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The History of Perfume

In the big world of luxury, perfumes are one of the oldest and most highly desired elements yet remain the most fleeting of all. Indeed, houses, jewels, and even clothes last longer than fragrances, volatile scents doomed to dissipate after a couple of hours (Plinio El Viejo, 2010). In history, perfumes have played multiple roles in society and have been condemned as much as glorified. From the time of the first civilizations 2,5 million years ago to our globalized era, perfumes have been attributed to sacred, curative, septic, and even seductive properties (Briot, 2018).

The word perfume comes from the Latin expression per fumare, “through smoke”, referring to the first forms of perfumes as fragrant wood resins or incense meant to burn (Schwarcz, 2017). According to Rimmel (1865), from the era of early man (10,000 BC) until the development of ancient Mesopotamian civilizations, perfume was used exclusively for religious purposes during magic rituals when dense incense smoke was believed to deliver human prayers to the gods. With the rise of the Egyptian civilization, perfumes appeared also as vegetable as oils of animal origin that were fabricated in temples and used in curative or funeral ceremonies. Nevertheless, solid perfume remained the most popular one in Egypt known even today as kyphi: pastilles of aromatic roses, honey, myrrh, dry grapes, and old wine burned in censers several times a day as a tribute to deities.

Terme di Caracalla (Roman bath)

The role of perfumes evolved during Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, according to Chapman (2019), a period when the use of oils was seen as a seductive, pleasure-giving, and septic agent that dissolved sweat and took away odor. Fragrant mixtures of violet, narcissus, lavender, and Indian cinnamon were broadly used in public thermal baths where the bathers occupied stone cubicles placed around a pool before moving into hot rooms or massage areas. Besides its hygienic properties and entertainment purposes in the baths, perfumes also gained an important medical status by being used as precious and magical treatments for sicknesses such as headaches or gynecological diseases. They were usually kept in aryballos, spherical flasks with a flat neck that facilitated the transport and application of the product (Rimmel, 1865).

In the Middle Ages and with the arrival of the exacerbated Christianity in Europe, perfumes were confined once again to religious and medicinal purposes as the public baths were closed since they were considered places of sinful pleasure and vulgar amusement. In addition, the spread of the Black Death was associated with water and odor as the major transmitter of the disease and fragrance as the main protector (Vitolo, 2000). For this reason, old practices of dry douche were reinstated, and “shields” of perfume were used by individuals in the shapes of tiny artifacts filled with aromatic mixtures placed in the robes or in the masks (Briot, 2018). The 15th century was also the period when alcohol was first used in perfumes, the first one was “Eau de la Reine de Hongrie” (The water of Hungary’s Queen), a rosemary-based mix (Schwarcz, 2017).

Eau de Cologne Jean Marie Farina

Briot (2018) illustrates it was not until the age of the Enlightenment and the discoveries of Louis Pasteur that water and hygiene returned to Europe, with the introduction of the bidet and the creation of the scented soaps that became also available to the common people. During this period, lotions and fragrant powders were more commonly used shifting the role of perfumes from a religious to a hedonistic dimension. In fact, now fragrances became part of a distinctive trait of an individual’s personality useful to seduce. The eau de cologne appears in Cologne, Germany in 1963 when the Italian immigrant Giovanni Paolo Feminis brought the ancient formula of a medieval compound of rosemary, bergamot, lemon, and cedar from Piedmont. In 1709 Feminis’ assistant Giovanni Maria Farina, better known as Jean Marie Farine, commercialized the product on a larger scale. In 1806 his descendant moved to Paris, found his own Maison de parfums,and sold it to Armand Roger & Charles Gallet, who later popularized the perfume worldwide under their brand Roger Gallet.

During the 19th century, the first synthetic molecules of perfumes were obtained in a laboratory allowing the growth and automatization of the perfume industry now commercialized on a large scale thanks to the advent of the big department stores (Schwarcz, 2017). The period was characterized by the birth of the pioneers of modern perfumery Guerlain, Caron, and Coty, which bloomed from the 1920s onwards thanks to the collaboration with top fashion houses that diversified into the fragrances sector (Moeran, 2019). For instance, Chanel launched “N°5”, Christian Dior “Miss Dior”, Pierre Balmain “Élysées 64.83”, and Givenchy “L’Interdit”, just to name a few.

