The history of fragrances

Version dated 2017-12-04


Antiquity - Middle Age - Renaissance - Classic Era - Century of Lights - Napoleonic years - The years 1900 - The years 1920 - The years 1930 - The years 1950 - The years 1960 - The years 1970 - The years 1980 - The years 1990 - The years 2000

Perfumed trails takes us away, and the journey leads us to the borders of civilization. The history of perfume is a reflection of humanity: a means of exchange, a protection against disease, a potion with divine virtues, a gallant message... in each epoch perfume reflects society, perceptibly communicating its sense of commerce and medicine, of the sacred and the sensual. A world without perfume would be a world without history!


During the civilizations of antiquity, perfume was presented as an offering to the gods. It was believed to sublimate the body and make it more god-like.
In the civilizations of antiquity, from Egypt to Greece, fragrance did not exist as such. Flowers, scented plants, gums and resins were raw materials to be used during the ceremonies dedicated to the gods. As the years went by, the interest in fragrant substances intensified and the ways in which they were used multiplied : fumigations, oils, balms, fermented liquors ... Both rich and poor used them in an attempt to get closer to the gods, in the belief that fragrance glorified their beauty and their power. It was believed that fragrance made the body more perfect and healed its ailments. This lofty image changed during the years of decadence that followed and fragrance became an important element of raucous orgies.


Middle Age

During the Middle Ages, plants were used to protect against epidemics whereas perfumes from the Orient whispered of carnal pleasures. The Church condemned alchemists.
During that era, the crusaders brought back from the Orient new raw materials and fragrance techniques. Following in the footprints of the Chinese and the Arabs, the European alchemists discovered ethyl alcohol and the distillation. The travels of Marco Polo gave a tremendous boost to the spice trade. It was believed that pleasant smells had disinfectant properties and protected against epidemics : The wealthy carried around "fragrance balls" filled with musk, amber or aromatic resins. The use of fragrance ushered in a new art of living. Poets celebrated femininity with passion. In spite of a stern warning from the Church, the gentlemen and their ladies used sensual, scented baths to indulge in carnal pleasures.


Renaissance 1490-1600

During this period, queens and courtesans fought over the secret formulas created by the first Italian chemists and discovered fragrance ingredients imported from Asia and America.
The Renaissance ushered in a new vision of the world. Architects, engineers, artists and scholars traveled all over Europe. Boosted by the influence of powerful, wealthy patrons, the arts flourished. The first treatises on chemistry were progressively replacing alchemy and its recipes. Vasco de Gama, Christopher Columbus, Magellan, all famous explorers who brought back new raw materials from America and India : cocoa, vanilla, Peru balsam, tobacco, pepper, clove, cardamom ...
At the Court, famous courtesans and influential women competed against one another with beauty secrets ... and poisons. Leaving their native Spain and Italy (and the Medicis family), foreign perfumers established shop in Paris. Soon perfumed gloves were offered for sale all over France.

Classic Era 1600-1700

The use of fragrance at the Versailles court reached intoxicating levels. The makers of gloves, fragrances and powders became organized and developed their trade.

Versailles became a bright beacon, dictating its fashions, customs and practices. In four years, the Sun King took only one bath ! Everybody was filthy. Men and women used excessive amounts of fragrance and cosmetics. The Parliament authorized the master glovers to take the title of perfumer and later "powderer". Montpellier and Grasse vied with each other for the culture of medicinal herbs and flowers such as carnation, violet, jasmin, rose, tuberose as well as lavender.


Century of Lights 1700-1789

Hairstyles, make-up and perfume ... During that era, women painstakingly followed the codes of seduction and discovered the tyranny of fashion.
The Court of Louis XV was named the "perfumed court". It was mandatory to use a different fragrance every day. Toilet vinegars were starting to appear. It was a time of carefree happiness and celebrations, with Marie-Antoinette its focal point. Magazines and newspapers published the canons of feminine elegance which were followed painstakingly. Hygiene became fashionable again. The olfactive taste evolved to embrace more subtle fragrances, thus contributing to the wealth of the first famous Parisian fragrance houses. The Grasse chemists were prospering. They had succeeded in improving the techniques of enfleurage and distillation. In Cologne, Jean-Antoine Farina launched the "Eau de Cologne".


