Scented Snippets – fascinating facts from the history of fragrance

Following a fragrant trail, we present for your delectation a selection of the choicest scented snippets from history. You don’t have to be a history buff (or anorak – though we proudly claim that title at Perfume Society Towers!) to be bewitched by the history of fragrance. We know it’s been used to communicate with the Gods, to seduce, as a display of wealth – or for pure pleasure – for thousands of years. (And perhaps much longer, even if archaeologists can’t yet find the tangible proof through their excavations.)

Perfume’s fascinating trail leads us from Ancient Egypt to Ancient Greece, to Rome – where rosewater played in fountains – and up to France, where Louis XIV’s court was known as ‘la cour parfumée‘, with the king demanding a different fragrance for every single day…

 Egyptian priests, and their Pharoahs, were entombed with fragrances – and when those tombs were opened by archaeologists, in 1897, the perfumes were discovered to have retained their original, sweet smells.  Important figures in Egyptian history were buried with scented oils, to ensure their ‘olfactory needs’ were fulfilled.

Many of those ingredients are still prized in perfumery today.  Jasmine, hand-picked in the morning.  Frankincense resin, still gathered from the Boswellia shrub, with entire forests cloaking areas of Oman, Yemen, Ethiopia.  (Egyptian Queen Hatsheput was apparently crazy for frankincense:  wall paintings on her temple, showing a large-scale expedition to collect frankincense from the ancient land of Punt.)  They used Nile lotus, myrrh, madonna lilies, honey…

 

 

 

If the art of ancient perfumery was to have a ‘face’, a figurehead, it would surely be Cleopatra.  As legend tells it, she had the the sails of her boat coated with fragrant oils before setting to sea:  ‘The perfumes diffused themselves to the vessel to the shore, which was covered with multitudes.’  Her idea was that Mark Antony would get a waft of her arrival even before he caught sight of her.  As Shakespeare put it:

‘The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burn’d on the water;  the poop was beaten gold,
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick with them…
… From the barge, a strange invisible perfume hits the sense…’

(Which neatly explains the name of a niche Californian fragrance brand, Strange Invisible Perfumes, NB.)

 

 

Public baths were The Big Thing in Ancient Rome, with the affluent classes devoted to body care. Think:  balms, oils, perfumes for skin, hair – and living spaces.  (Food had to appeal to the nose as well as the palate, too, through spicy aromas.)  Even public spaces might be scented:  Emperor Nero was so crazy about roses, he had silver pipes installed so that his dinner guests could be spritzed with rosewater.  (According to legend, he once shelled out £100,000 for a ‘waterfall’ of rosepetals which actually smothered one guest, killing him.  Quite a way to go.)

 

 

Marco Polo brought exotic aromatics and scented goods back to his home city of Venice.  The great explorer returned laden with fragrant treasures from the new civilisations he’d discovered, on his voyage. This major trading hub flourished for a while as the centre of the perfume world. Almost everything was perfumed:  shoes, stockings, gloves, shirts, even coins.  Glamorous women carried or wore a silver version of the pomander, wafting trails of scent through the little perforations, as they moved, helping to block out the fetid smells of the streets and canals.  Meanwhile, doctors wore long robes and bird-like masks stuffed with aromatic herbs to shield themselves against epidemics (including deadly plague).

 

 

 

Queen Elizabeth I beckoned Venetian traders to Southampton to offer their scented wares:  it became fashionable to wear musk- and rose-scented pomanders and sachets, in particular. But soon, the epicentre of perfumery moved from Italy to France – thanks to the influence of Queen Catherine de Medici (above), who married King Henri II in 1533.  Until then, French enjoyment of the scent world was mostly in the form of little scented sachets (called ‘coussines’) or moulded clay bottles (known as ‘oilselets de chypre’).  But Catherine brought with her from her native Tuscany scented gloves, the perfume used to mask the unpleasant aroma of poorly-tanned leather.  At the same time, her personal perfumer set up shop in Paris, where he was besieged by orders.

Want to follow the fragrant trail onwards? Find out much more from every era – and what happened next – on our pages dedicated to the history of fragrance

 

From harlots & hippies: how patchouli got cool again

Patchouli might as well be called the ‘Marmite of the perfume world’ as those of us who fall firmly in the LOVE IT camp have our passionately held views matched only by those who devoutly HATE IT. But perhaps if you have always languished on the loathing side of the fragrant fence, you might have your mind changed by this book we’ve recently added to our Fragrant Reads bookshelves…?

Part of a series of extremely informative ‘naturals notebooks’ on some of perfumery’s key ingredients, written and published in conjunction with NEZ (the French olfactory magazine) and LMR (Laboratoire Monique Rémy – one of the world’s leading producers of naturals used in the fragrance industry); Patchouli is a fascinating read for anyone who wants to take a deeper dive into their favourite fragrance notes. As confirmed patchouli-heads, here at The Perfume Society, of course we had to begin with this one!

