History of Perfume

Posted by Adrian Hollister on

I found this interesting item on our old website and thought we should keep it. (I wrote it so many years ago I'd forgotten about it!)

"It is dark outside. It's definitely morning, but no sign of dawn just yet. Tapputi is already hard at work in the palace laboratory, continuing her work from the previous evening. Her distillation apparatus containing calamus flowers, stems, oil and myrrh has been bubbling away overnight and now was the time to start the lengthy clarification and filtration processes. After separating different parts of the mixture, discarding most it, and sieving the result several times, the aromatic concoction is returned to the still along with some balsam and the fire is rekindled underneath. She stirs the mixture continuously." (from The Perfume Maker, by Rodolphe Ernst.)

When the first rays of sunlight begin to pour into the lab, Tapputi's work is almost done. The time has come to let the fire under the still die down so the apparatus can be cooled. The resulting fragrant liquid is then poured through a filter cloth into flasks. The perfume is ready. Unfortunately for her assistant, the equipment needs to be thoroughly cleaned in order to start the process all over again that evening. Such is the life of a Bronze Age Mesopotamian Perfumer.

Tapputi is the world’s earliest perfume manufacturer that we know by name, and in fact, the world’s earliest chemist. Her story, and that of her assistant, “(—)-ninu” (whose name we only know the latter half of), came from an ancient Cuneiform tablet dated around 1200 BC.


While these two undoubtedly-delightfully-scented women were pioneers in their day, and kind enough to leave us their recipe, the story of perfume can be traced back to around 2000 BC in ancient Cyprus. In 2004, a team of archaeologists unearthed a vast perfume factory on the island, whose floor plan covered an astonishing 4,000m². Perfume production on this kind of scale indicates just how important smelling gorgeous was to civilisation in the Bronze Age. Of course, the first person to think up the idea of a perfume didn’t just set up such a large establishment overnight, so it’s safe to assume that perfumes have been around for quite some time before this, even if no older evidence has yet been found.

Around the same time as Tepputi’s pre-dawn toils in the lab, the Ancient Egyptians were also having a crack at producing perfumes from their own locally-sourced, and culturally revered flower, the Blue Lily. Associated with many spiritual rituals, and some good old-fashioned partying, this flower was consumed by the Ancient Egyptians for its mildly psychoactive properties, and as such, appears in a lot of Ancient Egyptian art. It also happens to have a very sweet aroma ideal for use in perfumes millennia ago right through to the present day.

Perfumes continued to evolve slowly with further refinements from the Romans, but it wasn’t until early Islamic cultures got involved that significant progress was made. They were able to perfect the extraction of fragrances from plant materials by inventing the process of steam distillation, which not only represented a leap forward for perfumery, but chemistry as a whole. They also brought to the table a number of exotic plants, such as Jasmine and various citrus species, allowing a choice of fragrance for the first time. Having options available lead to the study of combinations of fragrances to see what worked and what didn’t - now a perfumer could produce a number of different fragrances, the choice of which was then a matter of personal taste and not just limited to local ingredients.

Knowledge of perfume manufacture eventually spread to Europe, through trade with the Middle East, as well as the Crusades.The first modern perfume - fragrance oils dissolved in alcohol - was created in 1370 on the order of Elizabeth, Queen of Hungary by the court alchemist, and was known throughout Europe as “Hungary Water”. The oldest recipes available call for Rosemary, and possibly Thyme to be boiled in Brady. Later recipes call for additional floral fragrances such as lavender and orange blossom, as well as citrus, mint and other herbs such as Sage. As with most herbal and floral tinctures originating in medieval times, Hungary water was as much a remedy as it was a scent - as well as applying it liberally, the user was also advised to drink it to receive the most benefit.

Eventually France became the centre for perfumery and cosmetics manufacture, with the south of the country cultivating their flowers for industrial scent production, while French royalty and the wealthy consumed more and more perfume during the Renaissance, securing France’s future as the European capital of perfumery that lasts to this day.

France is not the end of the story, however! Independent perfumeries, such as the Perfume Studio, continue to operate by offering something unique - something that can't be captured by moving to France - specialised fragrances that capture the essence of their location. You can find our selection of perfumes here.

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