Part 1 - History
I’ve been invited to give a tutorial on men’s fragrances, and it will be my pleasure to share what I’ve learned with you.
Let me start with one important statement that you should remember, something that is basic knowledge among perfumers. There is no such thing as men’s or women’s fragrances. There is only perfume. Yes, that’s what all fragrances are. Perfume.
Let’s take a look at the word. Perfume. In Latin, perfume is comprised of two words; per, meaning through, and fume, smoke. Early man discovered that certain woods, when thrown on fires, produced fragrant smoke which was pleasing to the nose. In the worship of their gods, they surmised that the smoke from these fragrant woods would be pleasing to them, as well and influence their bestowing bountiful harvests, successful hunting, and fair weather. As their civilizations flourished, trade brought in more exotic woods, like Sandalwood and Cedar. As the cities traded with more far flung peoples, resins like Frankinsence, Myrrh, Benzoin, Balsam made their appearance in the religious ceremonies, cast into braziers, their sweet smoke serving two purposes; one, a propitiatory offering to the deities, and secondly as a fumigant to cover the stench of the many animal sacrifices.
It wasn’t until the Egyptians that we saw the start of of perfumery as a form of personal adornment. Flowers were a part of everyday life to them, scenting their domiciles, and their persons, when they were worn, as well as gifts to the gods. It was some enterprising person who discovered that the fragrance of these flowers could be transferred to oil, which could be rubbed on their bodies to scent their persons. Effleurage, the art of capturing the scent oils of flowers by laying them on a layer of purified fat, enabled them to make the perfumed cones that were placed on the heads of guests at feasts. The heat of the body caused them to slowly melt and release their fragrance. Pleasant, no doubt, but messy, as well.
Now these oil and fat based fragrances were pretty much the norm for centuries. Herbs and flowers petals were crushed and steeped in oil filled jars until they were infused with the scent of the ingredients. By today’s standards, they were pretty heady brews, crude and not very long lasting. It was an Iranian doctor and chemist, Avicenna, who introduced distillation and perfumery, took a turn for the better. Roses were the most plentiful flowers available and their petals ideal for the process. Gone were the heavy scents, to be replaced by the more delicate fragrance of rose water. Needless to mention, it became immediately popular. Soon, everything that had a fragrance that was pleasant was being distilled and the art of perfume blending gained sophistication. The development of perfumery was not an isolated event. Chemistry was developing at about the same time, and in the future, it was to play a major part in taking perfumery to the next level.
As wonderful as these new fragrances were, they still were mostly single note scents, based on one flower or herb, and it was to remain so until 1370 when the first modern perfume, comprised of scented oils blended into a solution with alcohol at the request of Queen Elizabeth of Hungary, burst on the scene, and in short time, was known and worn all over Europe.
With the coming of the Renaissance, perfumery took another giant leap forward. With Italy’s temperate climate, the flowers and other herbal commodities could be grown with regularity, assuring the perfumers a steady supply to fill the increasing demand for their fragrant concoctions. More refinements enabled these Italians to blend more complex fragrances that became the hallmarks of the perfumers who invented them. When Catherine de Medici married the King of France, these refinements went with her, in the form of her personal perfumer, Rene le Florentin. By this time, the competition among perfumers was so intense that it was not unusual for formulae to be stolen from one perfumer, to be produced and sold as another’s original creation. Catherine ensured that her perfumes remained in the palace by having Rene’s laboratory connected to her apartments by a secret passageway.
During the Renaissance, perfume was only used by royalty, and the very wealthy, partly because they were the only ones that could afford such a luxury, and also as a masking agent to cover body odors due to the sanitary practices of the day. However, with discovery of Grasse as an ideal growing area for flowers, perfume and cosmetics became a major industry and France became its leader, affording even the meanest citizen the ability to afford scent, perhaps, not of the quality royalty used, but something that could make life just a little less dull and a little sweeter. By the 18th century, France was the undisputed leader in perfume design and trade, a position it still holds to this day.