A Brief History of Perfumes

Banyan Tree

Ernst, Rodolphe - The Perfume Maker

by Jayaram V

The word perfume refers to scented mixtures and the art of making perfumes. It is derived from the Latin word, "perfumus," meaning through smoke. The art of making scented products or perfumes was known to the Indians, Romans, Persians, Arabs and others. However, the perfumes or fragrances that were used in East Asia were either natural products or substances made from them such as sandalwood and sandal paste,  incense, camphor, turmeric, etc. The use of scented water was also common. It was in the West the basic ingredients and methods of making perfumes as an art and craft were developed. Pliny the Elder referred to it in his Naturalis Historia. A brief history of perfumes is presented below.


The first perfume maker in recorded history was Tapputi. A chemist and a perfume maker, her name was found on a 1200 BCE Cuneiform tablet from Babylonian Mesopotamia. She seems to have played an important and influential role in the Mesopotamian government and religion, working as the overseer of the Mesopotamian Royal Palace, and developed methods and techniques for scent extraction. Her methods and groundbreaking technique in using solvents were preserved for posterity, which laid the foundation for perfume making in subsequent times by those who followed her.


The use of perfumes, natural fragrances, plant and flower extracts and pastes and  scented water was known to Indians since the time of Indus Valley civilization, which existed from 3500 BCE to 1300 BCE. They were used for both aesthetic and medicinal purposes. One of the earliest distillations of scent was mentioned in the Hindu Ayurvedic text Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita. References to perfumes or fragrances form a part of the larger text called Brihat Samhita, comprehensive work on architecture, temples, planetary motions, eclipses, timekeeping, astrology, seasons, cloud formation, rainfall, agriculture, mathematics, gemology, perfumes and many other topics. It was written by Varāhamihira, an Indian astronomer, mathematician, and astrologer who lived in the city of Ujjain in the early sixth century C.E. The perfume portion mainly deals with the manufacture of perfumes to benefit the royal personages and inmates of the queens’ palaces. Portions of the text were mentioned by the Persian traveler and scholar Al Biruni. According to a finding by an archeologist Dr. Paolo Rovesti, as reported in 1975, Indus people had knowledge of distilling plant materials to extract oil from them using woven cloths.


Italian archaeologists unearthed world’s oldest perfumery belonging to the bronze age (4000 BCE) on the island of Cyprus at a site on a hillside overlooking the Mediterranean at Pyrgos-Mavroraki, 55 miles south-west of Nicosia.” It occupied an area of over 4000 square meters. The finding suggests that ancient Cypriots probably traded in perfumes on a large scale.

Egyptians extracting lily perfume
The making of lily perfume. Limestone, fragment from the decoration of a tomb, 4th dynasty of Egypt-(2500s BC).

Archaeologists were able to detect at least fourteen different perfumes from ten essences were found at the Cyprus site. Of them about dozen were recreated using the fragments of perfume bottles found at the site. They were extracted from cinnamon, laurel, myrtle, anise and citrus bergamot. These materials were also mentioned in the Historia Naturalis by Pliny (23-79 CE).

According to Maria Rosario Belgiorno, the team leader of the excavation team, Cypriots probably learned perfumery from the Egyptians, who had knowledge of aroma therapy and used fragrances in religious rites and for their medicinal value. Perfumes were found in “Egyptian predynastic graves. A royal tomb at Abydos dating back to about 3000 BC contained jars with coniferous resin mixed with plant oil and animal fats.”

Arab Countries

Islamic cultures contributed significantly to the development modern perfumery as practiced in the West. They perfected the extraction of perfumes through steam distillation and introduced new raw materials for the purpose. Both contributed greatly to the development and refinement of Western perfumery in addition to advances in chemistry and the use of chemicals.

Developments in perfume production and use of perfumes in daily life as well as in religious practice coincided with the rise of Islam. People in the Arabian Peninsula used musk, roses and amber, among other materials. Perfume making was largely facilitated by Arabs and Persians who as traders had wider access to a wide array of spices, resins, herbs, precious woods, herbs and animal fragrance materials such as ambergris and musk. In addition, many flowers and herbs (such as jasmine, rose, bitter orange) were either native to these lands or brought from outside and successfully cultivated in the region. They also contributed to the growth of perfumery.

In Islamic culture, perfume usage was documented as far back as the 6th century. In Islam its usage is considered a religious duty. Taking a bath on every Friday is obligatory for Muslims. They are also advised to use perfumes if they can afford them. Perfumes were mixed with the building materials in the construction of mosques. These practices encouraged the use of perfumes on a wider scale and contributed to the popularity and growth of modern perfumery.

