Unlike other animals, the human sense of smell is the least developed sense in our toolbox of consciousness. Most of us think of odors as negative smells to be avoided or whiffs of whimsey to enjoy for the moment. Would it surprise you to learn that scent, pleasant or unpleasant, is the most powerful sensual connection we have to memory? Research is quite clear that events in human experience are forever connected to scent and can be recalled in the brain within 1/1000 of a second. Throughout recorded time, humans have cultivated scents in different ways to create or remember significant times. It is for this reason that I am fascinated by perfume and its affect on perception. It is also why I think that all great events deserve a scent of their own.
Fragrance has an ancient history that begins with ingredients that were burned to spread a scent during ceremonies or for prayer. There are biblical references to a sacred perfume made of ingredients that only priests were allowed to possess. The word “perfume “comes from, “Per Fumes” which means “through smoke”, like today’s incense.
Archeologists have recently discovered that early perfume products were being manufactured over 4,000 years ago. The largest discovery to date occurred in 2006 when an enormous perfume factory on the island of Cyprus was unearthed. An industrial complex of 4000 square meters, it is perfectly located in the earthly home of the goddess Aphrodite, “the Irresistible”.
In the centuries of the Roman Empire, raw materials used to make scent products were exotic and considered high value trading goods. Many of these items were only found in warmer climates. Materials such as resins, exotic spices, precious woods, musk and ambergris were not available at all in much of the northern world. Middle Eastern traders provided access to a large array of these ingredients as well as a familiarity with rudimentary scent manufacturing technology, a skill greatly sought after by the wealthy and worldly.
However, it was not until the 10th century that perfume as we would understand it, was invented by the Iraqi chemist Ishaq Al-Kindi. He engineered the three pronged extraction process of distillation, evaporation and filtration which enabled vapor to be collected as water or oil. This process had great significance in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries of the day as well as providing a foundation for more sophisticated technique.
european courts and perfume
Sanitary conditions in European countries were so deplorable in the cities of the Renaissance that initially, perfume became a welcoming mask for terrible smells. Many royal and wealthy persons began to wear perfume to avoid smelling body odor, both other peoples’ and their own as bathing was considered “unhealthy”. Queen Elizabeth I of England could not tolerate any kind of malodorous smell and yet she bathed only once a year. Several manufacturers made great fortunes producing scented gloves that gentlemen and women could hold to their faces while outside.
Perfume was then a repellent of the olfactory sense and sometimes the stronger the scent, the more sought after it became. We will see that this this vision of fragrance becomes much different as time progresses.
perfume as a luxury
As people became more modern in their thinking about sanitation, the role of fragrance began to change. Instead of performing as a deterrent of olfactory awareness, perfume became an enhancer of environments and a method to remember events and places. Catherine de Medici, the Dauphine of France under Henry II, had her own private perfumer, Le Florentine whom she brought from Florence to make special fragrances of Italy. He was secretly connected to her apartments in the palace by an underground chamber to prevent the theft of her secret formulas. Later, the Louis XIV Court at Versailles, far away from the smells of the city of Paris, became known as the perfumed Court because so many of the nobles wore immense amounts of fragrance. Louis himself, had a different fragrance created for him every day of his life.
The south of France became the fragrance capital of the world, beautifully scented flowers like roses and gardenia were cultivated in huge gardens for use in distillations and oils. Fragrance took on the role of “seducer”, drawing others in to the wearer. Today, France remains the premier producer of fine perfume in the world. The southern region of France is sensation rich and lush. There perfume has remained a seductive force, lavish and a bit secret.
fragrance as a story teller
I am convinced that fragrance is an essential part of any significant story. For any event that must maintain its significance, scent is a required element of the sensual kaleidoscope.