s, the first fragrance to associate with designer fashion was created by Paul Poiret. His inspiration for his scents was echoed in his exotic kimono style coats, harem pants and turbans. The bottles housing the “juice” became as intricate, quickly gaining collectors status. There was no turning back. 


1920 saw the stylish rise of one of the most savvy female business women of modern times. Sleek, petite and impossibly chic, Coco Chanel launched her style revolution with a millinery boutique in 1921. Soon after, her direction for a bold fresh new scent resulted in the use of aldehydes, a fizzy family of chemicals. The synthetic notes propelled the blend of jasmine, rose, vanilla and sandalwood, Chanel No5 - still one of the world’s leading scents, celebrating their 100th anniversary in 2021 - was born.

 

Thirty years later, another wildly innovative savvy business woman, Estée Lauder, created Youth Dew in New York. Named after one of her successful skin creams, Youth Dew was formulated as a bath oil to start a craze for wearing scents as an everyday pleasure.

 

The 21st century introduced a new scent for every Tom, Dick and Jane celebrity. Boy bands launched one. Pop stars, opera singers, Hollywood actors (both legends and newbies) sold millions of bottles, introducing a new juice every year. Fashion houses relied upon lucrative scents to fund their apparel business. Fragrances mirror the times as scents focus less on gender and more on lifestyle. From its roots with ancient civilizations, perfume is the original natural sustainable luxury.

 

Did you know?

According to a report by Grand View Research, the global fragrance market is projected to be worth more than $91 billion by 2025.

Coco Chanel by Boris Lipnitzki, 1936
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