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The Story of Perfume

We wear perfume to please others, to leave a good impression, to surround ourselves with a pleasing, lingering scent. Although perfume does have a long history, it has not always carried a hint of romance.

“Purple the sails, and so perfumed, that the winds were love-sick with them,” Shakespeare wrote. Cleopatra is said to have greeted Marc Antony on a boat with perfumed sails after the assassination of Julius Caesar and became the queen of Egypt. The use of perfume is mainly associated with mystery, fantasy and imagination. We wear perfume to please others, to leave a good impression, to surround ourselves with a pleasing, lingering scent. Although perfume does have a long history, it has not always carried a hint of romance.

Yesterday’s Perfume The word perfume comes from the Latin phrase, “per” meaning “thorough” and “fumus” meaning “smoke”. The French later gave the name “parfum” to the smells produced by burning incense. Indeed, the first form of perfume was incense, first made by the Mesopotamians about 4000 years ago. Ancient cultures burned a variety of resins and wood at their religious ceremonies. Incense made its way to Egypt around 3000 B.C. but until the beginning of Egypt’s Golden Age, perfumes were used only in religious rituals. They became available to all Egyptians as the priests gradually relinquished their exclusive rights. Citizens took elaborate baths and soaked their skin in scented oils for pleasure.

The ancient Greeks can take credit for the first liquid perfume. But it was the development of distillation by the Arabs that made perfume manufacture viable. Perfume enjoyed huge success during the seventeenth century, especially in France. Hygiene in those days was pretty spotty and fragrances were used to mask the unpleasant body odors. In England perfumes were used extensively during the reigns of Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I. All public places were scented during Elizabeth’s rule because she could not tolerate bad smells.

As with industry and art, perfume was to undergo profound change in the nineteenth century. Changing tastes and the development of chemistry laid the foundations for modern perfumery. At the turn of the century, perfume usually was derived from a single- flower fragrance. Today, perfumes are extremely complex, made up of many natural and synthetic chemicals, often referred to as “notes” or “overtones.” Chanel No5 was the first perfume created by applying modern chemical principles and the first to contain synthetics.

Eau de cologne, usually used by men, was invented by an Italian barber in the beginning of the eighteenth century in the German city of Köln. Hence the name cologne, the French name for the city. The original name of this concoction was “Aqua Admirabilis” (Admirable Water), and it was sold as a “miracle medicine.” The wonder water was highly praised by Napoleon and was first sold as a fragrance under the name 4711, the address of the first eau de cologne shop in Koln. It is still the world’s oldest continuously produced fragrance.

A Whiff of Chemistry The first stage in making a perfume is the extraction of the fragrant essential oils from plants. While many methods can be used, distillation is the most common one. Steam distillation is based on the principle that plant materials placed in boiling water will release their essential oils which then evaporate with the steam. Once the steam and oil have been condensed, the oil will separate from the water and can be collected. Thousands of kilos of flowers may be needed to obtain just one kilo of essential oil, which partly explains why many perfumes are so pricey. The oils are then diluted with alcohol, which also serves as a fixative, giving fragrances their long-lasting effect by delaying evaporation. The diluted solution is then left to steep in special copper or stainless steel pots before being cooled in order to allow any resins or waxy particles to settle. Next comes the filtering process, and last but certainly not least, packaging.

Scientists who experiment with different materials to come up with pleasing fragrances are called perfumers. Just as a good musician needs a good ear, a perfumer needs a good nose! Different companies have different procedures in choosing their perfumers, or as they like to call them, “noses”, but generally, candidates remain apprentices for a minimum of 6 years. Not only do they have to be able to recognize various raw materials by showing a keen olfactory sense, they also have to be imaginative and need a good understanding of chemistry. A good “nose” has to be a meticulous chemist and a creative artist.

