Since the beginning of recorded history, humans have attempted to mask or enhance their own odor by using perfume, which emulates nature's pleasant smells. Many natural and man-made materials have been used to make perfume to apply to the skin and clothing, to put in cleaners and cosmetics, or to scent the air. Because of differences in body chemistry, temperature, and body odors, no perfume will smell exactly the same on any two people.
Perfume comes from the Latin "per" meaning "through" and "fumum," or "smoke." Many ancient perfumes were made by extracting natural oils from plants through pressing and steaming. The oil was then burned to scent the air. Today, most perfume is used to scent bar soaps. Some products are even perfumed with industrial odorants to mask unpleasant smells or to appear "unscented."
While fragrant liquids used for the body are often considered perfume, true perfumes are defined as extracts or essences and contain a percentage of oil distilled in alcohol. Water is also used. The United States is the world's largest perfume market with annual sales totalling several billions of dollars.
According to the Bible, Three Wise Men visited the baby Jesus carrying myrrh and frankincense. Ancient Egyptians burned incense called kyphi —made of henna, myrrh, cinnamon, and juniper—as religious offerings. They soaked aromatic wood, gum, and resins in water and oil and used the liquid as a fragrant body lotion. The early Egyptians also perfumed their dead and often assigned specific fragrances to deities. Their word for perfume has been translated as "fragrance of the gods." It is said that the Moslem prophet Mohammed wrote, "Perfumes are foods that reawaken the spirit."
Eventually Egyptian perfumery influenced the Greeks and the Romans. For hundreds of years after the fall of Rome, perfume was primarily an Oriental art. It spread to Europe when 13th century Crusaders brought back samples from Palestine to England, France, and Italy. Europeans discovered the healing properties of fragrance during the 17th century. Doctors treating plague victims covered their mouths and noses with leather pouches holding pungent cloves, cinnamon, and spices which they thought would protect them from disease.
Perfume then came into widespread use among the monarchy. France's King Louis XIV used it so much that he was called the "perfume king." His court contained a floral pavilion filled with fragrances, and dried flowers were placed in bowls throughout the palace to freshen the air. Royal guests bathed in goat's milk and rose petals. Visitors were often doused with perfume, which also was sprayed on clothing, furniture, walls, and tableware. It was at this time that Grasse, a region of southern France where many flowering plant varieties grow, became a leading producer of perfumes.
Meanwhile, in England, aromatics were contained in lockets and the hollow heads of canes to be sniffed by the owner. It was not until the late 1800s, when synthetic chemicals were used, that perfumes could be mass marketed. The first synthetic perfume was nitrobenzene, made from nitric acid and benzene. This synthetic mixture gave off an almond smell and was often used to scent soaps. In 1868, Englishman William Perkin synthesized coumarin from the South American tonka bean to create a fragrance that smelled like freshly sown hay. Ferdinand Tiemann of the University of Berlin created synthetic violet and vanilla. In the United States, Francis Despard Dodge created citronellol—an alcohol with rose-like odor—by experimenting with citronella, which is derived from citronella oil and has a lemon-like odor. In different variations, this synthetic compound gives off the scents of sweet pea, lily of the valley, narcissus, and hyacinth.
Just as the art of perfumery progressed through the centuries, so did the art of the perfume bottle. Perfume bottles were often as elaborate and exotic as the oils they contained. The earliest specimens date back to about 1000 B.C. In ancient Egypt, newly invented glass bottles were made largely to hold perfumes. The crafting of perfume bottles spread into Europe and reached its peak in Venice in the 18th century, when glass containers assumed the shape of small animals or had pastoral scenes painted on them. Today perfume bottles are designed by the manufacturer to reflect the character of the fragrance inside, whether light and flowery or dark and musky.
