History of Perfumes - Part 2

We have reached the renaissance period which covers the 15th & 16th centuries, characterized by the newfound willingness to learn & explore and the focus on human efforts to bring innovation in daily life.

People in that time still used perfumes (mainly pomanders & acorns of various shapes & sizes) to mask unpleasant body stench and were learning the aphrodisiac properties of compounds derived from animals, like Castoreum from Beavers & Musk from Deer. Meanwhile, royalties of Italy already started hiring personal perfumers to create personalized scents. The most prolific among these arrangements was one between noblewomen ‘Catherine de’ Medici’ & her perfumer Rene De Florentin. She was known to possess poisonous jewelry, which she supposedly used to murder other nobles. The poisons were of course created by her perfumer(chemist). Though the actual and profound impact of this arrangement materializes when she was married to Henry II of France.

When married, she took many poets, artists & her perfumer with her to Grasse, France. In Grasse, glove makers were annoyed by the smell of the animal skin. They were using heady-dense perfume compounds to mask the stench. So when Catherine de Medici took her perfumer to Grasse, it provided a huge upward jolt to the perfumery techniques & methods used in France. To appease her the glove makers in Grasse soon started cultivating perfumed ingredients in the nearby hills. Which ultimately led to Grasse becoming the heart of perfumery in the world.

Shortly after the rejuvenation of the perfume industry in Grasse, a perfume frenzy started, courtesy of French King Louis XV and his famous ‘Scented court’. King Louis XV hired many perfumers and to appease him many of the countrymen started venturing into various ingredients, techniques & methods of perfumery. In his ‘scented court’, every day, a new fragrance was applied. This increased the popularity of perfumes drastically, people started wearing perfumes every day & customizable fragrances came into popular culture. Also, the hygiene of people was getting better so as a result, the industry transitioned from dense-heady perfumes used to mask terrible stench to delicate, light & airy concoctions.

It was during this time of fragrance frenzy that the first great houses of perfumes were established like Floris in London, Piver & Houbignant in France, etc. The change from dense oils to delicate alcohol-based perfumes provided the world with first ‘Eau De Cologne’ which was called Aqua Mirabilis (admirable water). Invented by Italian monks during the middle ages by mixing alcohol & some perfumed ingredients, but, was perfected by the great grandson of an Italian migrant, who left Italy to finally settle in the city of Cologne in Germany. The name of the grandson was Giovanni Maria Farina & he named his creation initially as ‘Aqua Miribilis di Colonia’.

Farina quickly established a factory to manufacture this light, airy & complex scented alcohol solution in Cologne, Germany. He tweaked his creation many times, finally settling on one made of citruses (Bergamot, Grapefruit, Orange, etc.), flowers & fruits. He called it ‘Eau de Cologne’ or ‘The water of Cologne’. His creation was extremely well received in Europe & the world making him the chief supplier of it. This lead him to open Maison Jean Marie Farina in 1806.


This development at the start of 19th century provided for unrivalled development & popularization of perfumes.

The dawn of the 19th century saw the famous ‘Eau de Cologne’ being accepted & popularised among nobles & commoners alike. With the likes of Napoleon Bonaparte being enchanted by this heavenly water, becoming one of the main customers of Maison Jean-Marie Farina. Since the mixture was more than 95% proof, Napoleon also drank ‘Eau de Cologne’ everyday, which I would like to advise you, the reader, not to try. The factory of Farina was taken over by ‘Roger & Gallet’ and they renamed the famous fragrance as ‘Extra Vieille’.


The world during this time was also experiencing tremendous growth in science & particularly in chemistry. The search for new scents & to bridge the gap between demand and supply of various ingredients, chemists started to research the chemical composition of various perfumed ingredients which led to the isolation of  fragrant compounds from its sources, giving way to the trend of synthetic ingredients.

In 1820, one of the first fragrant compounds was isolated from Tonka Bean & was named Coumarin, which has a sweet vanilla like odor with bitter undertones. However the independent synthesis of Coumarin takes place almost 40 years later marking the advent of ‘Modern Perfumery’ as a result of which Coumarin has been used since then as an artificial substitute to Tonka Bean & Vanilla in perfumes all around us. After this several other synthetic compounds were isolated & created, such as, Vanillin from Vanilla, artificial Musks, Aldehydes, Heliotropin, etc. This newfound dimension in perfumery allowed chemists & perfumers to explore unique avenues and thus they created some of the most trendsetting fragrance of the time. As the synthetic compounds also allowed perfumers to create concoctions which cannot be found in nature, the allure of perfumes increased among the people.

Some of the first mass produced perfumes with synthetic compounds included names like White Rose by Floris, Heliotrope by Molinard, Guerlain’s Jicky & Fougère Royale by Houbignant. The immense popularity & demand of these perfumes opened the eyes of many perfumers & chemists who soon started venturing into these synthetic compounds. This saw a rapid increase in the setting up of manufacturing sites for perfumes & its ingredients. To the point that by the end of the century, France alone had at least 300 factories manufacturing perfumes or its ingredients, be it naturally derived or synthetically made.

The use of natural ingredients with synthetic compounds birthed various perfume categories like Chypre, Woody & Oriental. The world’s view on femininity changed quiet a bit too, as the century saw women getting rid of the corsets & saw them work in boots, shirts & trousers. This change in the way of women dressing changed the perspective of fashion designers & the industry itself. Paving way for new type of clothes and new type of fragrances associated with the novel idea of ‘independent women’.

So, the 19th century saw perfumes becoming a daily accessory, saw some of the popular fragrances being marketed to a specific gender & saw the birth of modern perfumery. This century brought humans closest to the ‘art of perfumery’ we know & use today.



