A Brief History of Fragrance


The use of fragranced materials for all kinds of purposes goes back thousands of years. The word "perfume" comes from the Latin per fume "through smoke" - reflecting one of the oldest uses of aromatic materials, the burning of incense and herbs as a religious offering.


The Ancient Egyptians were particularly famous for their use of perfumes. In the ancient world fragrant materials were used in many forms. Aromatic gums such as frankincense and myrrh which are exuded by trees were widely used. Fragrant extracts of many other plants such as rose, henna, lily and peppermint were produced by steeping the plant in oil or fat to produce unguents. These could then be rubbed on the skin. Unguents and resins were also used in the embalming process and in funery rituals (the liberal use of unguents in the funeral of Tutankhamen meant that Howard Carter had to warm the coffin in order to melt the carbonised mass of resins and unguents which had stuck the royal mummy firmly in place). The tradition of encasing perfumes in expensive and beautiful containers is also an ancient one: materials such as alabaster, onyx and elaborately blown glass were used by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans.


As trade routes expanded from the Mediterranean region to India and China new materials became available such as sandalwood, cloves and cinnamon. By the middle ages trade in spices from the Far East was hugely important in Western Europe. The spices were used in perfumes and medicine as well as for food. Pomanders - balls or beads made of resins, powdered spices, scented oils and waters were a popular form of perfume at the time. They could be worn as necklaces or bracelets or held in the hand and sniffed to mask foul odours; they were also used to try to ward off the plague and other diseases.


The development of distillation by the Arabs in the 7th or 8th century made the production of essential oils and scented waters such as rosewater possible. These were used for a wide variety of purposes, scenting rooms and linen as well as toiletries. From the seventeenth century onwards "named" perfumes began to be developed, the first being Bouquet a la Maréchal (around 1675). The most famous of these is Eau de Cologne (1710). These perfumes were not produced to an exact formula - every producer had their own variation on the theme.


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