History of Perfume - A Journey Through the Ages


“Of course all the senses, none surely is so mysterious as that of smell…the nature of the emanations that stir it to activity is still unknown…its effects upon the psyche are both wide and deep, at once obvious and subtle” Dr D McKenzie from Study of Smells.

The Egyptians

When looking back into history, many agree that the Egyptians, during Queen Sheba's rule queen of Yemen and Ethiopia were the first to incorporate perfume into the culture. From the religious ceremonies involving the burning of incense to the embalming of the dead, perfume was an integral part of the Egyptian life. The most important perfume used by the Egyptians was the Kyphi. Scholars claim that when the tomb of Tutankhamen was opened this was the odour that was issued forth. But even scents like the fragrant myrrh and frankincense were considered more precious than gold.

But perfume did not linger only in spiritual ceremonies, the Egyptians were also first to anoint their bodies with the scents of cinnamon and honey. Depicted on the walls of the temple of Edfu, one can also see the depiction of the art of floral extraction as perfume is distilled from the flowers of the white Madonna lily. This “essential accessor” was reserved mostly for the powerful and the wealthy. Both men and women alike wore the precious scents.

With the death of the mystical Cleopatra, so also died the Egyptian grandeur and appreciation of beauty. For thousands of years perfume has been used wisely as an integral part of their culture even though almost all the herbs and flowers were from abroad, from Palestine, Persia, India and Arabia.

The Persians

In Persia, perfume was also a sign of rank. In the palaces one could see kings with crowns of myrrh and of Labyzuz and smell the aromas of sweetly smelling scents drifting in the air of their apartments. In the backyards of homes belonging to the wealthy, one could find exquisite gardens holding Jasmine, lilacs, violets and the famous red rose. This rose whose petals covered the floor when Cleopatra first met Mark Antony and that would become the symbol of the House of Lancaster during the War of the Roses, was known all over the world for its perfume which increased in intensity as the petals dried. The Persians began to master the art of preservation by placing the rose buds in sealed earthenware jars to be later opened for a special occasion. Persians also used perfume after bathing. One could smell civet on a man's beard and musk placed on other parts of the body.

The Greeks

It was not until after Alexander the Great, with his desire for conquest, defeated Darius III of Persia and moved into Egypt that he adopted the use of perfumes. It is said that his floors would be sprinkled with scented waters and that his clothes were imprinted with the perfumes of fragrant resins and myrrh. But perfume found its magic in the folds of ancient Greek religion. The Greeks believed the gods were perfume inventors and it was said that the visit of a god of goddess was marked with the sweet smell as a token of their presence.

The Romans

The Romans first celebrated scent around 750BC in religious ceremonies to celebrate the goddess of flora. Each year the ceremonies would be held to celebrate the first flowers of the season. The burning of precious extracts and oils as sacrifices to the Gods was common practice. The word perfume comes from the word “perfumum” meaning “through smoke”

Eastern Cultures

As one can see perfume has played a major part in religion. But this did not just belong to the African and European cultures highlighted above. Mohammed, centres his religion on the enjoyment of material pleasures, including perfume. He promised his believers the Garden of Paradise where the most exotic perfumes are to be found.

It was an Arabian doctor, Avicenna, who was the first to obtain the oil from flowers, known as attar, by distillation. Before this revolution, perfumes were derived from the bark of twigs and shrubs in the form of resins. His works were faithfully followed by other chemists, soon becoming general practice.

Visitors to Arabian homes would be sprinkled with rose water as a mark of esteem. Their coffees would be flavoured with the otto of roses. In India, perfumes also play a major role in their culture. Plants have always abounded in their country and the Hindu have adapted their scents in their religion. The flames meant for sacrifices would be sending our sweet scents of ointment and herbs. A huge bull in the temple at Tanjore in Madras is rubbed each day with perfume oil until he gleams. In Hindu marriages, the bride is rubbed with ungents by her handmaid and later the married couple will sit beneath a silk canopy enveloped by the smells of sandalwood and other delicious fumes. The god of love, Kama, is always shown carrying his cupid's bow and his five arrows which are each tipped with a fragrant blossom.

In China, incense is also used in religious ceremonies such as the death of family. The body would be washed and perfumed and incense would be lit in the room. China is also known for its vast appreciation of flowers. Chi Han was the first to record flowering plants and we can see the presence of the fragrant jasmine, which may have been spread to China from India. Chinese women wore their hair in buns that were wrapped with flowers whose fragrances would last until dawn. Appreciation of scents such as sandalwood, spread also into Japan. The Japanese religion Shinto uses the burning of incense and other gums during ceremonial occasions. The appreciation of Ylang Ylang and Ambrette also popularized here.

In Modern Times

As the world grew bigger and religion became more widespread and technology advances became faster occurring, perfumes found their way into modern day culture. For a long time scents were kept by the houses of religion by priests and such.Catholicism once the religion of almost all of Europe helped increase the acceptance and use of aromatic scents. In 1190 the first record of perfume sellers was recorded in Paris by the first registered letters of patent granted by Henry VI of England and France. Perfumes continued their accent into cultures because, since the beginning of time, man has been a vain creature, one that wants to create his own history, his own image. Perfume has remained an important cosmetic, a snake that charms the nose. It is for these reasons and more that it has managed to preserve its allure into the world we are familiar with today.

The First Great Perfumes

What inspires one to create? How does one become great? These two things do not always come hand in hand. It takes genius and ENTREPRENEURISM to make ideas successful. Francois Coty and Coco Chanel had both of these. It was their perfumes, their creations, that were their inspirations, but it was their ability to market these products that brought their success. Here is the history behind the making of the perfume industry that we know today.


From Aromatics and the Soul by Dr Dan McKenzie