Throughout history people have found ways
to surround themselves with pleasing smells - sometimes for
erotic arousal, and sometimes just to cover up unpleasant street and
Wall painting of servant (with lily in
in 'No-Amon' temple - 13th Century BCE
The source of the English word ‘perfume’ comes from the Latin
phrase “through smoke” (per fumus). In Hebrew, the word ‘bosem’,
(besamim in the plural form) is used to
refer to perfume, fragrant oils as well as the fragrance used for incense.
Documents and drawings that record the use of perfume
go back thousands of years before the Common Era.
is evidence of a perfume manufacturing center in Cypress dating back to 4000
BCE. Ancient Assyrian records and Egyptian transcripts have been found that
provide details about their processes for perfume making.
Ancient Egyptian instructions for
producing perfume - 350 - 450 B.C.
Sketch based on Egyptian tomb painting
from 3rd millennium BCE about perfume production
The water lily was depicted in
many ancient Egyptian drawings and wall carvings as one of the
more popular aromatic flowers used for perfume.
Yet in ancient times,
perfume was very different from the liquid substance we are familiar with today.
Back in ancient times perfume was manufactured as an oily or solid buttery
substance. This was produced from some form of natural oil like olive, almond
and sesame oils or out of animal fat. The oil was usually saturated in
fragrances using elaborate methods and very specific recipes.
Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Israel
Throughout the ages there have been different uses for perfume products. In
Egypt for example, aromatic incense and perfumes were used for spiritual
ceremonies in temples.
The good, sweet smells would attract the gods and repel
evil spirits that were thought to bring illnesses. Bodies were buried with perfumes and aromatic
ointments so that they would be welcome by the gods.
Priests were anointed daily and private people, women more often than men and
higher classes more often than lower classes, tended to use flowery aromatic
oils for body care. Pleasant fragrances were used in the cities to overcome the
unpleasant smells from the street.
The Assyrians in Mesopotamia (located in areas that, today,
are part of modern Iraq and Iran) were major perfume consumers, and a substantial
industry developed there as well.
Wall carving of servant in ancient Persia,
holding container with aromatic oils from 5th century BCE
There are also countless references to perfumery
and aromatic oils in the bible.
Perfume substances in Israel were used primarily for incense and ointments
required for the temple, as well as by the rich for pleasure and body care.
Model of the 2nd
Temple in the Holyland Israel Museum
Perfume manufacturers in Israel were presumably located in En-Gedi and En-Boqeq where they
specialized in the production of perfume from an ancient Persimmon plant (not to
be confused with the modern plant known by this name).
The perfume from this plant
was produced through a unique process that was kept secret by the producing
families. The Persimmon plant (called apharsimon in Hebrew) and the knowledge of
how to manufacture the perfume from it were lost together with the defeat of the
Jewish state by the Romans around 70 AC.
Ein Gedi vegetation beside the Dead Sea
|Mosaic in Ein Gedi
||Ein Gedi Falls
The earliest process of perfume
production that has been discovered is pressing.
With the pressing method plants were crushed and then pressed, much like
the production of oil or wine at the time.
Olive press in Neot Kedumin, Israel -
representing biblical period
Olive oil press in Neot Kedumin
Later on the process evolved and
developed, particularly in Egypt. Paintings and wall carvings show the plants being placed in a
sheet of cloth and twisted until the aromatic materials were drained from the
This process, however, was relatively ineffective and was eventually replaced
during the classical period.
Another method of processing included cold steeping, which is
effective with only certain kinds of flowers, but not with all plants. The
process involves saturating and pressing together the plants with a layer of
animal fat, replacing the plants daily until the fragrance is fully absorbed in
the fat. The outcome was scented pomade (a perfumed ointment).
Similar methods were used up until the 20th century when the
substance was soaked in ethanol in order to dissolve the residue of the fat and
leave a cleaner/purer substance rather than a waxy/buttery mixture.
A third method was hot steeping which was a similar process to cold
steeping only the plants were pre-treated with a special astringent and saturated in water or wine. This helped the absorption of the scents
in the base oil. Later the mixture was repeatedly heated, left to rest and then
In Greece the gods were credited for teaching the art of perfumery. The
different fragrances were also part of the gods’ doings, for example there is
a myth that claims that Cupid’s encounter with the rose gave it its scent, and
similarly other fragrances were associated with other gods.
