By Sherika Tenaya
While the seeds of perfumery were first sewn within the work of the alchemists and their discovery of distillation, it was some time yet before it began to take on the trappings of a business in its own right.
Mandy Aftel describes this early period in her book Essence & Alchemy, as a by-product of the glove industry. Perfumed gloves gained a great deal of popularity in sixteenth century France as a way to keep the skin soft, so much so that people wore gloves to bed. Aftel names René, none other than the perfumer of Catherine de Medici herself, as the first to open a perfume shop in Paris, though their liaison was not without its corruptions. Aftel writes, “When Catherine wished to get rid of her enemies, she turned to him for sorcery with effective results. Jeanne d’Albret, mother of Henry IV of France, was poisoned after she donned a pair of perfumed gloves presented to her by Catherine.”
Anne of Austria was another glove fanatic who was known for her beautiful hands and it was in her court that mouse skin gloves gained preeminence. It was Anne’s son, Louis XIV, who granted a charter to the guild of gantiers-parfumeurs in 1656.
Between the years 1500 and 1730, perfuming expanded greatly on its use of various natural ingredients and it was in 1725 that Johann Farina of Cologne introduced his famous Eau de Cologne, a mixture of citrus and herbal odors that drew upon and incorporated the discoveries of the previous centuries.
“Although distillation could be used on roses, the fragrances of other flowers, such as jasmine, tuberose, and orange flower, eluded that method.” Aftel imparts. That all changed in the nineteenth century when Jacques Passy, a Frenchman, developed the technique of enfleurage, described by Aftel thusly: “Flower petals render their fragrance into a fatty pomade, from which a powerfully scented oil can be derived.”
Catherine de Medici, despite her apparent character flaws, played a large role in developing a perfume industry in southeastern France and it was in Grasse that perfuming formed its center. “The climate and soil of the surrounding region proved hospitable to orange trees, acacia, roses, and jasmine.” Aftel explains. “Over time, distillation plants and other facilities for processing perfume materials grew up there; some of them are still operating today.”
Around this time, parallel perfuming entrepreneurs began springing up in other major European cities, including Mr. Perry of London. He combined the sale of medicines and cosmetics with that of perfume. Among his products, according to Aftel, was an oil of mustard seed that was “guaranteed to cure every disease under the sun.”
Despite such grandiose claims, no perfumer gained true celebrity until Charles Lillie happened upon the scene. He had the cleverness to place his shop in London’s Strand, the very epicenter of London’s literary and fashion scene. Aftel describes his popularity with a series of impressive name-drops: “He counted among his friends Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, and Alexander Pope. Both Addison and Steele praised him copiously in print, and Steele went so far as to suggest that he ‘used the force of magical powers to add value to his wares.’”
Perhaps Lillie’s greatest contribution was the formation of his book The British Perfumer, in which he set the standards for the perfume business with the intention of educating the public on how to evaluate scented materials and products.
Aftel says Lillie’s book inspired a whole gamut of “how-to” perfume treatises that reached their pinnacle in the latter half of the nineteenth century, “Along with formulas for perfumes, these volumes include discourses on flower farming, ancient cultures and their rituals, recipes for hair dyes (often containing lead), remedies for ailments of man and beast (including opiates), and ruminations on society and woman’s place therein. The discourses are charming and odd, and the books are illustrated with lovely woodcuts depicting botanicals and extraction devices. But the perfume information itself is repeated almost verbatim from book to book, with only a small increment of new material, and the formulas themselves are generic; there is no sense in them of a creator’s unique signature.”
Aftel goes on to say that the the perfumes created in that time were lacking in complexity as perfumers’ formulas worked on the principle of layering analogous scents with each other, “combining a few intense and similarly scented florals to arrive at a single, sweet floral note, with perhaps a bit of vanilla for additional sweetness, and sometimes a drop of civet, ambergris or musk for staying power.”
Eugene Rimmel, one of the earliest manufacturers and marketers of cosmetics hailed such formulas as “the truly artistic part of perfumery, for it is done by studying the resemblances and affinities, and blending the shades of scent as a painter does the colors on his palette.”
It is clear, however, that Aftel couldn’t disagree more: “In truth [these formulas] exploited none of the range of contrast and intensity offered by the essential oils then available. So while each perfume vendor peddled his own Rondeletia or Eau de Cologne from his shop or cart, they all stayed within an extremely limited range. It was like being a painter and using only a quarter of the color wheel.”
Just as in life, society has a tendency to want to homogenize and worship sameness; yet it is the lovely, vibrant contrast - the exciting collision of diverse and incongruent parts - that creates true art and conveys an overall depiction of beauty, wonder and weirdness that captures the human imagination and embodies the very essence of sensual rapture.