Napoleonic years 1789-1860

The excesses of the Directoire and the Empire were finally over. The flower-like woman of the romantic era was looking for a delicate scent that reflected her personality.
1789 - the smell of gunpowder spread in the wake of the French Revolution. Fragrances were despised. They made a come-back during the Consulate and the Empire. Empress Josephine spent a fortune on exotic scents and Napoleon was addicted to body rubs with eau de Cologne. British hygienists revived the popularity of fragrant baths. During the romantic era, women lost interest in make-up and strong fragrances. Languorous and pale, they would hold a delicately fragranced handkerchief in their hand.


Modern Perfumery 1860-1900

Towards the end of the 19th century, the fragrance industry increasingly targeted women belonging to the middle class. The first synthetic fragrance ingredients made their appearance.
The Second Empire was marked by a brief yet excessive infatuation with vetiver and patchouli. This fad came to an end during the latter part of the 19th century when the emergence of a strong middle class brought about a more refined taste in fragrance. The trade of luxury goods blossomed and perfumery was increasingly viewed as an art. New and original fragrance notes such as coumarin, heliotropine, vanillin, ionone and the first aldehydes - created through the brand-new process of chemical synthesis - caused an olfactory revolution. It was the birth of modern perfumery.


The years 1900-1920

1900 - the "Belle Epoque" ... fragrance was turning into a product of luxury with a prestigious name and a beautiful bottle.
This was the "Belle Epoque" ! The "Art Nouveau" was embraced with enthusiasm. Fragrance : Coty, a gifted visionary, teamed up with the equally talented Lalique and created a truly luxurious product.
Fashion : Farewell bustles ! Poiret proceeded to reinvent the feminine silhouette. The States saw the emergence of the beauty care and cosmetic market as pioneers Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein opened their doors. They added fragrance at a much later date.


The years 1920-1930

The flappers of the Roaring Twenties, embracing emancipation and innovation with gusto, discovered the novel freshness of aldehydic fragrances.
During these extravagant years, women joined the workforce and became emancipated. Goodbye corsets ! This was the era of the boyish "Garçonne" or flapper. There was a feeling of giddy lightness : speed records were broken, nights were spent dancing the Charleston, the stars of silent movies made everyone swoon ... Aldehydes introduced a breath of freshness and energy into fragrance.



The years 1930-1950

After World War II, Haute Couture and fragrance combined to create an image of feminine seduction inspired by Hollywood.
1930 - the Great Depression ... widespread unemployment. And then World War II broke out. Fascism, genocide. Fashion adapted to the restrictions. These were the heydays of Hollywood which in its studios built a "star culture". After the war Christian Dior launched the New Look, a visible sign of changing times. Marie Claire, first weekly magazine with wide distribution, had segments dedicated to fashion and beauty as well as an agony column and a serial romance novel. Designers created "character fragrances" : to each his or her own style.
One wore a designer fragrance to stand out.



The years 1950-1960

During the Fifties, fragrance lost its exclusive image.
The first eaux de toilette for men made their appearance.
The first American perfume was born.

Chewing gum, blue jeans and rock'n roll : Europe looked longingly towards America, and its sex symbols. It was the beginning of the Cold War. The appearance of automated household appliances changed everyday life for millions of women. Ready-to-wear and bridge brands were slowly replacing mass-produced garments. Fragrances too were becoming more accessible : their tonalities, which were more mainstream and easier to understand, appealed to a wider audience. The Fifties saw the emergence of masculine eaux de toilette. Lavender and vetiver, discreetly elegant, were still linked to the grooming routine. The American influence continued to be very much alive ! Estee Lauder launched her first fragrance.



The years 1960-1970

1960 ushered in an era of opposition and a change in social behavior. In terms of fragrance, it signaled the appearance of a new olfactive freshness.
The Sixties were an era of economic growth with little or no unemployment. The hippy movement, which originated in San Francisco, took Europe by storm. There was a growing awareness of the body and its five senses, which led to sexual liberation. "Make love, not war". The mood among the youth was rebellious, sparking violent demonstrations against the Vietnam War and fueling the insurrections of May 1968. Patchouli invaded the streets but the fashion industry took no notice. The eaux fraiches ... search for a new lightness or indictment of perfume ?



