The History of Perfumes and Fragrance

The history of perfumes and fragrance


Perfumes and fragrances have played an important role throughout world history. Although the modern fashionista applies perfume to feel attractive, the history of perfume indicates the original purpose was not the same.

Perfumes and Fragrance in Ancient Times

The history of perfume and fragrance dates back thousands of years to ancient times and the Egyptians.  In Egypt, fragrances were primarily used for religious ceremonies which is where the term perfume originated.  The Egyptians would use fragrance as an incense which elevated scented smoke into the air as a means for communicating with the gods.

As a result of Egyptian religious ceremonies, the word perfume originated from two Latin words.  The words are per and fumus meaning through and smoke which described the elevation of scented smoke during a religious ceremony.  The fragrance was achieved via the burning of woods and resins.

Additionally, perfume was developed by the Egyptians with the very first cosmetics.  However, the purpose of the cosmetics were to draw the kindness of the gods, instead of being used to garner the attention of the opposite sex.  The Egyptians believed the gods would smile on them if they surrounded themselves with a pleasant aroma.

For this reason, many different perfumes are buried in Egyptian tombs as they believed the more perfume they wore, the better the chances they would spend eternity in heaven.  Additionally, perfumes and oils were often used in the embalming process as well. The perfumes were made of rose petals, peppermint, frankincense, and myrrh.  The concept of surrounding yourself in fragrance led to soaking fragrant resins and woods in oil and water and then spreading the scent all over your body.

ancient egyptian perfume bottleThe Egyptians were also the first to create perfume bottles in which to store the perfume. The bottles were commonly made of glass which was invented by the Egyptians.  Other bottles were crafted of native stones, porcelain, gold, and other natural materials as the Egyptians believed only the finest bottles should be made to hold perfumes with the greatest respect. This led to the addition of perfumes in a bath.

During ancient times, the Greeks and Romans created luxurious bathhouses as the result of Egyptian practices. Additionally, the Greeks kept records of their perfume mixtures and categorised them according to the plant of origin.  Greek perfume also came from other sources such as events following the invasion of Egypt by Alexander the Great and adoption of Greek perfume by the Romans following their invasion of Greece. Meanwhile, other cultures such as those in India and China were using perfumes as part of their religious ceremonies as well.

Perfume and Fragrance during the Middle Ages

The use of perfume faded out during the early part of the Middle Ages mainly because of the expansion of Christianity. As international trade increased, so did the use of perfume thanks to the availability of new spices and scents beginning early in the 12th century.  It was at this point that people began to create their own scents at home by combining oils, herbs, spices, and flowers as part of the routine cleansing and grooming process.

By the 18th century, Jean-Marie Farina of Italian descent born in 1865 and settling in Cologne Germany in 1709, developed Eau de Cologne.  The term Eau de Cologne means water from Cologne and quickly became popular across the globe and in the royal courts.  The original Eau de Cologne was used both as a fragrance and for internal use as a medicinal application.  Eau de Cologne is still produced today by the eighth generation of the Farina family.

Perfume and Fragrance in the 19th Century and Later

By the early 19th century personal hygiene took centre stage and was perceived as purification of the soul.  Additionally, new technology contributed to making perfume more widely available to the wealthy, as well as those who previously could not afford it.

The technology allowed for the discovery of new techniques for extracting fragrances. Additionally, advancements in chemistry led to the discovery of synthetic substitutes for costly fragrance ingredients.  This made perfume more widely available and reduced the price, making it accessible to more people.  Only a few brand names were known to exist during this time, until the beginning of the 20th century when new technology made it possible to mass produce perfumes and fragrances.

Different Types of Fragrance

Fragrances are made in a variety of different forms with an endless array of names.  But when it comes down to it, there are actually five main categories of fragrance.


blending-perfumesPerfume is the most potent and expensive type of fragrance and has been made of plant and animal extracts for thousands of years. The variety of plant sources is quite extensive and is categorised as different types of barks, fruits, flowers, leaves, woods, and seeds.  Other categories can include different types of spices, grasses, gums, balsams, and resins.

Barks such as pine, cinnamon and other types are used, as well as flowers such as roses, gardenia, jasmine, and more.  Many types of perfumes are also created using fruit extracts such as citrus, berries, and apples, in addition to a variety of seeds such as nutmeg and cocoa.  Some of the commonly used woods include rosewood, pine, and sandalwood.

The use of animal sources to create perfume is not as prevalent in the current day as it once was some time ago.  This is because of the growing concern over animal treatment, as well as a myriad of ethical and legal issues similar to the cosmetic industry. Instead, synthetic fragrances have replaced animal sources in the creation of fragrances.

Perfume is the most expensive type of fragrance and typical contains 21 percent or more of essential oils. Some of the higher end perfumes such as Chanel No. 5 can have a concentration level as high as 40 percent along with other top of the line fragrances.

Eau de Parfum

The second highest level of fragrance is Eau de Parfum which is the preferred fragrance by most upper class and wealthy consumers.  The concentration level for Eau de Parfum is typically anywhere from ten to twenty percent with most fragrances at this level created with 15 percent concentration.  Most of the well-known brands you typically see at fragrance counters are made with this level of concentration.