Natural ingredients—flowers, grasses, spices, fruit, wood, roots, resins, balsams, leaves, gums, and animal secretions—as well as resources like alcohol, petrochemicals, coal, and coal tars are used in the manufacture of perfumes. Some plants, such as lily of the valley, do not produce oils naturally. In fact, only about 2,000 of the 250,000 known flowering plant species contain these essential oils. Therefore, synthetic chemicals must be used to re-create the smells of non-oily substances. Synthetics also create original scents not found in nature.
Some perfume ingredients are animal products. For example, castor comes from beavers, musk from male deer, and ambergris from the sperm whale. Animal substances are often used as fixatives that enable perfume to evaporate slowly and emit odors longer. Other fixatives include coal tar, mosses, resins, or synthetic chemicals. Alcohol and sometimes water are used to dilute ingredients in perfumes. It is the ratio of alcohol to scent that determines whether the perfume is "eau de toilette" (toilet water) or cologne.
Oils are extracted from plant substances by several methods: steam distillation, solvent extraction, enfleurage, maceration, and expression.
After the scent has been created, it is mixed with alcohol. The amount of alcohol in a scent can vary greatly. Most full perfumes are made of about 10-20% perfume oils dissolved in alcohol and a trace of water. Colognes contain approximately 3-5% oil diluted in 80-90% alcohol, with water making up about 10%. Toilet water has the least amount—2% oil in 60-80% alcohol and 20% water.
Because perfumes depend heavily on harvests of plant substances and the availability of animal products, perfumery can often turn risky. Thousands of flowers are needed to obtain just one pound of essential oils, and if the season's crop is destroyed by disease or adverse weather, perfumeries could be in jeopardy. In addition, consistency is hard to maintain in natural oils. The same species of plant raised in several different areas with slightly different growing conditions may not yield oils with exactly the same scent.
Problems are also encountered in collecting natural animal oils. Many animals once killed for the value of their oils are on the endangered species list and now cannot be hunted. For example, sperm whale products like ambergris have been outlawed since 1977. Also, most animal oils in general are difficult and expensive to extract. Deer musk must come from deer found in Tibet and China; civet cats, bred in Ethiopia, are kept for their fatty gland secretions; beavers from Canada and the former Soviet Union are harvested for their castor.
Synthetic perfumes have allowed perfumers more freedom and stability in their craft, even though natural ingredients are considered more desirable in the very finest perfumes. The use of synthetic perfumes and oils eliminates the need to extract oils from animals and removes the risk of a bad plant harvest, saving much expense and the lives of many animals.
Perfumes today are being made and used in different ways than in previous centuries. Perfumes are being manufactured more and more frequently with synthetic chemicals rather than natural oils. Less concentrated forms of perfume are also becoming increasingly popular. Combined, these factors decrease the cost of the scents, encouraging more widespread and frequent, often daily, use.
Using perfume to heal, make people feel good, and improve relationships between the sexes are the new frontiers being explored by the industry. The sense of smell is considered a right brain activity, which rules emotions, memory, and creativity. Aromatherapy—smelling oils and fragrances to cure physical and emotional problems—is being revived to help balance hormonal and body energy. The theory behind aromatherapy states that using essential oils helps bolster the immune system when inhaled or applied topically. Smelling sweet smells also affects one's mood and can be used as a form of psychotherapy.
Like aromatherapy, more research is being conducted to synthesize human perfume—that is, the body scents we produce to attract or repel other humans. Humans, like other mammals, release pheromones to attract the opposite sex. New perfumes are being created to duplicate the effect of pheromones and stimulate sexual arousal receptors in the brain. Not only may the perfumes of the future help people cover up "bad" smells, they could improve their physical and emotional well-being as well as their sex lives.
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Green, Timothy. "Making Scents Is More Complicated Than You Think." Smithsonian, June 1991, pp. 52-60.
Iverson, Annemarie. "Ozone." Harper's Bazaar, November 1993, pp. 208-40.
Lord, Shirley. "Message In a Bottle." Vogue, May 1992, p. 220.
Raphael, Anna. "Ahh! Aromatherapy." Delicious!, December 1994, pp. 47-48.
— Evelyn S. Dorman