The years 1970-1980

The seventies woman claimed her individuality and proudly wore a "lifestyle" scent. Men started to use scent independently of their grooming/shaving ritual.
During the seventies, a number of different lifestyles emerged : feminism, back to nature, gay movement, punk, neo-romanticism. Clothes reflected their owner's attitude in life and and his or her ideas. Often several styles were combined. As in fashion, the most important factor in fragrance was its "message". Both in the US and in France new fragrance concepts wooed a woman that was sophisticated and provocative or, at other times, softly natural and romantic. Those who did not grasp this duality met with failure. After the eaux de toilette, true fragrances designed for men made their appearance on the market : Men no longer associated fragrance with after-shave.


The years 1980-1990

A time of individualism and confrontation. Fragrance, blatant, powerful, became a reflection of the strong sensations sought after by the surfers ... and the yuppies.
The eighties were marked by strong sensations.
The collapse of the Berlin Wall echoed the disintegration of several ideologies. Men and women were engaged in a grueling marathon to achieve professional success. Body-building, surfing, windsurfing and skiing were all the rage : the body had to be in top condition, quick and effective. Men's fragrances exalted the male body as it confronted the natural elements. Women, on the other hand, wore powersuits and overly strong fragrances to broadcast their professional success. New fruity notes, which originated in the US, added a novel twist to men's and women's fragrances.


The years 1990-2000

Materialism was fading into the past. Men and women were yearning for a purer world. They were sharing fragrances that reflected the search for a new freshness.
The Gulf War, AIDS ... two major happenings that brought into focus the fears and concerns of our society at the end of the second Millennium. To get away from an increasingly materialistic world, we plunged into rap or techno, we went into cocooning or embraced the New Age lifestyle. The Internet, like a giant web, was expanding to touch every aspect of our lives and beyond ... It was the birth of the interplanetary village. Certain perfumes reached back to the more gentle, tender memories of our childhood, linking taste and smell in the creamy, sweet notes of vanilla, caramel, milk. Men started to open up to their emotions. Fragrance was used to seduce. To react against the excesses of the eighties, the new "eaux" smelled of fresh water, as if to quench our desire for purity. Fragrances evoked the sea, water, plants and flowers, creating a natural feel, eventually refocusing on the basics : earth, fire, water and wind.


The years 2000-2008

After the 90s’ search for simplicity, sheerness and purity, the 21st century has focused on a return of the entrepreneur and the desire to control your own destiny.
In the era of the start-up, the urban universe has been revalorized. As in FlowerbyKenzo, nature is making headway into the city, whose strength and beauty are finally being acknowledged. 9/11 and the war in Iraq caused a shock wave: the priority nowadays is for a devil-may-care search for instant gratifaction. The success of gourmand orientals, initiated by Angel, marches on. Femininity is asserting itself in a percutante way that reached its paroxysm in 2003, when the ‘porno-chic’ look flaunted provocative ‘bad girls’.
After that torrid phase, there was a transition towards more emotion and authenticity. The market has been leaning towards a ‘vintage’ concept, particularly with the boom in nouveaux chypres, like Coco Mademoiselle; an obviously retro spirit, modernized with floral or fruity touches. New values, like ecology and sustainable development are emerging,… these are consensual themes that are creating a new category: eco-citizens At the same time, inter-community connections are growing stronger. Now more than ever, thanks to the appearance first of blogs, then of social networking sites like MySpace and FaceBook, the internet can truly be seen as a global village. An obvious overture that translates into new olfactory codes: less compartmentalized, men’s fragrances explore an intense, oriental, and even floral sensuality. Niche brands offer unisex fragrances that go against the diktats of marketing. And to satisfy a growing desire to stand out from the crowd, fragrance is going all out with limited-edition, exclusive, ‘vintage’ (in the sense of specifying the year of creation, like fine wines), and even custom-made scents.