By Sherika Tenaya
The introduction of synthetics and the creative admixture of contrasting ingredients certainly reshaped and transformed the art of perfumery, but these were not the only elements that brought about the booming industry we know today. Several colorful characters of long ago made lasting contributions to perfuming that have remained long after their own lives ended.
Perhaps none has left so impactful a legacy as Francois Coty, the man who understood the value of packaging perfumes in beautiful bottles. Born Frances Spoturno in 1876 in Corsica, he moved to France at an early age where he proceeded to befriend an apothecary that sold perfumes.
Mandy Aftel, author of Essence & Alchemy, describes in her book the simplistic and unexciting way perfume was packaged during Coty’s time, “Perfumes were purchased in plain glass apothecary bottles, brought home, and transferred to decorative flasks.”
Coty would have none of it, however. After a short stint in Grasse in which he worked at Chiris, one of the largest producers of flower essences at that time, he returned to Paris, borrowed money from his grandmother, and proceeded to open up a perfume lab in his apartment. His first perfume, La Rose Jacqueminot, was created in 1904. In 1908, he just so happened to open a shop on Place Vendome right next to the celebrated art-nouveau jeweler Rene Lalique. Coty had the ingenious idea of having Lalique design his perfume bottles and discovered he could mass produce them by using iron molds, which he did in adherence to his infamous adage that “a perfume could attract the eye as well as the nose.”
It was Coty who also was the first to allow customers to sample perfumes before buying. No small contribution - as Aftel confirms when she declares, “The revolution in packaging techniques ushered in by Francois Coty completed the birth of the modern perfume age.”
However, other innovators also played a role in how perfume came to be marketed to the public. It was Paul Poiret, born 1879 - 1944, who was the first couturier to make perfumes. At his fashion shows, he would disperse heavily perfumed fans and purposefully kept all the windows closed, ensuring their use. The professional perfumer he hired also made a mark as the first to introduce exotic Oriental ingredients which were combined with heady florals.
When it came to exotic pomp, Poiret was trumped only by the infamous Ahmed Soliman (1906-1956), also dubbed “Cairo’s Perfume King”, who had a perfumery in Khan el Khalili Bazaar which Aftel says was Egypt’s “center of perfume since the time of the pharaohs.” While Egyptian women wanted only perfumes from France, Soliman made his substantial profits off American and European tourists, who loved his appropriately marketed perfume names: Flower of the Sahara, Secret of the Desert, Queen of Egypt and Harem to name a few. Interestingly, Aftel describes how the centerpiece of his shop was a statue of the pharaoh Ramses that “poured perfume from its mouth by virtue of a mechanism which had to be wound up every half hour.”
One thing that sets the establishment of the perfuming business apart was the way in which women took a leading role at a time when a woman’s opportunities were pared down to that of wife and mother only.
Perhaps none captures this so well as the inspiring story of Harriet Hubbard Ayers (1849-1903), the daughter of a prominent Chicago family who married a wealthy iron dealer at the tender age of 16. After the infamous Chicago fire of 1871 took the life of one of her children, she took off to Paris where she spent a year grieving and healing. Abruptly, she moved to New York with the powerful motivation to establish her independence and started a business selling a beauty cream called Recamier, which Aftel says “she claimed to have discovered in Paris, where it had been used by all the great beauties during the time of Napoleon. Genuine or not, it was an immediate success and Ayers soon added perfumes to her line with names like Dear Heart, Mes Fleurs, and Golden Chance.”
Aftel goes on to say that Ayer’s family conspired to take away her business and to commit her to a mental institution, but that she persevered to “eventually become America’s first beauty columnist and country’s best-paid, most popular female newspaper journalist.”
Following in Ayer’s footsteps was Lilly Dache (1893-1990), whom Aftel describes as “a Paris born milliner who arrived in New York City in 1924 with less than fifteen dollars to her name and in short order owned her own business, specializing in making fruited turbans for Carmen Miranda and one-of-a-kind hats for Jean Harlow and Marlene Dietrich. In an opulent green satin showroom, she sold perfumes with names like Drifting and Dashing along with the hats.”
The success of these women in the industry of beauty and perfumery, reflects our own story and passionate determination to see women empowered as entrepreneurs and leaders in their communities. A story, rippling through time, that goes far beyond the producing of hand creams and luxury scented items and touches the lives of many, as these lives lived out so long ago still touch ours today.
While the warp and weft of perfumery was co-created by many individuals spread across many countries with a variety of intentions and approaches, it still stands as one of the most bewitching and enticing examples of collaboration between humanity and the natural world. A poignant study of the inherent sensuality and concomitant provocative psyche of scent as it enhances not only the human imagination, but also, the trappings of everyday life.