The revolutionary 1960s and 1970s dynamized the perfume industry according to Briot (2018) by introducing “younger” fragrances with lighter and fresher compositions aligned with the values of freedom, fluidity, emancipation, and sexiness of the era. Emblematic perfumes of the time are the first masculine ones, “Eau Sauvage” by Christian Dior and “Amazone” by Hermès. Unlike the previous decades, the 1980s were all about excess, and the punk culture of the artificial paradise was reflected in the popularity of strong oriental scents such as Yves Saint Laurent’s “Opium”, “Must” by Cartier, “Fahrenheit” by Christian Dior, and “Alien” by Thierry Mugler. Society in the 1990s, hit by the AIDS epidemic, demanded a fresher and more hygienic feeling, which was satisfied by musk and marine and light floral scents as can be found in Giorgio Armani’s “Acqua di Gio” or Issey Miyake’s “L’Eau d’Issey”. At the same time, grunge youth’s sexual identity became complex and blurry resulting in the launch of the first unisex perfume “CKOne” by Calvin Klein.

Famous perfumes

The first decade of the 21st century started instead with the vertiginous growth of the perfume industry worldwide in a globalized society. It catered mainly for the Asian and Middle East markets prioritizing more opulent scents with woody and sweet notes such as Chanel’s “Coco Mademoiselle” and Guerlain’s “La Petite Robe Noire” (Schwarcz, 2017). Nonetheless, from 2010, as a response to our highly homogenized society, niche perfumes have become more popular with the youth. Born in the 1960s, the niche perfumery meets the needs of people who want to be authentic and care deeply about the perfume as an intimate and distinctive trait of individuality (Briot, 2018). Hence, they avoid commercial fragrances and look for lesser-known brands that do not advertise and that are hard to find. Nowadays, companies like Diptyque, L’Artisan Parfumeur, Serge Lutens, and Le Labo are well established.

As it has been said, perfumes have played many different roles depending on the civilization and the historical period. It has been said that from the early man era, 10.000 BC, to the Egyptian one, 3100 BC, fragrances were mainly used for religious ceremonies and considered as sacred magical elements to connect with gods. During the Greek and Roman empires, the function of perfumes shifted to the hygienic and hedonistic sphere, and during the Medieval times, perfumes were confined again to the spiritual dimension. The Enlightenment era brought an important change for the art du parfum, as it clearly started responding only to pleasure-seeking and seductive needs until today.



Briot, E. (2018). Histoire de la parfumerie. In J. Doré, Le Grand Livre du Parfum: pour une culture olfactive (p. 19-37). Paris: SEZCulture.

Moeran, B. (2009). Fragrance and Perfume in West Europe. Imagine... CBS. Creative Encounters Working Paper No. 23

Chapman, N. (2019). Perfume: in search of your signature scent. London: Hardie Grant.

Plinio El Viejo, X. (2010). Libros XII - XVI. En Historia Natural. Madrid: Editorial Gredos.

Rimmel, E. (1865). The Book of Perfumes. London: Chapman & Hall.

Schwarcz, J. (20 de March de 2017).The Story of Perfume. Retrieved from McGill Office of Science and Society: perfume#:~:text=Yesterday's%20Perfume%20The%20word%20perfume,Mesopotamians%20about%204000%20years%20ago.

Vitolo, G. (2000). Medioevo. I caratteri originali di un'età di transizione. Florence: Sanzoni Editore.


Guerlain. (n.d.). Cover Picture [Photograph]. La Maison Guerlain.

Famous Perfumes. (n.d.). [Illustration]. Pinterest.

Gallet, R. (n.d.). Eau de Cologne Jean Marie Farina [Photograph]. Roger Gallet.

Terme di Caracalla. (n.d.). [Illustration]. Romano Impero.


Author Photo

Rachele Boada Isaja

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