When you live in a world as “odorless” as ours, you might wonder why perfume and fragrance really matter. I call our world odorless not because it is without smell, but because compared to what the common places in the world smelled like throughout history, we have a very pleasant smelling, or non-smelling, society. The history of perfume is very interesting. It is interesting to me in a variety of ways, including how perfume has evolved over the ages, but also just about why it was so revered and why it is such a stigmatic-ally *rich* activity.
The word perfume comes from the Latin words, “per” meaning “through” and “fumus” meaning smoke.” The French later named the pleasant drifting smells in the air parfum. Over 4000 years ago the Mesopotamians began creating incense. Egyptians were right up there with them in fragrant creations. The Egyptians are famous for their perfume balms which they would shape into cones and wear on their heads so that it would melt over their bodies throughout the day. They often carried perfume with them from birth and right into the grave, or tomb. Many Egyptians put perfumes in their tombs for the afterlife.
The historical accounts of most ancient civilizations account perfumes, incense, perfume balms and the sacred rituals associated with these products.
Until Persian chemist Ibn Sina came along, the common method of making perfumes was crushing herbs and flowers in oil. However, this chemist (aka Avicenna) changed everything when he came up with the method of distillation. This process extracts the fragrant oil from herbs and flowers. This process is still heavily used today in natural perfumery and is how we get essential oils.
It was in the 14th century that France began producing crops for the sole purpose of perfumery. With the advancements of civilization also came different stinks. The streets were common places for garbage, rotting foods and other….unmentionable smelly things.
In the 16th and 17th centuries it became a common thing for the wealthy to mask their body odors with perfume and also to carry around perfume sachets to hold over their noses as they passed through the stinky streets. This time period was a great influence on our current world of perfume. So much advancement was made in perfuming and a lot of money was being spent on these esteemed perfumes.
Perfume is a common thing now-a-days. Not only is it common because the average consumer can purchase it, but it is common because the vast majority of perfumes on the market today aren’t even made out of flowers and plants…they are just mixed up in a lab with aroma-chemicals and other synthetically derived scents. As seems to happen with all industries, it became about profit and not about quality or depth. Our society has become accustomed to the linear and inorganic fragrances that not only have no therapeutic or emotional benefit, but also have no tie to the rich history of perfume and to top it off, the bottles that house these synthetic perfumes cost more than the perfume itself. We have also become accustomed to the harassment of overbearing perfume. All of us have experienced a situation where we couldn’t get away from someone’s perfume, whether in a bus, elevator, restaurant, or movie theater, it doesn’t matter if we like the fragrance or not, we are forced to experience another persons perfume.
That’s what I love about natural perfume. It is personal, intimate, sensual, distinguished and courteous; with all the fabulously rich history that real perfume should have.