History of Fragrances

Perfume: A History Of Seduction And Power

Montserrat Barba

From Cleopatra to Marilyn Monroe, women have always associated perfume with beauty and seduction, though it was first used in religious rites.

The use of perfume is part of our daily beauty routine and our aesthetic DNA. We choose it to express personality, charm, joy or independence. And today perfume is closely linked to the world of fashion. Almost all fragrances—with few exceptions, such as Guerlain—belong to luxury clothing or cosmetics manufacturers. In some cases they have become a designer emblem, like the famous Chanel No. 5, which in 1921 was revolutionary: finally, a fragrance was composed of more than one flower and was presented in a modern and durable bottle, far from the baroque aesthetic. Coco Chanel designed it for the 20th-century woman, and it became a legend thanks to Andy Warhol and Marilyn Monroe.


But many centuries before Marilyn went to bed wearing only a few drops of perfume, Cleopatra, the last Egyptian pharaoh, was already using essences to ratify her power and appeal. In Egypt, in early 30 BC, there was a whole industry of perfumery in a neighborhood of Alexandria, as illustrated by the book The Origins of Perfumery by Ramon Planas i Buera. Chroniclers of the time— such as Plutarch— narrate the meeting of the Egyptian queen with Marco Antonio and describe how “wonderful smells of incense flooded the banks.” Also, in the bas-reliefs of the temple of Edfu, there is a description in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs with recipes on how to make fragrances.

Planas explains that originally, perfume had a religious purpose, and statuettes of gods were anointed with scented ointments and incense. In fact, the first professional perfumers were priests who had their laboratories next to temples, and the first traces of the elaboration of aromas and cosmetics were found in a Sumerian settlement, in ancient Mesopotamia.


Perfume is part of the biography of great aristocrats like the Queen of Sheba or Catherine de Medici, who in the 13th century commissioned a fragrance called Acqua Della Regina to the pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella of the Dominican friars in Florence, considered the first apothecary in Europe. And the Perfume Museum of Barcelona has more than 300 containers, among which stands out one that belonged to Queen Marie Antoinette, from the end of an era when Paris was the capital of perfume and Louis XIV and Louis XV used it in Versailles to mask the poor hygiene and foul smells.

Napoleon restored its glory to the French perfume, which since the sixteenth century has its international capital in Provence: the small town of Grasse, 12 km from Cannes, where most of the world production is concentrated today.

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