The credit for the development of perfume industry in Arab nations goes mainly to two Muslim chemists, Jābir ibn Hayyān (Geber, born 722 CE, Iraq), and Al-Kindi (Alkindus, born 801CE, Iraq). Jabir developed many techniques, including distillation, evaporation and filtration, which enabled the extraction of perfume from plants as water or oil. Al-Kindi, however, is considered the real founder of perfume industry. He carried out extensive research and experiments to produce a variety of scents from various plant mixtures. He invented many recipes to produced a wide range of perfumes, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

Al-Kindi also wrote a book on perfumes, named “Book of the Chemistry of Perfume and Distillations.” It contained more than a hundred recipes for fragrant oils, salves, aromatic waters and substitutes or imitations of costly drugs, in addition to one hundred and seven methods and recipes for perfume-making and perfume making equipment such as the alembic, which still bears its Arabic name.

Credit also goes to the Persian Muslim doctor and chemist Avicenna (also known as Ibn Sina), who introduced the process of extracting oils from flowers by means of distillation. The procedure is most commonly used today. He first experimented with the rose. Until then, liquid perfumes consisted mostly of mixtures of oil and crushed herbs, or petals. The Arabic technique of distilling and extracting perfumes eventually reached Europe through trade and crusades. There are records of the Pepperers Guild of London, going back to 1179CE; which show that they traded with Muslims in spices, perfume ingredients and dyes. Catharina de Medici initiated the perfume industry in Europe when she left Italy in the 16th century to marry the French crown prince.


Perfumery came to Europe as early as the 14th century along with trade and crusades from Arabic cultures. However, it was Hungarians who introduced modern perfumes to Europe. The first modern perfume was made in 1370 at the command of Queen Elizabeth of Hungary. It was made by blending the scented oils in an alcohol solution and became known throughout Europe as Hungary Water. Perfume making prospered in Renaissance Italy, and in the 16th century,


Italian refinements were taken to France by Catherine de' Medici's personal perfumer, Rene le Florentin. His laboratory was connected with her apartments by a secret passageway, so that no formulas could be stolen en route. France quickly became the European center of perfume and cosmetic manufacture. Cultivation of flowers for their perfume essence, which began in the 14th century, grew into a major industry in the south of France, mainly in Grasse now considered the world capital of perfume.

During the Renaissance period, the royalty and the wealthy used perfumes to mask their body odors resulting from the sanitary practices of the day. This was one of the main reasons for the growth and development of perfumes and perfume making techniques in France and other parts of Europe. Perfumes enjoyed huge success during the 17th century. Perfumed gloves became popular in France, resulting in the formation of the guild of glove and perfume-makers 1656. Along with perfumes, perfume poisons also came into existence. For example, a French duchess was murdered using gloves that were imbued with a perfume poison. When she wore the gloves, the poison slowly entered the blood stream through the skin, which resulted in her death.

Perfume gained further popularity when Louis XV came to the throne in the 18th century. His court was called "la cour parfumée" (the perfumed court). Madame de Pompadour ordered generous supplies of perfume, and King Louis demanded a different fragrance for his apartment every day. The court of Louis XIV became renowned due to the scents which were applied daily not only to the skin but also to clothing, fans and furniture. Perfumes substituted for soap and water. The use of perfume in France grew steadily. By the 18th century, aromatic plants were being grown in the Grasse region of France to provide the growing perfume industry with raw materials. Even today, France remains the center of the European perfume design and trade.

After Napoleon came to power, exorbitant expenditure by the royalty on perfume continued. Two quarts of violet cologne were delivered to him each week, and he is said to have used sixty bottles of double extract of jasmine every month. Josephine had stronger perfume preferences. She was partial to musk, and she used so much that sixty years after her death the scent still lingered in her boudoir.


The use of perfumes peaked in England during the reigns of Henry VIII (reigned 1509-1547) and Queen Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603). The queen could not tolerate bad smells. Hence, the places she visited were scented. Ladies of the day took great pride in creating delightful fragrances and they displayed their skill in mixing scents in a manor houses' still room. As with industry and the arts, perfume underwent profound change in the 19th century. Changing tastes and the development of modern chemistry laid the foundations of modern perfumery as alchemy gave way to chemistry.


Perfume manufacture in Russia grew after 1861 and became globally significant by the early 20th century. The production of perfume in the Soviet Union became a part of the planned economy in the 1930s, although output was not high.


In early America, the first scents were colognes and scented water by French explorers in New France. Florida water, an uncomplicated mixture of eau de cologne with a dash of oil of cloves, cassia and lemongrass, was popular.

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Source: Information for this article was partially adapted with necessary alterations and improvements from the article available at Wikipedia under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License

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