Rose - associated with myth of Cupid
Cupid - photo by Ricardo André Frantz
Perfume was directly connected to beauty,
art and attraction, with legend claiming that Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty
and love, was the first to ever use it. Perfumes were often named after the
When Alexander the great conquered Arabia (3rd century BCE) he
sent back huge shipments of spice, incense and plants for perfume making.
The industry grew in the Hellenic area, and at a certain point the use of
perfume became almost exaggerated -- to the extent that Solon, an Athenian
statesman, viewed it as a threat and, in order to limit its use, prohibited its
sale. This law was abandoned shortly afterwards due to the public’s rejection
Silver coin of Alexander the Great
Excerpts from the writings of the Greek philosopher and scientist
Theophrastus (371 – 287 BC) include discussions about scent, their origins and
the affect they have on man’s moods and thoughts. He also wrote about the
connection between odor and taste – which is commonly accepted today as
important for understanding our perception of smells.
Ancient Greek Perfume Manufacturers
Greece’s contribution to the industry was great. This is not surprising
since a daily bath was an important activity for Greek citizens (and then later,
for the Romans).
This ritual included the abundant use of perfumes – there is
even some evidence that different scents were reserved for different parts of
on vase painting from Greece
It is believed that the Greeks were the first manufacturers of liquid perfume
(although not the liquid perfume that we know today).
Classical Greece saw the
beginning of a distillation process where aromatic plants were steeped in hot or
While it is difficult to find information about the Greek methods for
manufacturing perfume, there are at least two Greeks who left behind interesting
writings. Theophrastus (371 – c. 287
BC) was a Greek metaphysician who wrote about aromatic plants.
Details about actual perfume recipes were provided by Dioscorides (ca. 40-ca. 90)
a Greek physician who lived and wrote in Rome during the time of Nero. He described a common manufacturing process which involved two stages.
The following excerpt refers to the writings of both Theophrastus & Dioscorides:
“Two stages are involved, the first,
served to prepare the oil by the addition of weakly-scented astringents such as
aspalathus, cyperus and ginger-grass. This treatment did not permanently scent
the oil, but rather made it more receptive to the stronger fragrances which
would follow…It also served incidentally to thicken the oil somewhat. The
astringents were mixed with wine or water to form a paste, then heated in the
Theophrastus comments that this preliminary treatment was recommended in
most cases, but was particularly necessary with olive oil, which does not retain
odors well, and with volatile perfumes like rose. In the second stage of
manufacture, the treated oil was given its final fragrance. This process too
involved the steeping of aromatics. Repeatedly the oil was strained from one
vessel into another, and fresh batches or aromatics were added until the perfume
reached the desired strength, sometimes only after several days”1.
Some of the most commonly used fragrances of the Greeks were rose, saffron,
frankincense, myrrh, violets, spikenard, cinnamon and cedar wood.
following is a recipe for iris perfume attributed to Dioscorides of the 1st
century A.D. in his book "De Materia Medica" (I.56)
9 litrae 5 unciae [about 3.1 kg.] of oil and 6 litrae 8 unciae [about
2.2 kg] o f spathe, chopped as fine as possible; mix with 10 kotulai [about
0.25 l.] of water, put into a cauldron and boil until the mixture
absorbs the scent. Then strain it out into a mixing-bowl smeared with
honey. From this scented oil the first iris perfume is made by steeping
iris [root] in the treated oil, as indicated below.
Others; as indicated, chop 5 litrae
2 unciae [about 1.7 kg.] of balsam-wood and boil together with 9
litrae 5 unciae [about 3.1 kg.] of oil. Then remove the balsam-wood
and add 9 litrae 10 unciae [about 3.2 kg.] of sweet-flag, steeping
a lump of myrrh in sweet old wine. Then in 14 litrae [about 4.6 kg.]
of the treated and scented oil steep an equal weight of chopped iris [root];
leave it for two days and two nights, and then strain it out forcibly and
vigorously. And if you want it stronger, steep and strain out an equal
amount twice and three times in the same way."2
The infatuation with perfume spread westward through the Mediterranean to the
more distant outskirts of Europe.
Soon Rome, France and Spain became a part of
this ever growing industry.