In terms of layers of notes, Eau de Parfum is created with a focus on the middle notes which are the core of the fragrance.  The middle notes become prominent after the top notes weaken and are designed to last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours depending upon the scent.

Eau de Parfum costs more than Eau de cologne and Eau de Toilette which we will discuss in a minute. For this reason, it is not as popular as the fragrances in the lower end categories. Eau de Parfum is designed to last longer which makes it cost effective since it can be applied in small amounts

Eau de Toilette

Eau de Toilette is in the third category of the five main types of fragrances. The concentration level for this fragrance is anywhere from five to ten percent.  Eau de Toilette is the fragrance level you will find in most mall department stores that have mainly middle class clientele.

Eau de Toilette typically costs less than perfume and Eau de Parfum.  Since it is a lower level of concentration, this allows you to apply it more often and more generously without the fragrance being to over the top.

Eau de Cologne

Eau de Cologne has one of the lowest concentration levels of essential oils.  Eau de Cologne has a concentration level of approximate three to eight percent with most fragrances containing about five percent.

Typically, this type of fragrance is made of citrus since it works the best with fragrances that have low concentration levels. In addition to a low concentration of essential oils, Eau de Cologne has a base of mostly water and alcohol.  The cost is one of the lowest in the categories we have discussed and the top notes are the scent that is predominant immediately following application.

Because of the low concentration, the fragrance tends to fade quickly before the other notes slowly diminish.  This means you could have the same fragrance at two different concentration levels and the Eau de Cologne will smell different.

Eau Fraiche

Eau Fraiche is the very lightest concentration of fragrance and is very diluted when compared to the other fragrance categories we discussed.   Eau Fraiche has a concentration level of just one to three percent which makes it low cost as well.

The French term Eau Fraiche means “fresh water” and contains a very low level of essential oils.  The lower the level of essential oils, the cheaper the fragrance is which works well for people who may not be able to afford the upper end fragrances.  It also works well for people who desire extreme subtlety in a fragrance.

Top Selling Perfumes in History

The perfume industry has grown significantly within the last hundred years.  During this time there are a few brands of fragrance that have revolutionised the industry.

Chanel No. 5

Chanel No. 5 was first introduced in 1921 by Coco Chanel and has remained an iconic scent for many women.  Chanel No. 5 is a top of the line fragrance that was the first perfume to be made with synthetic aldehyde.  The synthetics helped to exaggerate fragrance notes while adding complexity to the scent.  Currently, one bottle of Chanel No. 5 is sold every minute across the world.


Miss Dior

Miss Dior is another top of the line fragrance developed in 1947 by Christian Dior and named for his sister Catherine whom he shared a close relationship with. When the perfume was commissioned, Christian Dior instructed Paul Vacher and Jean Charles to create a fragrance that describes love.  The fragrance is made of jasmine, gardenia, bergamot, iris, rose, narcissus and lily of the valley which is a tribute to a flower garden in Granville that has special memories for the siblings. Today, the perfume is the scent of haute couture and is sprinkled daily on the residence on Avenue Montaigne.

Miss Dior


Opium is a fragrance of fruit and spices first introduced in the latter part of the 1970s by Yve Saint Laurent.  At the time of its release, the fragrance stirred much controversy due its name and the packaging which was done in an oriental design.  The connotations resulted in protests by the Chinese Americans who demanded the fragrance be redesigned and the name changed.  Because of all the attention garnered by the controversy, Opium has been one of the top selling fragrances since the 20th century.

opium perfume bottle


Joy is a fragrance created during the Depression era in 1929 by Jean Patou, a French fashion designer.  At the time of its introduction it was marketed as the most expensive perfume in the world.  This is because the composition consists of a unique combination of rare flowers.  There are more than 10,000 flowers of jasmine and more than 27 dozens of roses included in the perfume. The excessive number of natural extracts and oils are what make Joy a highly treasured scent.

Where Fragrance Stands Today

The fragrance industry has come a long way since many thousands of years ago.  So what is ahead for the future of the industry?  Fragrance designers have mentioned to expect fragrances that are more complex with a high concentration of florals as in the new DKNY fragrance.  Additionally, fragrances will contain ingredients that enhance the skin and keep it well hydrated.

Modern fragrances are also being designed to improve your well-being with scents that provide a fragrance and body treatment in one.  Other scents are being designed to provide a calming effect while providing a top end fragrance that helps you to feel your best.

As for many decades to come, perhaps fragrances will be designed to last the entire day or renew themselves and last much longer than that. Maybe aromatherapy will return to ancient times and fragrances will provide comfort and healing properties.

Although the fragrance industry is clearly revolutionising scents, the spectacular fragrances of the past still remain attractive.  Chances are the classics that have survived decades will bring something new to the table for the generations to come as well.

About the Author

Micar is a London-based supplier of the original bespoke ERP software solution for the clothing, footwear and textile industries. If you have any questions about implementing an ERP solution, do not hesitate to contact us. Call us on 020 8531 7444, or visit our website to find out more about our products.

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