A SHORT HISTORY OF PERFUME
Flowers and Fragrance are an evolutionary thing—attractive smells attract bees and other pollinators, ensuring the survival of a species. Over centuries, these fragrances have attracted humans, too and over time we have made the connection between good smells and good health, and spiritual peace. In today’s deodorized world, where chemical sensitivities lead to bans on fragrance, we assume that to be without smell is to be clean, wholesome and pure. But are we losing something really important to the human experience in banishing scent?
In the realm of health, the desire to surround oneself with pungent fragrances traces directly to the rank odour of the unwashed human, a story that starts with sweat. Human sweat by itself barely smells at all. But the symbiotic bacteria that lives all over our bodies finds our sweat a yummy meal. Post feast, the bacteria releases molecules that we recognize as body odour. Yup. We’re smelling of bacteria poop.
Throughout human history, we weren’t aware of the bacterial cause of body odor. But we sure could smell it. And so the art of extracting fragrance from plant materials began centuries ago in ancient times in different cultures all over the world. When early alchemists began extract the “essence” of a plant (or its fragrance) into oils, they believed that these concentrated extractions were a spiritual embodiment of nature, a plant’s soul, if you like.
In Ancient China, India, Persia, Egypt, Greece and Rome, fragrances were primarily processed in oil-based infusions. Oil was pressed first from ingredients like olives. Then plants and woods were added to the oil using meticulous scale measurements and left to steep. This process is still used today by many body care makers, ourselves included. Another process used was maceration, meaning plant material was pressed to remove oils and then ground into powders which could be used on their own or combined with other ingredients to create a paste. Or there was enfleurage, in which leaves or petals were placed in a thin layer of solid fat, usually animal, which absorbed the plant’s essential oils. This was the process probably used to produce the spikenard used in the Bible to anoint Jesus.
Early fragrance concoctions incorporated floral scents like jasmine, rose, lavender, violet, chamomile as well as spicy smells from materials like amber, cinnamon, camphor and cloves and musky smells from animals, thought to be aphrodisiacs. These were carried in ceramic jars, bottles or jewelry. Complex scents weren’t only intended for wear directly on the body. Besides direct application of fragrance on the skin, people burned fragrant materials as incense, believing the smoke carried prayers to the gods. Fragrant materials were also burned for medicinal purposes, to clear an infection or purify a room. Powders were also made, carried in fabric sachets; hardened pastes were made into beads and worn as jewelry and garments were sewn from fabrics soaked in perfume.
Europe became a huge market for fragrance products primarily because of the belief that bathing was bad and dangerous to the health. Yup. Not making that up. It was wildly held that water’s ability to soften skin and open pores actually weakened the flesh, making it more susceptible to sickness. One of the side effects of this belief system was the development of more complex methods of perfume production, ingredients and scent dissemination. Ornamental devices continued to be developed that would mask unseemly odours, like the pomander, a spherical pendent that acted as a scent diffuser worn to purify the air wherever one walked.
In Renaissance Venice a serious breakthrough in perfume production came when they discovered how to create a clear substance make of 95 percent alcohol imbued with a strong scent. The process can give thanks to the work of Islamic scholars who progressed such knowledge while Europe went through the Dark Ages. Many believe that the invention of the distillation process that led to the discover of base alcohol is due to Ibn Sina (known as Avicenna in the West), the Persian doctor, chemist and philosopher, who experimented extensively with distillation to try and make better scents and figure out the chemistry behind non-oil based perfumes.
Liquid perfume was brought to France by Catherine de Medici. Gradually, France came to dominate the perfume industry in Europe, supported by an increasingly extravagant Royal class who still did not believe in bathing. There are accounts of the fetid stench that proliferated the Versailles court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette where courtiers would relieve themselves wherever they felt like it. Which gave rise to more scent devices. Decorative filigreed scent smelling boxes, or “vinaigrettes” were designed to hold liquid perfumes in small sponges or fabric swatches. They were often attached to chains at the waist of a woman’s dress. Perfume was also worn in rings, lockets or in pendent vials worn as necklaces.
The swing towards deodorizing and disinfecting came once science began to show that filth was not good and baths were not bad. Studies of epidemics and germs in the following centuries showed the importance of clean water and sanitation to health. As better hygiene took over, strong perfumes were needed less and became more aligned with fashion and cosmetics. These ideas were exported to the Americas, where the tools of personal hygiene became integrated into living environments via indoor plumbing and garbage removal. Personal hygiene standards changed, and daily bathing was encouraged. Products were developed to disinfect and deodorise. Manufactured scents were no longer bound to the natural world of essential oils as chemists developed entirely new, man-made compounds. The side effects and dangers of many of these to human health were not adequately known or explained, or they were disregarded altogether, landing us where we are now in the place of increased allergies and sensitivities—and a move back towards Nature.
Aroma jewelry is back, too, in answer to the scent sensitivity problem. Paired with fragrance oils, the jewelry brings flexibility to fragrance wearing. You can keep your scent very personal, experiencing it when you want. You can control how much fragrance you want to wear. You can still wear fragrances you love without irritating your sensitive skin. Wearing your Aroma jewelry allows you to move freely from scent-allowed to scent-free environments—just put your locket in your pocket. And should you have an aromatherapy blend that helps you stay calm, or ease a headache, this is a great way to have it quickly on hand.
Fragrance is still a significant part of the human experience. The nose is thought of as the gateway to consciousness through which the breath, the energy of life passes. It is tied to memory, transporting us to moments in time where those smells made their first impressions. Aroma can release emotions and awaken joy. They can bewitch, soothe, inspire, relax, liberate and uplift. Feeling emotionally uplifted can, in turn, improve our physical wellbeing. To ban this potential from our experience now seems like a counterintuitive step backwards—like saying, “bathing is bad” again. Our world now is a complex mix of chemicals, natural and synthetic. The trick is trying to choose what’s most effective and safe for us from both these sources. We have the possibility to pick the best of both worlds and hopefully find our way to some form of balance that honours both the gifts of Nature and the ingenuity of Science.
Sherazad Jamal, Free Lion Team