The History of Perfume – A Fun Guide

When we think of perfume, we usually think of modern designer fragrances. However, the practice of creating scent dates back centuries. Curious to know when perfume was first used, and how its popularity spread across the world? If so, read on…

Perfume in ancient Egypt

Those ancient Egyptians knew how to build seriously impressive tombs, and were expert mummy-wrappers. It turns out, they may have also been responsible for inventing perfume too.

Back in those days, the Egyptian people applied fragrance in the form of an oil-based salve. Hardly surprising, given that plastic spray-bottles hadn’t been invented yet. They even had a specific god dedicated to perfume – Nefertum. According to legend, Nefertum eased the sun-god Ra’s pain with a bouquet of lotus flowers, which were prized for their scent.

Perfume was worn by the Egyptians to alert people to their status. Much like designer perfumes like Coco Mademoiselle, it denoted wealth and luxury; a bit of celebrity luxury, if you like. Fragrance was also used in religious ceremonies, and in burial rites.

Perfume in ancient Egypt

Spreading to Persia, Rome and beyond

Of course, the ancient Egyptians couldn’t keep something as beautiful as perfume to themselves. It wasn’t long before the Persian Empire started embracing the art of fragrance-making; though in this culture, the emphasis was on asserting political power. In short, like an ancient form of Aventus, the men of Persia wore fragrance to create a sense of authority and gravitas.

They weren’t the only ones. Archeologists found an early form of perfume factory in Cyprus, that dated back as far as 2,000 BC. It transpires that the ancient Cypriots were also hard at work creating perfume, with ingredients like myrtle, lavender, rosemary and laurel.

Naturally, the Romans took up the practice too. In fact, it was the Romans who gave us the word we use today – from the Latin, per fumum, which translates as ‘through smoke’. If any culture knew how to display power and wealth, it was them.

The public baths of Rome are famous (with some still intact to this day). After bathing, it’s believed that the Romans covered themselves with perfumed balms; not just on their skin, but also through their hair. In an era that hadn’t yet invented shampoo, this was probably a wise idea.

Spreading to Persia, Rome and beyond

The fall of the empire and the second birth of fragrance

After the fall of the Roman Empire, perfume seemed to be rather forgotten for many hundreds of years, though it was still used in Asian countries like China and India. However, in the 12th century, fragrance experienced yet another rebirth in the West.

Trade routes were stretching across the globe, and one of the most desirable items was perfume. Arab traders brought their exotic fragrances to the Western world, where they were quickly adopted by the merchant classes. Believe it or not, some records (from the wonderfully named Pepperer’s Guild in London) listed perfume as being traded as long ago as 1179.

However, this still wasn’t perfume as we know it today. It was oil-based, and still used as a balm or salve, rather than in liquid form.

The emergence of modern scent

We have the Hungarians to thank for inventing ‘modern’ fragrance. It was the Hungarian perfume-makers who first blended scented oils in an alcohol solution, creating something that resembled the perfumes we know and love today. It was created for Queen Elizabeth of Hungary, but its popularity spread rapidly through the rest of Europe.

At this point in history, it hadn’t yet earned the name ‘perfume’. It was referred to instead as ‘Hungary Water’; which doesn’t sound quite as glamorous, somehow.

The emergence of modern scent

At this stage in perfume’s history, it was time for an official renaissance. Happily, this coincided with the actual Renaissance, in Italy. It’s fair to say that the perfume industry exploded in the 16th century. Every rich merchant or man-about-town wanted to have the finest fragrance, and their wives certainly couldn’t live without them either.

Fragrance ingredients began to be jealously guarded too, to prevent people from copying them. For example. Catherine de Medici’s personal perfume-maker’s laboratory was connected to her home by a secret passageway, to prevent thieves from stealing the formula!

Catherine de Medici’s personal perfume-maker’s laboratory was connected to her home by a secret passageway

France – the centre of the perfume world

If you’re keen to find out the history of Blue Chanel (or other iconic French fragrances), you need to go back in time, to understand just how important a role France played in perfume-making.

From the 14th century onwards, France was the epicentre of the fragrance world. The cultivation of perfume ingredients became a huge industry, particularly in the south of the country. The resulting fragrances, prized by people across the world, were mostly reserved for the rich and famous. They played a rather less glamorous role too – as an effective way of concealing body odour.

The 17th century was the heyday of French perfume production. Put simply, you couldn’t move for scented products. Perfumed gloves were particularly sought-after; which some poisoners took advantage of – after all, what subtler way to murder someone than by rubbing poison into their scented glove and letting it slowly absorb into the skin!

France – the centre of the perfume world

Louis XV put perfume firmly into the royal limelight; so much so that his court was known as ‘la cour parfumee’, or the ‘perfumed court’. According to records, he requested that a different perfume be brought to his bedroom every day.

Perfume was put into everything in Louis XV’s palace; not just on the skin, but in the rich garments, the furniture and the baths. It’s no wonder that France remains such an important location for perfume, even to this day.

Moving towards the modern day

1921 was arguably the year that the perfume industry changed forever. Coco Chanel launched her own brand of fragrance, the famous Chanel No. 5. It speaks volumes for the scent that it’s still much-loved by millions of people, nearly 100 years later.

This inspired many other designers to launch their own products. Although they didn’t have the staying power of Chanel’s creation, Caron’s Fleurs de Rocaille, and Jean Patou’s Joy were also big hits, back in the day.

But it was Coco Chanel who really changed the focus, making perfume more accessible, and more stylish. No longer reserved for the wealthy or regal, fragrance was now for the aspirational, the glamorous and the beautiful.

Moving towards the modern day

Since then, the perfume industry really took off. Initially dominated by fashion designers, in recent years, we’ve seen the rise of ‘celebrity’ perfumes (many of which have fallen by the wayside now) and iconic perfume houses like Creed.

When you’re next about to purchase a bottle of your favourite designer fragrance, it’s a good idea to remember its illustrious history. That’s thousands of years of development right there, wrapped up in one humble glass bottle. Ancient Egyptians, Persians, Romans and Renaissance Europe alike – we salute you!

If you’d like to test out some of Copycat Fragrances’ ‘inspired by’ scents, which pay homage to some of the world’s best-loved designer perfumes and colognes, simply visit our website today.

Disclaimer: all products mentioned above, along with their labelling, are a guide and should not be confused with the actual fragrance brand. Any name trademarks and copyrights are the property of their respective designers or makers. Please note, these perfumes and candles are not to be confused with the originals, and we have no affiliation with any companies mentioned. Our interpretations of the fragrances and candles were created through chemical analysis and personal development, and their description is solely to give the customer an idea of the nature of the scent. It is not designed to mislead or confuse the customer in any way, and does not infringe on the manufacturer's or designer's name or trademark.

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