Today, both synthetic and natural ingredients are used in perfumery. Natural components include extracts of flowers, leaves, roots and citrus fruit. Animal extracts derived from musk, whales or beaver are also used. Chemists have become very adept at producing synthetic versions of many natural compounds, greatly facilitating perfume manufacture. Fragrances are categorized according to the concentration of essential oils they contain. The most concentrated form, and of course the most expensive, is called parfum. It is the strongest and longest-lasting fragrance and contains 20 to 50 percent perfume compounds by weight. Eau de parfum is an alcoholic perfume solution containing 10 to 15 percent of perfume compounds and eau de toilette (or cologne), 3 to 8 percent.

What you smell is not what you get There are many nuances to fragrance. Like a musical composition, it has different notes: applied to the skin, perfume opens on a crescendo of top notes, then mellows as the middle notes round out the sensory impression, eventually giving way to the base notes. The top note is what you smell when you first sample the perfume. This lasts only for 5 to 10 minutes. To really know if a perfume is for you, you need to get to its “heart”, or the middle note. This is the scent that begins to emerge after the fragrance blends with your own unique skin chemistry. It usually takes about 20 minutes for the middle note to develop fully. The base note is the final expression of your perfume, that is, the scent produced when the fragrance has dried. It’s the smell that lingers. Because we all have different skin types, the same perfume can smell differently on different people.

Studying the Science of Scents People sometimes use fragrances not only to make themselves smell nice, but also with hopes of reducing stress, energizing themselves or just lifting their mood. Aromatherapy is the practice based on the notion that scents can affect mood and well-being. There is also “aromachology,” the exploration of the link between fragrances and psychology. A study by the Olfactory Research Fund in New York actually found a 63% reduction in stress in patients undergoing MRI scans when vanilla scent was pumped into the air around them!

Major cosmetics houses are now following niche companies like Aveda, which pioneered the aromatherapy theory. Clinique’s “Happy,” Shisheido’s “Energizing” and “Aromatonic” by Lancôme are in this category. Smell, more than any other sense, has the capacity to vividly bring back the past. Scientists call this “olfactory bonding” and believe it is related to the unique way in which your brain is wired to smell. Other kinds of sensory information are relayed through the thalamus before reaching the cerebrum, whereas smell messages are routed directly to the area of the brain that determines emotion, creativity, and memory. Thus, an odor can instantly trigger a feeling or a recall of a long-past event. As a matter of fact, case studies have shown that students exposed to specific smells while studying show better recall during exams if the same smell is present. Wearing the same perfume while studying as during an exam may actually help. Of course, this is not a miraculous answer to students’ studying woes. The best way to obtain a good grade is just hard work.

Perfume also has a dark side. Most of us have had the unpleasant experience of walking into a shopping mall and almost being choked by the lingering perfume fragrances. Sensitive individuals can certainly develop allergic reactions to perfume ingredients and dermatitis and photosensitization (skin eruptions and scars from sunlight) can occur. But because so many ingredients and different scents are used to make a perfume, and since no labeling of ingredients is required, it is usually impossible to single out one culprit. Choosing a fragrance with a lower concentration of essence – such as an eau de toilette or cologne – may help minimize skin sensitization.

The Smell of Success She wears Armani, Chanel and Dior. A wardrobe worth tens of thousands of dollars? Mais, non. She is clothed in fragrance, carrying the cachet of designer apparel, but only at a fraction of the cost. The Ancient Egyptians were the first to capitalize on the “image in the bottle”. Their containers were made out of stone and alabaster and decorated with creative designs. Today, as we all know, packaging has a big influence on marketing. Not only is the bottle’s appearance fundamental, the image that perfume projects also plays an essential role in determining success in the market place. Although more affordable than designer clothes, perfume is still considered to be chic and sensual. The fine-fragrance market for men and women is worth $400 million to $500 million a year in Canada, and about $6 billion worth of scent is sold annually in the US. While fragrances do follow social waves, and advertisements can be very influential, you really should pick the fragrance that most suits your taste, and maybe personality. According to some fragrance designers, certain fragrance families denote certain personality types. Chanel No5 is actually advertised to be most suitable for elegant dames, while Opium is thought to be designed for passionate and dreamy women. Of course, only you can decide if you want elegance or passion.

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