The History of Perfume

Perfumery and the use of scents for personal or ritual enhancement is a very ancient art, dating back to at least biblical times in the West, and perhaps even further back in Africa and the East.

But the history of the “Eu de Toilette” Parfum and Cologne that we have now has a very specific origin intertwined with the history of France and the royal houses across Europe.

The Greek known as Pliny the Elder describes recipes “for use in perfumer”’ in his various histories and writings. But the modern method still in use today was, according to several sources, brought to Europe by the Arabs, who used aromatic oils to scent themselves as far back as the 14th Century.

The first record of the formula for perfume, defined as a mixture of essential oils in a base of alcohol, was first produced and recorded by Queen Elizabeth of Hungary in 1370, and was known at that time as “Hungary Water.” The techniques used in Hungary were discovered and further refined by the Italians during the Renaissance of the 16th Century.

But it was Catherine de’ Medici, the Italian born Queen of France, who brought the secret recipes to French high society and made them famous. Her personal perfumer, Rene le Florentin, even had a hidden underground tunnel from his apartments to her palace, so that he might bring them to her undisturbed.

The courts held by Louis the 14th were often named for the specific scent used in each court. They would apply scents daily to courtesans, not only to the skin, but also to clothing, fans, and furniture. Scents were even sometimes used as a replacement for soap and bathing.

Napoleon too loved cologne. The King’s personal favorite? Violet and a double extract of jasmine. He was said to go through sixty bottles of it each month.

The center of perfume production in Europe, then and now, is the town of Grasse in the South of France. Interestingly, perfumed gloves were once so popular that the two trades of glove making and perfume making were part of the same guild.

On a darker note, perfume makers were at times called on to make poisons. These were made using the same botanical extraction techniques that went into perfumes. These poisons were used as weapons of war, and in more than a few high profile murders, including that of a French Duchess who was killed by poisonous oils applied in secret to her clothing, which killed her by slowly absorbing into her skin.

Queen Elizabeth I of England was said to have such a sharp nose, she had all public places throughout England scented, as she could not tolerate foul odors. She also trained the ladies of her court in the making and mixing of their own personal scents. This was added alongside the usual pastimes of the upper classes, which included painting, writing, and music.

Moreen Liao is a descendant of four generations of traditional Chinese medicine doctors. She is also a certified aromatherapist and the founder of Ausganica, a manufacturer of salon-quality, certified organic cosmetics. Visit Ausganica.

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