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The Art of Perfumery

Updated on October 30, 2015

If you have ever caught a whiff of some truly wonderful smell on a person as he or she passes, you can almost certainly attribute that pleasant smell to a perfume. In fact, if you glory in collecting those cute little bottles of designer perfumes, you can also attribute the magic liquids inside to the art of perfumery. It has often been said that perfumes are all about chemistry and that is exactly the job of a perfumer.

What is Perfumery?

This term “perfumery” is used in the perfume industry to refer to the art of making perfumes or the business of producing and selling perfumes. If you like your history, you will be interested in knowing that perfumes actually have a very long history that dates back to the time of the Mesopotamians. A number of historians believe that the Mesopotamians started perfumery by way of incense. Another ancient civilization that was said to have a hand in the art of perfumery is, of course, Ancient Egypt. Experts even say they were the very first civilization to make perfumes for personal enjoyment and the art of perfumery was performed only by priests. This is the very reason special perfume laboratories had to be built in the temples where the priests would be spending most of their time. Back then, only people in very high positions would be allowed to use perfumes since they were really the only ones who could afford it.

These people didn’t just enjoy perfume in their lifetime but their remains also enjoyed it in their death. Much like only the rich and important mummies got the best tombs, it was only the rich and important mummies that were embalmed with cassia and myrrh so they smelled good. The same rich and important mummies would also receive scented water in their tombs as discovered by archeologists back in 1992.

Tutankhamen’s tomb, when it was found back in 1922, also yielded several jugs of scented oil. In 40BC, during the rule of Cleopatra, the use of perfumes reached a crescendo and almost everyone who could pay for perfumes would wear some. When she seduced the Roman emperor Julius Caesar, she did so using all the charms in her arsenal and copious amounts of perfume.

Perfumery in Ancient Greece

Perfumes weren’t just appreciated by Ancient Egypt but also by the Greeks. The art of perfumery started in the island of Crete where the finished products were then stored in bottles and sold in the marketplace (agora). Merchants would then sell them in their stalls. The ancients Greeks loved these perfumes and quickly decided to experiment on making their own.

Their extraction techniques involved boiling flower petals and herbs so they could isolate the plant ingredients they needed. Then, they would make perfumes by infusing the extracts in oils. The process they used is quite similar to the methods used today, only it was lot simpler back then. The ingredients they used consisted mostly of flowers they grew in their home gardens such as:

  • Lilies
  • Roses
  • Violets
  • Marjoram
  • Iris

They would also make use of some aromatic herbs such as:

  • Sage
  • Cumin
  • Rosemary
  • Basil

Perfume ingredients like myrrh and incense were often viewed as luxurious and decadent, thus they were reserved mostly for the gods up until the 4th century. At that time, there was not just a shift in ideology and tastes but also in supply. The Greeks learned to import essential sources from the orient and these made more exotic scents. Other civilizations would import their perfumes but not the Greeks; they kept their perfumes for their own use.

Perfumes are quite important to the daily life of the ancient Greeks and were viewed as the center if hospitality, status, wealth, and even philosophy. It was linked to beauty which was also linked to divinity so much so that the origins of perfumery became lined with mythology.

Perfumery in Modern Times

Time passed, civilizations came and went and yet it can be said that through it all, perfumes and the art of perfumery stayed intact. As explorers mapped out the world and introduced new spices and aromatics to different countries, perfumes changed in their makeup and became more exotic and artful.

The modern art of perfumery started not too long ago in the 19th century and it was all due to the use of commercial aroma compounds such as coumarin and vanillin. These two allowed for new perfume compositions that plain aromatics alone would not be able to accomplish. One thing that is worth noting is that the recipes for commercial perfumes are often kept secret but even if a list was published, the odorants and the scents used would be so complex that people will be hard-pressed to reproduce them. Take a look at some of the top perfumes of all time and you will realize that recreating them may just be close to impossible.

  • Chanel no. 5 – This is perhaps one of the most iconic perfumes of all time. It was created by Chanel back in 1921 yet it still remains a bestseller in some markets. This perfume has a very traditional scent but it is extremely glamorous. It was made for mature women who have passed the candy scents of their youth. The fragrance is moderately flowery and consists of jasmine, rose, and aldehyde. The scent can last for a good 10 hours. Other notes present are ylang-ylang, neroli, vetiver, sandalwood, amber, patchouli, lily of the valley, iris, lemon, and bergamot. This is a rather expensive perfume which means it is almost always faked.

  • Red Door – This is a perfume from Elizabeth Arden and may just be as popular as Chanel no. 5. This was first released back in 1989 and has a very flowery smell that comes from orchid, lily of the valley, red rose, jasmine, and violets. It is a very sensual perfume that has withstood the test of time and is ideal for special occasions and romantic dates.

  • Opium – This scent by Yves Saint Laurent is one classic that invokes visions and scents of the orient when worn. The original opium was released in 1977 and combined the smells of myrrh, cloves, plum, and tangerine. It has a rather heavy base and a very heady effect that doesn’t really make it ideal for everyday wear though it is a perfume to use if you really want to make a grand entrance.

  • White Diamonds – This is a perfume designed by none other than Elizabeth Taylor herself. This might just be what started the whole tradition of celebrities designing their own scents. This is a perfume that has a rather thin, light, and floral scent. Its top notes include bergamot, lily, neroli, orange, and aldehydes while its middle notes use the classical combo of jasmine, rose, violet, and ylang-ylang. The base notes are a mixture of oak moss, amber, patchouli, sandalwood, and musk.

The Perfume Industry

The perfume industry nowadays is a billion dollar industry, around $36 billion more or less and it is all thanks to the celebrities that tout their own perfume lines, as well as design houses that release high end products. Perfumes, the high end ones, might cost around $50 to $100 but exclusive perfumes that are one-of-a-kind like Caron’s Poivre by Michel Morsetti which is sold or $1000/oz. Another expensive perfume is the Clive Christian no. 1 which sells for $2150/oz.

How fond are you of perfumes?

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