Rome, with its natural tendency for extravagance and abundance, embraced the
coming fragranced revolution and incorporated it in their decadent everyday life
Stories were told about perfumed doves
that were set out above the heads of diners in order to fill a room with aroma.
Perfumes from Greece and Asia were brought to Rome by Julius Caesar,
Heliogabale and Nero who, it was claimed, burned more incense than Arabia could
produce. This attraction to such products didn’t stop with perfume but went on
to include all forms of beauty products - creams, ointments and remedies –
which were available for the higher classes as a sign of wealth and fashion.
The Romans also made interesting contributions to the development of the
Pliny the Elder, a natural philosopher and author (~ AD23 - AD 79)
outlined a primitive method of condensation which collected oil from rosin (a
resin usually extracted from material such as pines) on a bed of wool.
Christianity took its toll on the perfume industry of the region as it
rejected the vanity and excess of ancient Rome and Greece. Yet it did not rid
itself of its benefits entirely.
The use of incense was still taking place as
part of religious ritual. In fact, the Christian bible was full of references to
fragrant material such as frankincense and myrrh (gifts of value to Jesus at his
birth) and both substances continued to be sought after during this period.
The higher classes were also still using perfume but to a much lesser degree.
For example, Empress Zoë, in the Christian stronghold of Constantinople, was
known to employ court perfumers. Despite the general decline in the use
of perfume, the region continued to play a role in the perfume industry
throughout the Byzantine period, and eventually this provided a base for perfume
production in later periods.
Considering that most popular ingredients for the
manufacture of perfume were found primarily around the Arabian Peninsula, it
is not surprising that Islamic cultures contributed significantly to this
culture, perfume usage was documented as far back as the 6th century CE.
801–873 CE - also known as Alkindus in the west), a Muslim Arab
philosopher and scientist, is considered by many as the father of the modern
perfume industry. He is known for his work in isolating alcohol and was the
first to describe the production of pure distilled alcohol from the
distillation of wine.
Al-Kindi invented many different scents by
experimentally combining different plants and other materials in order to
produce perfume products. One of his books, the Kitab Kimiya' al-'Itr
(Book of the Chemistry of Perfume) contains recipes for fragrant
oils, salves and aromatic perfume water.
Orchideen zentrum celle
The process of distilling in order to extract essential
oils and fragrances was perfected by the Persian physician, philosopher and
alchemist (sometimes referred to as an Arabian), Avicenna, around the 11th
Venice was an
important center for trade between the west and the east, and became the
main channel through which the raw materials for incense and perfume reached
Europe. It continued to play a primary role in the industry, within Europe,
for a few hundred years.
distillation was already known in the 11th century (from the
Islamic world), many European scientists became fascinated with the process
around the 13th and 14th century. They were determined
to separate the 'essential ' from the 'non-essential' parts of a compound.
The perfume industry around this time (approximately 1300) benefited
as a result of all this activity, and the fragrance production center of
Grasse, in the south of France, began to develop.
period the Black Plague, dated from 1347 to 1351, began to take its toll.
practice emerged of enveloping the dead bodies in the smoke of incense, with
the hope that this would ward off further death. In addition, torch bearers
used fragrant herbs as a means for clearing the way for important and rich
The various crusades that stirred Europe (11th
century to the end of the 13th century) lured European knights
into the Holy Land, resulting in the interesting additional consequence of
stimulating the perfume industries of Europe.
In 1370 the first alcohol-based
perfume was created for Queen Elizabeth of Hungary who was known for her
famous toilet water - also referred to as Hungary Water. The primary
ingredient of this toilet water, it was claimed, was rosemary. Some have
argued that this was the secret to Queen Elizabeth’s beautiful skin,
which she retained into old age.
Perfumes during the early Renaissance period
were primarily used for neutralizing the natural scent of leather
accessories such as gloves, handbags and leather jackets (often made out
of goat leather that the moors used to import through Spain).
“Les Maitres Gantiers” (masters in glove making) single handedly
took over the fragrance industry and, at a certain point, were the only
ones permitted by the king (as a result of a royal decree, April 4 1573)
to make and trade fragrances. Their name eventually changed in the 17th
century from Master Glove Makers to Master Perfumers.
