We can start in Egypt, where thousands of years ago essential oils were infused into balms and ointments, creating fragrances for religious ceremony, but also for everyday use among the upper classes. Moving forward to the Greeks and the Romans, who gave perfume it’s name we use today (Per fumum ‘through smoke’), we can see that there has always been something in our nature that is unbreakably bound to fragrance and its inherent healing qualities. I find it quite humbling to know that people so long ago found use and comfort in some of the same scents and smells we still commonly use today.
Once new scents from around the world made their way into the hands of distillers during the Elizabethan Age, new techniques heightened perfume’s popularity. It was during this time that the epicenter of perfume migrated from Italy to France. With this, we saw such trends as the Sun King Louis XIV’s obsession with perfume and production in large numbers like never before.
The Victorian Age was a time when anything but quaint was sinful. Cosmetics took on a new persona of being delicate, floral, and understated. In turn, there were tremendous restrictions on what perfumers could make—but ironically, also tremendous strides in fragrance’s chemical composition. It’s thanks to some of the innovative chemists from this time that we have the synthetics that capture noteworthy scents of flowers, bitter almonds, ‘coumarin’ (that just-mown hay smell), artificial musk, and jasmine. From these advancements came new blends and scents that would pave the way for the future, in the same way we hope to do now.
The 20th Century introduced us to designer perfumes, and the end of shy, simplistic, and understated perfumes. People such as Francois Coty would revolutionize the industry by teaming up with the Baccarat crystal house to create bottles and labels for luxury clientele. He understood what role presentation played in perfume and creating a story behind his products. Famously, he said, ‘Give a woman the best product to be made, market it in the perfect flask, beautiful in it’s simplicity yet impeccable in it’s taste, ask a reasonable price for it – and you will witness the birth of a business the size of which the world has never seen.’
Coco Chanel would change the world of perfume forever with Chanel No. 5. Famous for its eclectic blends sparring dominant notes, Coco famously coined the scent as, “A perfume like nothing else. A woman’s perfume, with the scent of a woman.” She marketed intelligently to people with influence and was the true architect of the world of perfume, as we know it today.
Today, with celebrity fragrances and a widespread market, perfume is no longer something just for the wealthy. There is no shortage of creativity in the modern fragrance industry but still ample room for improvement and innovation. In recent years, the rise of niche fragrance brands has opened the doors to the individuality in perfume seen in the past. And while the well known niches continue to uphold retrospective scents made with fine materials, now is as exciting a time as ever to see where we will go next.
About the Expert
Los Angeles-based perfumer Lisa Hoffman embraces every facet of life into her creative process, from the everyday to the adventurous. With a rich background in fragrance—including education in Grasse, France with the world's most esteemed perfumers—she has seamlessly assimilated traditional fine fragrance into the lifestyle of the contemporary woman to create a brand that's unique and wearable.