The use of perfume originated thousands of years ago, way before the success of the global cosmetics giants Coty and Guerlain and Marilyn‘s bedtime ritual wearing Chanel n° 5. Fragrances have always been used by the upper class to be distinguished from the mass.
In Ancient Egypt, scented oils were thought to be the sweat of the sun god Ra and were used for both ceremonial and beautification purposes. There was even a god of perfume, called Nefertum, who wore a head dress made of water lilies, popular ingredient used to make perfumes at the time. Other ingredients imported from Africa were aromatic woods and myrrh, very important for trade routes.
In Ancient Persian art, members of the royal class were pictured with perfume bottles, as shown in some portraits of rulers Darius and Xerxes. Some believe it was during this time that the distillation process was invented, thanks to the experiments of Persian doctor Avicenna.
A mural in a perfume-maker’s house in Pompeii shows the Greek and Roman perfume making process: first they would make oil by pressing olives, then they would add ingredients like plants and woods, so that the oil could take on the scent. Perfume was also used in ancient societies to bring believers closer to the gods.
In Ancient China perfumes (mostly incense) were used as disinfectants rather than cosmetics. Women from the high society would use scented flowers to scent their hands. The same ingredients were also used for food and medicine.
During the Middle Ages in Europe it was thought that bad air could make you sick so women used portable perfumes called pomanders, balls of scented materials kept inside a case. The elegant accessory was used as a protection against infection in times of pestilence or merely to modify bad smells. Animal-based ingredients were also used, mostly secretions painfully scraped from the genital organs of civet cats, musk deers and otters.
But it was in Italy that the first Eau de Cologne was created. After this invention of the aqua mirabilis (a distilled made of alcohol, sage, betony, balm, and other aromatic ingredients), during the Renaissance Italy became the center of the world perfume trade for several hundred years. In Florence, the Pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella became famous in the early 16th century thanks to Catherine de Medici, daughter of the most powerful family of the city. To commemorate her marriage to Henry II, the future king of France, the monks created a special perfume named Acqua Della Regina. The perfume is still one of the most popular scents sold at the legendary pharmacy and it’s been renamed Acqua di Santa Maria Novella. The unique scent of bergamot and aromatic spices remains unchanged.
Under Catherine’s patronage the pharmacy’s repute spread, and in 1612 it opened its doors to the public. She was later accused of murdering people with her poisoned gloves.
The story of the perfume continued until the late 1800s, when the modern perfume industry was born.