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A History of Perfume

The Guerlain Story


The concept and use of perfume is thousands of years old.  Egyptians were the first culture known to have used perfume. Egyptians used scents as balms and ointments, and in religious rituals. Other cultures soon followed suit. The Ancient Chinese, Hindus, Arabs, Greeks, Israelites, Carthaginians and Romans were some of the early cultures that used fragrances for religious rituals. Resins and herbs were burned, and their fragrances released. Surprisingly as it may seem, the oldest recovered bottle of perfume is over 3000 years old and was assumed to have belonged to an Egyptian. This shows that glass bottles were invented in Egypt, at least in part, for storage of perfume. Eventually these resins and herbs were added to oils and fats to be used on the body, for both ritual and personal use. The oils and fats first used for personal fragrances were sesame and olive oils, as well as animal fats. Next, people developed the possibility of distilling sweet smelling plant materials for use, in addition to using fragrant oils and fats. Developing perfumed oils, fat based lotions, and distilled essential oils became an important type of commerce, especially in Ancient Greece. By the first century AD, roses, lilies, violets and pennyroyal were used by Romans. Rose petals were a part of the decadence of the celebrations of that time. It has been said that a death occurred when a person was suffocated under a huge amount of rose petals.

In the Dark ages and middle Ages, as the Islamic religion spread, it brought with it perfumes and fragrances used for religious rituals. These fragrances eventually made their way to Europe and other parts of the world. The use of fragrances was limited in use to religious ceremonies only. Roses and rose water were the favoured scent. Everything from the body to prayer beads was scented with the fragrance of the rose. Next, fragrances were used for medicinal purposes.  For a time, perfume was prohibited and was though to be used as a part of witchcraft. After a few centuries, women were allowed to use perfumes and scented lotions. Women especially used fragrances in the form of perfumed creams and oils, which were used for cosmetic purposes. Perfumes were used for aphrodisiacs, as well. In Europe a blend of herbs called "miracle water" was used to cure memory, vision, arthritis and depression.

Italy was the capital of the spice trade in the 1400s. Fragrances and perfumes encouraged the explorers Christopher Columbus was looking for spices for Spain, as well as exploring for gold. The most desired herbs, spices and materials for making fragrances came from India, so travelling to India for the spice trade was the ultimate goal for many explorers. Christopher Columbus did discover the Americas while looking for a new route to India's riches. America had many new and wonderful scents of its own. Fragrances and herbals were used primarily for medical purposes. Some of the new smells discovered in the Americas were balsam, cedar, juniper, sassafras and vanilla. The Aztec people used scented massage and fragrant sweat lodges. Native Americans used sweet grass, which smells like vanilla, as an incense and smudge. Smudges are bundles of herbs burned for health and spiritual reasons.

Perfume was used for personal enhancement in the 1600s.  Perfumed gloves were really popular, especially in France. France became such an important centre for the creation of perfume that perfume and glove makers' guilds were created. Soon, perfumes and other fragrances were applied not only on skin, but also on clothing, furniture and other similar items. Part of a person's identity was their preferred scent. The need for more types and larger amounts perfume increased at an enormous rate. Italy and France were leaders in the perfume trade during this period. Pomanders, which were small bags of ambergris and other scented materials, were worn as necklaces or hanging from a belt.

A new breakthrough in this field of making perfume occurred in the 18th century, when eau de cologne was invented. Eau de cologne was used for perfuming bath water, used to give the wine a distinct fragrance, used as mouthwash, and even eaten or injected. Eau de cologne soon became one of the most popular types of perfume on the market.

As the perfume industry grew, it gave birth to a new industry - the perfume bottle industry. Perfume containers became an art form in and of themselves. Artists and designers down through the centuries have been able to use their creative talents to make containers for perfume. This makes perfume bottles collectable. Nowadays perfume packaging is considered to be nearly as important as the perfume itself.
Developments in the field of chemistry laid the foundation for modern perfume making in the 1800s. Perfume eventually became marketed for personal enhancement and pleasure more than for medicinal uses. Thus the field of cosmetics was developed. Also, chemistry allowed synthetic fragrances to be developed. Synthetic scents were used in creating new perfumes, but were not valuable as medicinal ingredients. Naturally distilled scents were still being used for healing purposes, however.

In 1921, Coco Chanel launched her own historic brand of perfume called Chanel Number 5. In the 1920s scents were used as to heal. This use was called aromatherapy.  Aromatherapy became popular again in the 1970s, and increased the fame and desirability of perfume, as well.  At first floral scents were used more in fragrances, and fragrances were used primarily by women. Later, men used cologne to enjoy its scent as well. Woody and spicy aspects of scent were added to make a fragrance more masculine. Now, fragrances are routinely developed for both men and women.

Soon, other perfumers followed, and perfume became big business. Jean Patou, Christian Dior, Jacques Fath, Nina Ricci, Pierre Balmain, Hugo Boss are just some of the names known and appreciated all over the world for providing the fragrances we know and enjoy today.