Scents are as ancient as civilisation. The world’s very first chemist, a lady named Tapputi, was a perfume-maker mentioned in a Mesopotamian tablet while five thousand-year-old Egyptian hieroglyphics bear printed testament to our innate fascination with fragrance. Such was the north African’s skill in creating it that when tombs were opened by 19th century archaeologists, the perfumes had retained much of their fragrant notes. Sweet scents were originally burned as offerings in an attempt to please the gods – the word ‘perfume’ comes from the Latin per fumus meaning ‘through smoke’ – while the oldest known perfumery was discovered on the island of Cyprus, built 4,000 years ago, during the Bronze Age.
According to the Perfume Society, ancient Egyptians were also among the first to develop the art of aromatherapy having “already understood that perfumes could help maintain a harmonious balance between body and soul”, the first to realise that the relationship between sentience and sense of smell runs deep. “There’s a direct psychological link between your reaction to fragrance and your personality,” perfumer and author Roja Dove tells The Scotsman, “but today we’re so convinced by all the marketing spin. People buy scent by brand image and not smell.” Dove says that we are born with no preconception of what smells good or bad, rather we learn it: “The point of my work comes from the idea of truly discovering your olfactory palate. The language we use about perfume is emotional. The proof of that is when people come in and say, ‘Don’t give me anything strong.’ What is that? A strong smell is something that you don’t like on your skin, so it’s omnipotent. But if you love it, it isn’t strong at all.” The same scents can also react very differently on different wearers. “Everyone’s body chemistry is different,” Josephine Fairley and Lorna McKay of the Perfume Society tell the Daily Mail, “influenced by hormones, skin type, what you eat, medications you may take and more. Simply adding a new vitamin or supplement to your well being regime can change how a fragrance smells on your skin. Even experts can’t pinpoint which factors change perfumes the most, or predict how a scent will be altered… never buy a fragrance without trying it on your own skin…”
“Scent is powerful, it has the ability to make you feel a multitude of ways, depending on how you personally perceive it,” Krista Miller, assistant manager of Twisted Lily tells me from New York. Based out of Brooklyn, the specialist fragrance boutique and apothecary features hard-to-find niche, indie and natural fragrances from across the world. Krista says that natural scents’ popularity have increased as the United States’ green movement has progressed and that there has also been a “de-genderising of fragrance” as cultures creep toward breaking gender rules: “Men aren’t afraid of florals anymore, and women are often grabbing for what would typically be classified as a men’s fragrance.”
Many of the first ingredients such as jasmine and frankincense are still used by today’s brands, who now also experiment with more unusual techniques. “Although they were originally frowned upon as being inferior to their all-natural counterparts, synthetics have really broadened the spectrum, of possibilities when it comes to fragrance ingredients,” says Krista. “After all, how else could the blood, sweat, sperm and saliva accords have been created for infamous Etat Libre d’Orange scent, Secretions Magnifiques? There are certain ingredients which become more popular, for example the increased visibility of Ouds in the Western world of perfumery, but these are simply added into the infinite possibilities of fragrance creation, as opposed to replacing another.”
Ouds are derived from the tropical agar tree which originates in India. Now a threatened species, it is one of the costliest of natural raw ingredients and held in very high regard throughout the Middle East. Islamic cultures, in fact, have made a massive contribution to both the technology and popularity of perfumery, thanks in part to the words of the Prophet Muhammed who advised: “The taking of a bath on Friday is compulsory for every male Muslim who has attained the age of puberty and (also) the cleaning of his teeth with Miswaak [a type of twig used as a toothbrush], and the using of perfume if it is available.”
Among the spoils stolen from those lands by European forces during the Crusades and later invasions were a raft of exotic ingredients and perfume-creating technologies, then passed on through the generations and perfected firstly by the Hungarians, before the likes of Italy and France became the powerhouse producers of modern-day perfume. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, as trade with the Far East developed – along with a slew of discoveries of new nations by the likes of Christopher Columbus and Vasco de Gama – the potential perfume ingredient list expanded further still. Grasse, in France, became the perfume capital of the world and as Europe became ever-more ‘civilised’ the desire and social pressure to be perfectly presented and scented was further entrenched. Perfumes became one of the must-have accessories of high society. Napoleon ritually soaked himself in Eau de Cologne and would often send his wife, Josephine, fragrances from far-off lands. As the Industrial Revolution gathered steam, the Victorians perfected their own perfume manufacturing processes but come the 20th century the French cemented their scent superiority. The iconic fashionista Paul Poiret was the first to create a designer perfume brand then in 1921 a lady called Coco launched the all-conquering Chanel No. 5.
So is fashionable France still the most dominant force in fragrance? “It would be extremely limiting to only confine fragrance to one geographical region,” says Krista. “Yes, France has a longstanding perfumery history because of Grasse being a popular training ground for perfumers, but nowadays the fragrance market has become so international thanks in large part to online retailing that it would be impossible to pick just one. Furthermore, great perfume is ultimately dependent on the talent of the individual perfumer, not its country of origin. Although, there are some pretty outstanding perfume houses emerging from the US both on the West Coast and right here in Brooklyn. There are some houses here that don’t come from the traditional Grasse backgrounds, which often take very different paths than your traditionally trained perfumers.”
The 1960s counterculture brought about a reaction to all things corporate, including fragrances. That brave new world looked east for inspiration, a new generation discovering a raft of mythical ingredients such as patchouli and sandalwood to dab upon their skins. That thirst for the unusual is cool again today, sated by boutique brands. “The exponential growth of the niche fragrance industry reflects society’s need for individuality,” Krista says, “and the ever increasing access to boutique and indie products with the explosion of online shopping and social media.” She makes the point that if fragrance is supposed to be an expression of one’s personality, then how unique can that message really be if it is bottled by the millions? But, I ask, how do boutique brands maintain their anti-maintstream philosophies as their success and popularity soars? “It’s the age old adage of being underground but not profitable enough or selling out to become mainstream. Any brand obviously wants to reach as many people as possible, but through overexposure, a niche brand loses its exclusivity. Therefore the selection of retailers is crucial.” I wonder if the day will come where the mainstream will have to make way for the boutique brands, whether mainstream could, perversely, be in the minority. “There will always be room for mainstream perfumery to coexist alongside smaller, independent labels,” says Krista. “The former is more easily accessible and often at a lower price point than niche fragrances which is appealing to a certain demographic, however in the end it’s all really a matter of personal preference.”
Words by Jamie Christian Desplaces