There were other uses for fragranced products. When
Catherine De Medici, known as the ambassador of perfume, moved to France
from Italy to marry Henry II, she brought her perfumer, René le Florentin,
Rene created, among other things, poisonous jewelry for the new queen
to use against her enemies. Together with the poisonous jewelry, he also
made her scented gloves that would mask the scent of the poison.
rumored that he had a lab that directly connected to her apartments by a
secret route. This was apparently to ensure that no perfume recipes could
be stolen or copied.
later moved on to open an incredibly successful perfume store in Paris.
Medici, attributed to François
Clouet, c. 1555
Major factories were constructed in Montpellier where about
100,000 acres were used for the cultivation of flowers for perfume use.
The importance of perfumers grew together with the
extravagance of their rich and noble consumers. Most productions, however,
came to a halt when the French revolution occurred. The attack on the aristocracy, and the strong association of perfume
with that class, led many manufactures to cease their work. The industry
re-emerged with the rise of Napoleon, who was happy to adopt
many of the habits of the old aristocracy. Some of the companies that developed during this time still exist today.
In the early 1800s, perfumers started to use a much higher
degree of alcohol in an effort to maximize the process of making perfume.
Another major step, which dramatically affected the perfume industry, was
the first attempt to reproduce synthetically the scent of some fruits and
plants. These innovations enabled the creation of modern day perfumes.
The 19th century saw a rejuvenation of the
perfume industry - to a large extent as a result of the discovery of
synthetic imitations of natural essences. For example, towards the end of
the century the first synthetically reproduced scents of plants and fruits
were created by French and German manufacturers, Schimmel and Haarman &
This period brought revolutionary new synthetic scents such
1869 - heliotropine
1877 - coumarin
1888 - artificial musk
1890 - vanillin
1890 - ionone
The industrial revolution (late 19th
century/early 20th century) obviously also had a tremendous
impact owing to new methods of mass production, better transportation and
This enabled perfumers to manufacture new forms of perfumes
that were easier to produce, easier to deliver and therefore cheaper.
Suddenly perfumes, which were once enjoyed only by the upper classes and the
wealthy, were now accessible to any housewife or shop girl.
While modern perfumes are, to a large extent, synthetic
imitations of ancient perfume scents (and sometimes synthetic innovations
providing brand new scents), one can still find original natural ingredients
among them. The following list provides examples of ingredients of interest
(both synthetic and natural) that are used within some of the well known
Notable natural ingredients & some modern perfumes
that use them:
of Fragrances that use these ingredients
Used since ancient times, adding a
fresh, woody, slightly spicy and fruity scent
Butter by Carol's Daughter
used since ancient times, adding
a strong bitter scent.
by Yves St. Laurent
(one of the Seven Sinful Scents) by Gendarme
mint family, adding an aromatic woody scent
by Thierry Mugler
Notable synthetic ingredients & some modern
perfumes that use them:
of Fragrances that use these ingredients
purely artificial scent that does not mimic any natural
This synthetic ingredient became famous in 1921 with the first
appearance of Chanel No.5 (which still combines aldehyde with natural
ingredients such as the famous Rosa Centifolia).
Greed by Gendarme
Aldehyde 44 by LeLabo
Mimicking the scent of the ambergris
which is a natural
ingredient derived from sperm whales.
Gabbana's Light Blue
Vera Wang Princess
Stella by Stella McCartney
Mimicking the scent of natural musk which
is a natural ingredient obtained from a gland of the male musk
Narciso Rodriguez For Her
With all of the changes in the modern lifestyle, perfume
became less of a means for masking lack of personal cleanliness and more of a
While there are many benefits to the industrialization of
the process, the modern perfume industry has introduced ingredients that
have nothing to do with the smell of the perfume.
Among other things, modern
perfume usually includes coloring agents, anti-oxidants and other chemicals
that are added in order to catch attention or to improve shelf life of the
perfume. Unfortunately, many of these ingredients are allergens.
While not everyone is allergic to
fragrances, people should be aware of the possibility of this type of allergy
and should learn to choose products based on their body’s reactions.
perfume Industry of Mycenaean Pylos, page 13 - By Cynthia Wright Shelmerdine.
Publisher: Goteborg:P. Astorms Forlag, 1985.
perfume Industry of Mycenaean Pylos, page 14 - By Cynthia Wright Shelmerdine.
Publisher: Goteborg:P. Astorms Forlag, 1985.
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