Perfume: the story so far...
The time traveller’s life
We’ve all experienced it. Catching a faint whiff of a scent worn all those years ago and in a heartbeat you’re back there. Reliving those wild parties of your early twenties, that breathless first date with your old boyfriend or sitting at your mother’s feet when you were young as she sat at her dressing table.
It’s no secret that perfume has an incredible power to transport you back in time. The reason is down to the olfactory nerve sitting so close to the amygdala, the section of the brain that connects to the experience of emotion as well as emotional memory. As we don’t use emotional memory that often, it seriously heightens the moments when we do.
With a power so unique, it’s surprising that fine fragrance as we know it has only been around for just over a century. So how did perfume end up being the sophisticated delicious smelling elixir it is today?
Scent and spirituality
Whilst perfumes have almost always been used for uplifting body and mind, and to beautify the wearer, they have of course not always been as fine-tuned and offering such variety as we find them today. Perfume dates right back to ancient Egyptian times, when the herbs and flowers of the season were concentrated and held within fats and oils, and used to bring heady aromas to spiritual and religious ceremonies.
Hungary for scent
In the 15th century, knowledge and ideas about perfume came to Europe mostly from Arabic influences, but it was the Hungarians who, word has it, presented the first real Modern perfume, The Queen of Hungary’s Water, in 1370 – Modern because it was not just distilled, but made of scented oils held within alcohol solution. This breakthrough revealed the true potential of perfume.
When the Renaissance era arrived, it brought true sensory sophistication with it. With the creative skills of Italian chemists alongside new fragrance ingredients from Asia and America, the alchemists of the yesteryear were a little left behind. Foreign perfumers from Italy and Spain set up shop in Paris, and perfume began to experience huge commercial success. Italian-born Catherine de Medici even brought along her own perfumer when she married the King of France in 1547. Reputed to have begun the trend for scented leather gloves from Grasse, soon the court of Henri II was responsible for perfumed gloves being offered for sale all over France. This changed the face of perfume consumption forever and indeed the little known town of Grasse, which shifted its focus to scent manufacture as demand for this outstripped demand for leather.
A dip in the popularity of bathing and hygiene was thankfully turned around by the 19th Century, when magazines and newspapers of the time penetrated the lives of the masses, promoting the must-have perfumes and creating a desire for them. As tastes evolved, the Parisian perfume houses reflected this with fragrances of a more delicate nature. This in turn, paved the way for the late 19th century chemistry which advanced into creating synthetic scents and opened the doors for expansive creative perfume making. Hard-to-find or extensive ingredients were no longer required to make fine and luxurious scents.
From lab coats to liberation
Perfume was enhanced to chemical perfection giving access to scents not available in nature by the 1900’s. It quickly became a product of the mood of the people and social history; politics, wealth, feminism, freedom, all affected the scents that were created in that time period. The groundbreaking debut scent from Coco Chanel, Chanel No. 5, was created for liberated 1920’s women, ‘flappers’. It’s now famous aldehyde-based composition, for the first time bridged the sensory divide between ‘respectable’ women and those considered of low character.
This era’s rising use of synthetics saw men start to embrace scent too, with fragrances that were for the first time disassociated with their aftershave, giving the male perfume a market in its own right. Think 80s, think power suits, think Drakkar Noir – this hugely successful male scent owes much to dihydromyrcenol, a synthetic ingredient with citrus, metallic undertones. Only the strongest scents would do for these powerful men and women trying to stand out from the crowd.
Boy meets girl
It took the 90s to smooth and sooth and perfumes again became more subtle, with warm vanillas and homely fragrances evoking comfort and calm. Water fragrances became the common scent to smell on men - remember the popularity of CK One? This popular fragrance marked an interesting shift in perfume advertising, allowing unisex perfumes to break the typical gender specific marketing of the industry.
Celebrity vs scent creator
The 21st century has seen a bourgeoning trend for celebrity endorsed fragrances. While for the most part, these fragrances are considered of lesser quality than their designer counter-parts, occasional gems have flowered under this category. Chandler Burr, scent critic, speaks highly of Britney Spears’ Midnight Fantasy for example. Nevertheless, niche perfumery has seen an equally, but stealthier rise in popularity as Frederic Malle and others have sort to redress the balance, by placing the noses themselves at the forefront of the launches for their fragrances.
The future’s bright. The future’s.....?
It’s apparent that the fascination with scent holds no bounds, and its mystery, seduction and pure addictive properties will lead the industry to create beautiful scent after scent. Nino Cerutti said “Perfume opens endless horizons. It appeals to both the senses and to the imagination.”
Experiencing the scents of the future is a tempting prospect, undoubtedly creating millions more memories to live and relive and we can’t wait.