Due to the developments helmed under Queen Catherine di Medici in the 17th century, Grasse became the largest producer of many perfume ingredients in the 20th century. This coupled with the fact that Paris was becoming the fashion capital of the world, really allowed France to dominate the world in production of perfumes. Companies like Guerlain, Houbignant, Floris, etc were mass manufacturing perfumes & the economies of scale achieved via this allowed the prices of these perfumes to be more on the affordable side and further created a mass market appeal for them.

A serious competition for the biggest brand of the time (arguably the biggest brand ever), Guerlain was soon seen in a young business man named Francois Coty. Having learned the art of perfumery in Grasse, France, Francois Coty soon realised that its not just the juice that sells a perfume. He realised that if he provided a good quality concoction in a pleasant looking-feeling bottle for a reasonable price, he could virtually create a monopoly in the perfume market. Its a virtue that holds true even today where the perfumes are always offered in attractive bottles. Coty approached glass manufacturers like Baccarat & Lalique to create mesmerising perfume bottles. Coty’s second master stroke was to allow women to sample before buying, a thought that is still celebrated today.

The first ‘designer’ perfume was created by Paul Poiret in the premises of his company ‘Parfums de Rosine’. The company and their creation soon became very popular but unfortunately could not survive the depression. However, Francois Coty was undetered by this. After establishing his company in 1904 he created many fragrances which were very well received due to the use of natural ingredients in tandem with the synthetic ones and creating a never sniffed before olfactive experience.

We know that by now fashion & perfumes were seen as complimentary in nature. However the one person who cemented this relation between haute-couture & perfumes was none other than Gabrielle Chanel, a French fashion designer who established the company of ‘Chanel’. In celebration of the new image of corset-free women, Chanel or more affectionately - ‘Coco’ thought about launching a new groundbreaking fragrance. She consulted the company’s in-house perfumer Ernest Beaux, discussing her vision. Ernest in turn created & provided many samples to Chanel herself. From which she chose the 5th number of the sample and so the iconic Chanel fragrance was born. Named (no points for guessing) Chanel No. 5. The excessive use of Aldehyde(a compound which provided a champagne like sparkle to the creation), in No. 5 made the fragrance irresistible and probably the most recognizable perfume in the entire history.

Soon the world and in turn the development in perfumes were hit hard by the two world wars. However, the austerityfollowing the wars were matched equally by the overwhelming demand for haute-couture perfumes. This demand was met by some of the most famous perfumers & companies the world has ever known. One of them was Christian Dior, a new name at the time, but who swiftly wowed the world with his crazy, now iconic, fashion style. He launched Miss Dior in 1947, which was received immensely well.

Perfumes were created for men up until the 20th century but they were mostly not that impressionable. However, this changed soon with the advent of many masculine fragrances in the 20th century. Some of them were Caron Pour un Homme launched in 1934 (featuring Lavender & Vanilla), Old Spice (which was marketed towards women at first, was remarketed as a masculine fragrance) in 1937, Chanel Pour Monsieur in 1955, Tabac original by Maurier & Wirtz in 1959, Estee Lauder’s Aramis in 1964 & Dior’s Eau Sauvage in 1966.


The latter half of the 20th century saw the shifting of innovation in perfumery from European soil to that of the United States. Partly due to the cold war & partly due to the peace movement, the American culture was changing faster than anyone could keep up. The advent of blue jeans, rock & roll music and hippie culture saw the trend shifting from men using after-shave lotions for its scent to wearing Eau de Toilettes as daily wear. It was during this time that classical male fragrances like Eau Sauvage & Givenchy Monsieur achieved their cult status.


Perfumes were being used in the Americas for centuries now, however, they were all due to the help of European explorers who brought ‘Eau de Cologne’ to the nobles of the time. Much later, during the uprising of the ‘make love not war’ movement, a special ingredient of Patchouli tantalized & enchanted the mass American audience. Soon the advertisement for perfumes started resulting in men wearing perfumes created exclusively for them.

This movement had a good impact on the perfume demand internationally. The use of heady & strong ingredients like Patchouli, Rose, Oud & other woody substances shifted the production from delicate fragrances to heady ones. Only to see the return towards light, airy & complex fragrances in the 80s as the role of perfumes were more clearly established which were, for men - a sporty & energetic scent & for women - a sensual & alluring one.

We have finally reached the end of our journey of discovering the history of fragrances. We learned about the earliest known excavated proofs of early civilizations using perfumed compounds. Then we traveled geographicaly and in time to Greece, Rome, Arab, Persia & modern-day Europe. We saw perfumes being created out of single ingredients during the early times & we saw the invention of synthetic ingredients that replaced hard-to-find substances (like Musk). We realized the eternal place held by fragrances in human cultures. We saw the shifting from dense-heady perfumes to light-delicate ones. We saw how the art of perfumery was heavily influenced by Monarchs, Kings, Nobles, Traders, Crusaders, Priests, Queens, Chemists & even religious figures.

We studied the cradle of perfumery up to its adolescence that it is in today. We think it is still in adolescence as we are yet to achieve innovative advancements in the field of botany & science. We called the invention of synthetics the birthplace of modern perfumery, because, today almost every perfume that you know is a love affair between natural ingredients & chemically synthesized compounds, be it Vanillin, Coumarin, Ambroxan, Iso E Super, or Aldehydes. We wish that this progress never ceases & this voyage that the art of perfumery is on, never stops. We wish that the processes, methods & techniques used, grow increasingly efficient & effective.




September 08, 2021 — Scent Split