A chemical poem – the story of perfume

A chemical poem – the story of perfume

For my second (and final) module of my first year at Uni we have been focusing on perfume. To truly understand the origin of perfume I decided to listen to a discussion that took place on BBC Radio 4 on the 30th December 2017. Hosted by Bridget Kendall, scientist and critic Luca Turin, writer and curator Lizzie Ostrom, and perfumer Thomas Fontaine took turns to discuss the history of perfume from its ancient history to its modern day impact. I won’t lie and say the half an hour flew by, but I did take away some important points that have helped educate and inspire me when it comes to the world of fragrance. 

Ostrom started out by mentioning though perfume is widely based on vanity, especially in Western countries, it can also be about religion, hospitality and seduction. Perfume first started out as incense and linked to rituals and worship. Perfume comes from the Latin word perfumare, which means ‘through the smoke’ as originally fragrances were burnt and produced as smoke.

Whilst animal extracts used to be a popular component of perfumes, synthetic smells are more commonly used due to an increase in attention towards animal rights (and rightly so), and the means of how they used to get these extracts. When it came to creating synthetic smells through chemistry, lots of the discoveries were accidents. In 1888, whilst trying to create TNT, Albert Bauer discovered two components came together to smell of musk, a scent that naturally comes from musk deer. Two of the most iconic synthetic perfumes from the 1880’s (around the time this method of perfume manufacturing became popular) was Guerlain’s Jicky, and Houbigant’s Fougere Royale. These were both produced with coumarin and vanillin, two popular synthetic smells.

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However the panelists pointed out that the 20th Century was the best century for perfumes, as this is when the art of perfume really evolved and more sophisticated advertising was introduced.  One of the men that paved the way was François Coty, and he did this through the way he bottled his perfumes. Jannet Flanner, for the New York Times, said of Coty ‘(he’s) a merchandising genius that perceived perfume as something in a lovely bottle, rather than something lovely in a bottle’. Coty’s fragrances ended up defining the geography of fragrances for the next 50 years. His collaboration with French glass maker René Lalique was the first of its kind, in terms of pairing fragrance with a pretty bottle.

Perfume, when it first started becoming increasingly popular, was made in France, but it was American women with money that fueled the demand. Ostrom thought that, in a way, this was a sign of female empowerment (something we all know I’m a big fan of), as the women didn’t wait for their husbands to buy them a bottle, but instead travelled to France and got it themselves.

To make an ultimately long story short, perfume is a message in a bottle. Fontaine pointed out that perfume is different from smell, as smell has no intent, but perfume has the intent of the perfumer. Perfume is simply a story translated into a fragrance, and I think this is going to be helpful when finalising our brand story for the fragrance my group are producing.

Until next time,

Beth x

Images sourced from Elle, Pinterest and Wikimedia Commons

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