The history of perfume
Perfume, a transcendental experience, is derived from the Latin “per fumus,” meaning “through smoke.” The art of perfume making has long been an ancient and sacred practice. Originating in ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Indus Valley civilisations, we have been enveloped by the alchemic qualities of scents and olfactory reactions. Certainly, to experience another person’s scent is to inhale their presence and be enamored by their aphrodisiac. Olfactory sensations attune the bodily senses to that of balance. Where we are constantly looking, touching, and tasting; smells should also have its place in the sphere of pleasure and curiosity. On the other hand, they heighten the senses, letting others know your class, rank, and status. They have been used in potions for love and also potions for revenge. The drama of perfume cascades down the pages of history books and brings to mind the vision of an alchemic studio. Beautiful glass bottles crowding tables, nestling into the various botanical ingredients, bringing heady euphoria into our range.
Balance, a source of power in alchemy, is found in the ancient art of scent curation. The feminine sensuality of floral ingredients and its potential attraction meets the historically masculinised science of chemistry and distillation. Tapputi, a woman from the second millennium BC in Mesopotamia is the world’s first recorded chemist who distilled flowers, oil, and other aromatics, then filtered and put them back in the still several times. She is also the first recorded perfume maker. To be in her space with her, watching her curiosity expand as she pushed the then-traditional boundaries of what natural elements can do for our romantic and sensual beings would be breathtaking.
The world’s first perfumer was a chemist, a scientist whose life mission was to heal people. She understood that healing is a holistic process that requires both logic and intuition. Isn’t that what scent is all about? The intuition of what smells delicious meets the logic of how to layer the scents to tell a long-lasting story. For millennia we have known that the same components that bring us pleasure can also heal us. Ibn Sina, a persian chemist from the middle ages, used steam distillation in the to produce essential oils such as rose essence that he used as aromatherapeutic treatments for heart conditions. Rose water had more of a delicate quality than previous perfumes that consisted of oils and crushed herbs or petals, thus immediately becoming popular. The genius that is sparked when creating perfumes, the whirring mind meeting the aromatic curiosity, is influential in the fields of chemistry and medicine.
And today the modern perfume industry pays homage to ancient ingredients and techniques, with heady almonds and sharp bergamots featuring exciting new concoctions. Each perfumery rekindles our relationship to the ancient sacredness of balance and sensuality when diffusing, layering, and experimenting with oils. Each new bottle is an ode to the transcendental journey of perfumes, starting with the most ancient civilisations. Ancient herbs and spices such as almond, coriander, myrtle, bergamot, and flowers are widely revered as vital components of some favourite scents.
Our planet is a rich tapestry of natural resources that continuously fulfil the cycle of life. Where frankincense from Eastern Africa can sublimate with the Chinese osmanthus’s delicate aroma. Or the powerful oudh from the agar trees in southeast Asia can have a playful dance with the Brazillian tonka bean. Now we have the pleasure to create our own signature scents. We can play with our senses, evoking the same curiosity that held Tapputi. Do you like jasmine in your top notes, with the initial provocation of musky sweetness settling down into the heart note of the floral ylang ylang, before leaving the lingering delicious exotic earthiness of sandalwood? The perfumer has long traversed the world so we can traverse it with them. We too can be brave explorers smelling new terrains and botanical life.
Scent, along with our other senses, are crucial to our experience of the world. Be it a lustful charge towards the aphrodisiac rose infusion, or the repulsion of rotting food. They tap into an old tradition of curiosity, of mixing components and paying close attention to the physical reactions that are unique to each individual: they engage in mindfulness. Using scents and smokes to focus the attention on the present senses, both the process of making a perfume and wearing one is meditative and pulls you back into your body whilst simultaneously taking you on a transcendental trip to a memory, a lover, or a place.
Perfumes invite into our lives a balance through procuring the sacred lessons of the natural world to achieve harmony within ourselves, and to bring harmony to other people. So much more than an instinctual reaction, but no less important is that reaction, alongside the mindfulness and genius we all have within us to play more with our senses and thus our minds and relation to the outside world as well as the internal. Even modern spirituality and religion attest to this, where Italian monks in the 13th century crafted sacred perfume recipes. Queen Elizabeth of Hungary commissioned the iconic Hungary Water in the 14th century, where the blend of scented oils in alcohol solution was used medicinally to alleviate pain and cleansing the body of impurities.
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