Fashion & Beauty History & Culture

A Tale of Perfumes and Fragrances

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Ruchira delves into the antiquity of perfumes and fragrances, exclusively for Different Truths.

The word spells class, an epitome of lavish lifestyles, haute couture, not forgetting pleasures of the senses.   

A rewind of history. The word perfume is rooted in the Latin word perfumare, meaning to smoke through. The Egyptians were familiar with the commodity around 2000 BC. During burial ceremonies they would offer incense (a form of perfume) believed to be the sweat of deities. Even in that hoary past, perfume or fragrance had multiple applications. Basic aromatic resins were burnt on altars during ritual worship. Chinese women collected aromatic grasses to be used in fertility rites. Courtiers of Egyptian Pharaos were known to don wigs, scented derivatives of Lilies.  High society women enjoyed perfuming their bodies with floral extracts and essences.

As per historical records the world’s first chemist was a Mesopotamian woman  named Tapputi (circa:1200 BC). She was a perfume maker and wielded considerable clout in the corridors of power. An ancient chronicle mentions that a chest of perfumes invariably accompanied Alexander the Great on his numerous campaigns during the 4th century BC. Interestingly, the great conqueror reportedly exuded a natural odour of musk – which women found irresistible. The Bible (Exodus 30:22-33) describes a sacred potion comprising liquid myrrh, fragrant cinnamon, cane, and cassia. Its use was limited solely to priests. The legendary queen Cleopatra was wont to douse herself in clouds (read vapours) of incense!

The subcontinent did not lag in this aspect either. Archaeologists discovered several terracotta distillation apparatus and oil containers amidst the ruins of the civilisation. Later Hindu Ayurvedic texts  e.g Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita  contain copious references to the process of distillation, a sine qua non  for perfume  manufacturing. Brihat-Samhita written by  the renowned Ujjain-based scholar Varāhamihira, refers to fragrances  exclusively meant for royal  individuals.  

During the heydays of the Arab Empire in West Asia, perfumes/essences   became a part and parcel of daily life including worship. By way of their conquests and trade relations with other lands, the Persian and Arabs acquired, learnt usage (and cultivated) of a wide range of substances: musk, amber, rose, jasmine, expensive wood, citrus fruits, ambergris et al. These gradually found extensive application in perfumes and fragrances. In the 7th century AD Baghdad was the fountainhead of perfume trade – boasting of fifty perfume shops and nearly hundred public baths whose waters were perfumed for users’ comfort. By the 13th century, perfume emerged as a major industry in the Middle East. Little wonders, therefore, that in Arabia, has always been hailed as the ‘Land of Perfumes’.  Remember the oft-quoted line “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand” (Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth)?      

Around the 14th century, perfume’s journey to Europe was moulded by historical events e.g., the Crusades and trade with Arabs. The first modern perfume-containing scented oils and alcohol solution debuted, in 1370, as Water of Hungary! Germany too had its fair share of perfume fame. In the 17th century, Paolo Feminis,  a Milanese traveller, based in  Cologne, created an aromatic product Aqua Mirabilis –  a potpourri of extracts of lemon, rose, neroli, citrus, rosemary and lots more. Eventually, it grew famous as Eau De Cologne (French: water of Cologne).

In the 17th and 18th century France perfumes were en vogue, and highly popular. Perfumers were also known to create poisons. An incredible tale narrates how a French duchess was murdered by her foes, who rubbed a poisonous perfume onto her gloves! King Louis XV was so addicted to fragrances that his court earned a sobriquet: the perfumed court. He even demanded a different perfume daily for his living quarters. His  mistress, Madame de Pompadour was notorious for splurging on perfumes. Napoleon Bonaparte was believed to have used sixty bottles of double extract of jasmine every month. His consort Josephine was fond of wearing musk. According to hearsay, such humongous quantities were used those decades after her death, the walls of her chamber retained the odour!  Till date France rests at the apex of Europe’s perfume industry and trade.

Fast forward to modern times, the best perfumes used worldwide today are churned out by couturiers based in France and/or Italy. On a personal note, Christian Dior ‘s “Poison”tops the charts. The heart shaped amethyst vial is indeed a feast to the eyes!  Chanel No 5 by Coco Chanel is another perennial delight.  Ditto for the Yves Saint Laurent range including. “Opium” which set your pulses (and hearts too) racing. Apart from these designer ranges the fragrance under the banner of Avon (USA) are delightful too! As a teenager I freaked out on “Roses, Roses” and “Country Breeze”.  For all I know they might be defunct now. I must wind up by mentioning Paloma Picasso – a loving daughter’s glowing tribute to her legendary artist father! Yes, her father was none other than Salvador Dali, the eccentric Genius. Paloma’s catch line was: For the Bold & Beautiful Women! 

©Ruchira Adhikari Ghosh 

Photos from the Internet

#HistoryOfPerfume #Perfume #EaudeCologne #Fragrance #HowPerfumewasmade #SliceOfLife #DifferentTruths


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