PER FUMUS

a journey of the senses by FLACONNEUR

IN THE BEGINNING

Today, the word perfume describes a scented liquid with which people adorn themselves. Usually the application of the perfume is at the beginning of the day or perhaps a special event.  These perfumes are stored in beautifully decorated decanters with interesting shapes and colors. Scents can fit a variety of personalities and tastes and each as unique as the person choosing it. But how did the perfume story begin?

“Perfume” comes from the Latin words per fumus meaning “through smoke”.  Perfumes began in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt were refined later by the Romans and Persians. The art of perfumery is thought to have begun with a woman by the name of Tapputi who is regarded as being the worlds first chemist. Tapputi was a Mesopotamian who was mentioned in a cuneiform tablet dating from the second millennium BC.  She was able to use flowers, oil and calamus in combinations with cyperus, myrrh and balsam.  She would add water then distill and filter the mixture several times to produce scented elixirs.

The Egyptians were famous for their use of incense for religious ceremonies. Fragrances were generally achieved by the burning of woods and resins.  The first incorporation of perfume into the Egyptian culture and religious ceremonies was probably during the rule of Queen Sheba.  Queen Hatshepsut, the fifth pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty, led many expeditions to search out incense, spices and herbs for the production of perfumes. It wasn’t until the beginning of the Golden Age that perfumes were allowed to be used by the masses. Previously, their use was reserved for only a select few.  Generally, the use of incense was restricted to religious worship, pharaohs and the wealthy. After priests relinquished their hold on the use of incense, Egyptians were encouraged to perfume themselves often. The Egyptians used perfumes as part of the embalming process for the dead as well.  Many perfumes were in the form of incense composed from water or oil soaked resins and woods.  Perfume bottles would be found in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs enabling them to take their perfumes into the afterlife. The use of aromatics was part of the Egyptian culture from everyday life to death. They also carried a reputation for creating some of the most lavish containers for their perfumes. The containers were often made from alabaster, glass and porcelain.

The ancient Greeks and Romans took their cue from the experienced Egyptians and took it one step further.  The Greek perfume shops and bath houses were social gathering places filled with scent. The Greeks were the first to comprise their perfumes from a liquid which combined fragrant powders with oils.  These liquid perfumes were store in bottles called alabastrums.  The bottle were named this because they were originally made of alabaster but they were also made of combinations of alabaster and gold. The lily and rose were flowers that were given high regard in Greek society.  The Greeks used olive and almond oils as a trapping agent for these popular flowers.  The fragrant oils would be added to their bath water and again applied after bathing.

Just like the Greeks, the Romans were famous for their bath houses and incorporated perfume into their culture.  The public bath house was a social gathering place and would be visited after the work of the day was completed.  It was a place for you to exercise, bathe and socialize. One room in the Roman bath house referred to as the “unctuarium” would be filled with pots and jar of fragrant oils for use by its denizens.

India was a perfume producing country and their scents were mostly incense based like the Egyptians. The distillation process knowns as Ittar or Attar (a natural perfume oil derived from botanicals) was mentioned in the Hindu Ayurvedic text Charaka Samhita. The mention of agarwood oil dates back to the Harschcharita which was written in the 7th century in Northern India. In ancient times perfumes were derivatives from herbs, spices and flowers.

A book entitled “Book of the Chemistry of Perfume and Distillations” was written in the 9th century by an Arabian chemist by the name of Al-Kindi.  It includes over 100 different methods and recipes for the art of perfume making. The book also included some of the equipment for the perfume making process, including the mention of the alembic. An alembic is an alchemical still which is composed of two vessels connected by a tube and it is used in the distilling process.

Ibn Sina was a Persian chemist who introduced the distilling process that extracts oils from flowers and is the procedure that is most commonly used today. Before his discovery, liquid perfumes were combinations of oil and crushed herbs or flower pedals which produced a strong blend. Rose water was immediately popular because of its delicate nature. These processes significantly influenced western perfumery along with the many scientific developments, in particular, chemistry.

Like the Egyptians, the Chinese found the use of incense very important as well in the ceremonies surrounding death. The body would be throughly washed and then perfumed. Incense would also be lit to fill the room with its aroma. China has always had a reputation for its love and appreciation of flowers. Chinese women would wrap flowers into the hair creating a bun with beautiful scents.  The Japanese were also known for the burning of incense, gums and resins for ritual.

One of the oldest perfumes was unearthed during an archaeological dig in 2005 in Pyrgos, Cyprus. The perfumes that were discovered were more than 4,000 years old. The dig unearthed an ancient perfumery with an assortment of equipment for the perfume making process.  Some of which included stills, mixing bowls, funnels and perfume bottles. The factory itself was spread over an area of 43,000 square feet.  This was an important discovery and confirmed that perfume making was a serious industry.

Today, all that we know about the production processes for perfume making rests largely on the shoulders of the ancient world. It is through their knowledge and experience that enables us to continue the art of perfume.

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This entry was posted on November 1, 2011 by in Education.

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