 

‘Once seen as a scent favoured by courtesans and hippies,’ NEZ explain (hello, yes, we feel seen) ‘patchouli has become a key ingredient in today’s perfumery. Its warm, woody and complex fragrance provides the perfect setting for fresher notes to run free, especially in chypre and ambrée perfumes.’ (Two of our favourite fragrance families there, so yes and yes again). An easy read, it manages to walk that fine line between interesting snippets of fragrant facts and a more in-depth and technical look at the processes behind how patchouli is produced. Indeed, NEZ say they wanted to ‘Explore every aspect of this exotic plant, from botany, history, art, gastronomy, literature, agriculture and chemistry, to the perfumers who use it and the perfumes they create.’

FYI: If you’re looking to learn more about patchouli, do have a look at our always-useful Ingredients section.

We really enjoyed the quotes from perfumers who adore patchouli – Bruno Jovanovic saying that ‘…if magic had a scent, it would smell of patchouli!’ and describing why he chose some of the other notes he added to his composition of Monsieur for Éditions de parfums Frédéric Malle, ‘To clothe, enhance, envelope the patchouli so it could become a flagship fragrance in Frédéric’s catalogue.’ With diagrams of historical timelines and distillation techniques, along with reviews of key fragrances to try patchouli in, it’s a short but fact-filled book that’s great to dip in and out of rather than read cover-to-cover, perhaps.

Patchouli NEZ + LMR the naturals notebook, £15.99
Buy it from shymimosa.co.uk

By Suzy Nightingale

Spotlight on: Yves Saint Laurent

Yves Saint Laurent was a ground-breaking designer who delighted in shaking up the mainstream, always in his  stylish and undeniably sexy way, with this ethos effortlessly transferring from fashion to fine fragrance.

Producing several of the best-selling perfumes of all time, with stunning bottles that have become collectors items in their own right; not many fragrance houses can claim to have a founder who dared pose naked for his own fragrance advertising campaign, because ‘perfume is worn on the skin, so why hide the body…?’

It all began at the tender age of seven years old, when Yves Saint Laurent began designing clothes for his sister’s dolls, expressing a natural talent and indulging a dream of a career in the glamorous world of fashion design. A deacde later, and he’d enrolled on a graduate fashion course at college, winning both 1st and 3rd prize in the prestigious International Wool Design competition at only 18 years old. His talent was showcased to the world and a young Saint Laurent was offered the role of haute couture designer for the House of Dior. A dazzling debut, interrupted by a brief period of national service in the army, led Saint Laurent to opening his very own couture house, still aged just 21, and enabling him to truly express his fashion expertise.

1962 saw the dawn of the Yves Saint Laurent brand and his masterful couture creations for the rich and famous. But clothing was never the only way Yves Saint Laurent wanted to dress women – in 1964 he created his first fragrance, Y, a collaboration with perfumer Jean Amic. It was an olfactory expression of the elegance and luxury of his couture fashion – a fragrance tailored for the beautiful women he dressed. In its original packaging, the green chypre juice was housed in a bottle cut to reflect the silhouette of a woman’s head and shoulders. The letter ‘Y’ cleverly placed to represent the neckline on her dress.

In 1971 Yves Saint Laurent continued to shock when he launched his first fragrance for men, Pour Homme – posing nude for the visual, in stark representation of the values of the Yves Saint Laurent House, comfort and sophistication coupled with modernity and audacity. In the same year, he created a fragrance for the independent, free-spirited woman who shopped at his new boutique: Rive Gauche. At a time when fragrances were presented in classically feminine bottles, best stored on the dressing table at home, it was the first fragrance to be launched packaged in a tin can!

 

In 1977 Yves Saint Laurent wanted to glorify another facet of YSL femininity; sensuality and seductiveness – and women the world over were seduced by YSL’s Opium . An opulent swathe of ambrée ambers and vanilla by perfumers Jean Amic and Jean-Louis Sieuzac, this audaciously-named fragrance sparked immediate controversy. As the scandal and the hype grew so did demand. Global press took straight to the newsstands to criticise Yves Saint Laurent’s determination to shock, but scandal only served to fuel desire; testers were stolen, posters were ripped down and stores sold out of stock in a matter of hours on the launch date.

Fast-forward to  2014, when the latest reinvention of the YSL woman was launched in the form of Black Opium, composed by four master perfumers (Marie Salamagne, Nathalie Lorson, Olivier Cresp and Honorine Blanc), with an overdose of black coffee accord to instantly invigorate the senses, contrasting with voluptuous white floral heart notes and a gourmand vanilla base.

The following year, Black Opium scooped Best New Fragrance for Women in the UK’s prestigious Fragrance Foundation Awards – and since then, the fragrance has acquired countless ‘collectors’, thrilled by limited editions and new ‘spins’ on this smouldering scent.

