The author guides us through the intoxicating world of the perfumer, from ancient Egypt to wartime Paris – and explains what Guerlain meant when he said his fragrances contained a whiff of his mistress's bottom.
Sophie Roell in The Browser:
Why have people been so drawn to perfume down the ages? Is it because of the belief that we can make people desire us if we smell a certain way?
Perfume literally means “through the smoke”, from the Latin per fumus. As practised by the ancient Egyptians, perfume was initially religious and ritualistic in nature. It was burned in temples as an offering to the Gods. The resins that made up perfume – rare flower essences, myrrh and frankincense – were very expensive. In the Bible, the three wise men brought gifts of frankincense and myrrh to Jesus. They were on a par with gold. To burn these precious unguents and offer them to the Gods was one of the highest sacrifices and offerings that you could make. Paradoxically, in addition to being a religious offering perfume was also considered an aphrodisiac. There were perfumes made to attract the opposite sex, to make people fall in love with you. So from ancient times perfume has had a dual function.
I think that in ancient times – perhaps when our sense of smell was more important – perfume had a place of higher honour in society. Today, smell is probably the least appreciated and used of all our five senses. Perfume had its heyday in the early 20th century, when big firms like Guerlain, Caron and Chanel were making perfumes that were widely sought after and very expensive.