Archaeological evidence and ancient texts indicate that people have been making perfumes since the very beginning of civilization. The first known chemist and perfumer was a Mesopotamian woman named Tapputi. In the second millennium BC, she distilled flowers, plants, oils, and other aromatics, in a complex process of repeated filtering, distilling, and refining fragrances. Perfumeries existed in ancient Cyprus in 2000 BC, as well as the ancient Indus civilizations in 3000 BC. 

Arab chemist Al-Kindi wrote a 9th century text containing 107 methods and recipes for perfumes and fragrant oils, along with describing the alembic distilling process. From the Arab world, Queen Elizabeth of Hungary was the first European queen to keep a court perfumer, a person that soon no royal household could be without. 

Catherine de Medici

Catherine de Medici’s personal perfumer, Rene the Florentine, traveled with her from Florence to France. Her apartments were connected to the perfumery by secret passages, to protect the formulas, and thanks to their efforts, France became the center of fragrance and fashion. In the south of France, flowers and plants began to be extensively cultivated specifically for perfume. 

The little town of Grasse on the French Riviera, once known for its very fine leather, can also thank Catherine for its perfume industry. Leather production creates a strong unpleasant smell, so locals started to cultivate flowers to help mask the smell. Legend has it that a local tanner named Galimard had the idea of scenting the leather, and presented a pair of fine, fragranced, leather gloves to Catherine de Medici. She loved the gift, and soon all the noble women of France required scented leather gloves from Grasse.  

Today Grasse remains the epicenter of French and international fragrances. Grasse produces over two thirds of the natural aromas used in French perfumes and foods, in an industry worth over 600 million euros every year. Grasse is the training ground for the “noses” of the perfume world, where perfumers are trained to distinguish over 2000 different scents. Grasse cultivates lavender, myrtle, jasmine, rose, orange blossoms, and wild mimosa for their fragrances. 

Eau de Cologne

Both France and Italy have strong claims to the origins of modern perfumery, due to early innovations and developments in Florence that were quickly exported to other countries. For example, although Eau de Cologne was developed in Cologne, it was invented by a Giovanni Farina, a Florentine perfumer, living in then-Westphalia, speaking French. Eau de Cologne was the first perfume of its kind, delivered to all the royal houses of Europe, at a cost equal to half a civil servant’s annual salary. Since 1709, Farina’s original Eau de Cologne has been produced in the world’s oldest perfumery, located in Cologne. 

Fragrance Today

In early Europe, fragrance was worn to make people smell better, due to the hygiene practices of the day. Perfumes were distilled from the oils and compounds in natural ingredients, with some fragrances, like vanilla, being rare and expensive. Some scents, like lily and lilac, cannot be naturally derived from the flowers, and natural fragrance extraction processes are limited to florals, musks, and botanical scents. 

In the modern era, synthetic fragrances have made rare and difficult fragrances easy to create and cheap to produce. The modern era also has millions of applications for fragrances: far from being simply perfume for the body, we use fragrances in all kinds of personal care products, household cleaning products, air fresheners for the home and workplace, candles, and more. Synthetic fragrances are not only less expensive; they are more consistent, more powerful, more blendable, and lend themselves better to all of these different industrial applications. 

While the perfume marketplace is worth over $70 billion a year, including perfumes and personal hygiene products, the larger fragrance marketplace that includes detergents, home care products, and aromatherapy products is difficult to measure. What we know is that enjoying pleasing smells is an impulse as old as humanity, and that there have never been more ways for people to invite pleasing scents into their lives, homes, and workplaces.