There are few people who’ve not owned and loved an Yves Saint Laurent fragrance, or who don’t have one of these – classics and modern must-haves alike – in their collection. We’d be hard-pushed to pick a favourite… so, we wonder, what would yours be? And while you’re pondering which perfume to choose, you can read all about their history in more detail on our page dedicated to Yves Saint Laurent

Seasonal scented ingredients that make winter sparkle…

Frosty foliage glittering beguilingly is uplifting to the soul on wickedly cold mornings, and although our hearts (and hands!) may yearn for the warmth of summer, we can remind ourselves that the onset of winter also heralds some truly magical ingredients that are inexorably associated with the season.
We’ve listed four of our favourites, below, but where does your (cold) nose take you when the frost bites? Well, if you click on the names of the ingredients, you’ll be whisked to their fascinating and fact-filled individual pages, where you can also find a list of perfumes to try with that as the prominant note…
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Myrrh
Long associated with Christmas (one of the three gifts given to the infant Jesus),used in religious ceremonies and magical rites; myrrh is actually a gum resin, tapped from the True Myrrh tree, or Commiphora Myrrha, and originating in parts of Arabia, Somalia and Ethiopia. Tapping the tree to make small incisions, small teardrop-shaped droplets ‘bleed’ from the trunk and are left to harden into bead-like nuggets, which are then steam-distilled to produce an essential oil. Myrrh gets its name from the Hebrew ‘murr’ or ‘maror’, which translates as ‘bitter’. It’s earthy. It’s resinous. It’s intriguing. And it’s still a key ingredient in many sensual and iconic Ambrée perfumes today…
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Pssst! Read more about the fascinating history of myrrh, and how Jo Malone London have used this precious indredient in their soon to be released latest perfume, in our hot-off-the-press glossy magazine: The Scented Letter.
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Pine
There are good pine smells, and, well… horrid pine smells. If you’ve ever sat in the back of a taxi with one of those ‘Christmas tree’-scented cards dangling from the rear-view mirror, you’ll probably get where we’re coming from. But pine can also be wonderful crisp, spicy, outdoorsy and invigorating – and it’s been closely linked to perfume creation since the time of the early Arab perfumers, who liked it in combination with frankincense, in particular…
 
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Cinnamon
Spicily enticing, comforting and sweet, all at once.  Our love of cinnamon dates back thousands of years:  2000 years ago the Egyptians were weaving it into perfumes (though it probably originates way before that, in China). Because cinnamon bark oil is a sensitiser – and as such, you may ‘cinnamates’ on perfume packaging, as a warning – where natural cinnamon’s used, it’s likely to have been distilled from the leaves and twigs.  But it’s often also synthesised, adding a spicy warmth to Ambrées (and quite a few men’s scents)…
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Orange
Studded with cloves we can hang these ultra-Christmas-sy pomanders from our trees for an instant Yuletide hit. But where would perfumery be without orange…?  The blossom of the bitter orange tree (a.k.a. neroli, when it’s extracted in a particular way) is one of the most precious scent ingredients of all.  Bigarade, from the fruit of that tree, is another key ingredient in colognes, while its leaves give us petitgrain, another popular element in citrussy scents.  And then there’s orange itself (sometimes referred to as sweet orange, to distinguish it from the bitter, ‘marmalade’ variety.)
There are many more notes to discover and explore in our Ingredients section of the wbsite, so why not take a sensorial journey and follow your nose there, now…?
Written by Suzy Nightingale

A succinct history of scent: would you wear this "Queen's Delight" Elizabethan perfume…?

Imagine the excitement of smelling spices for the very first time, and then realising you could waft fragrantly (and flamboyantly – these were hugely expensive and kept in locked chests) smelling of success and radiating your wealth… The Elizabethan era saw an influx of exotic goods arriving from all over the world – including luxurious, never before seen perfumery ingredients – the valiant explorers bringing a bewitching treasure trove of scented materials to Europe. Men like think Vasco de Gama (1469-1524), Magellan (1480-1521) and Columbus (1451-1506) brought vanilla, pepper, Peru balsam, cardamom, sandalwood, clove, cocoa… Many were used for flavouring, but also found their way intro fragrant creations.
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A growing trade with the East resulted in the transportation of living plants, too: orange trees (producing not just fruit, but that most romantic and innocent of fragrant blossoms), jasmine and rose. With perfect timing, the distillers were getting ever-more-expert: essential oils could soon be distilled from frankincense, pine, cedarwood, cardamom, fennel, nutmeg, agarwood (‘oud’ as we know it today), sweet flag, anise and more.
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Mostly, though, it is supposed that perfumes were still used to mask awful odours – which made lingeringly heady scents like tuberose, jasmine and musk particularly popular. Queen Elizabeth I beckoned Venetian traders to Southampton to offer their scented wares: it became fashionable to wear musk and rose scented pomanders and sachets, in particular.
Here’s another charming snippet from an Elizabethan recipe – remember, most of these fragrances would be made at home, and such recipes were often found in household books along with food and medicine recipes. Could you follow the instructions now, do you think? And more importantly – would you wear it if you could?
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Perhaps our noses are more atuned to complex aromas these days, with modern innovations meaning we can combine the best of nature with purer extractions and headspace technology (digitally analysing the scent of pretty much anything and allowing scientists to recreate the smell synthetically), but isn’t it fascinating how we can time-travel with our noses?
Now, why not continue your fragrant journey by exploring another fragrant era in our section devoted to the history of perfumery…?
Written by Suzy Nightingale