The Art of Perfume

The Art of Perfume

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If you follow the scent trail of perfume it is parallel to the evolution of mankind.  Our sense of smell is a primal one and its shift from survival instinct to personal taste is what has elevated perfume to a well-crafted artform. The word perfume comes from the latin term "per fumum," which means "through smoke." The first known perfumes were incense, ancient people used scent to seek a divine connection with the gods.

If you were to gain favor with deities through scented rituals then you could cure disease and repel the bad spirits that cause illness. As a mark of immortality, perfumed oils were used to mummify royalty, preparing them for the afterlife and making them acceptable to the gods. The original devotees of beauty, the ancient Egyptians would smear their entire bodies with a scent -- applying perfumed salves or "unguents" to their hair -- where it would gently diffuse. Like many of the ancient arts, the Egyptians passed along perfumery to the Greeks and Romans. Cleopatra famously greeted Marc Antony on her barge, its sails soaked through with perfume and the winds were lovesick. The Romans lavished every part of their bodies with scent -- from their garments and shoes to their horses and saddles. The roman baths in morocco were filled with rose water, while the Persians to the east further perfected the distillation of roses, a scent that still permeates the region today.

The modern incarnation of perfumery first appeared at the end of the 14th century -- a crafted blend of essential oils fixed with an alcohol base that lasted throughout the day. It began as a craft, the haute couture of olfactory art, with bespoke fragrances tailored to each individual's taste. As part of the spice trade, the raw materials for perfume found their way around the world. From the bustling markets of Constantinople, through the crowded ports of Venice, to the court of Catherine de Medici, and makes its way around Europe and flourished during the age of the renaissance. Catherine de' Medici made scented gloves the de rigueur accessory in France during the 16th century when she brought her personal perfumer with her to court from Italy. Then, Renato Bianco opened the first perfume shop in Paris in 1533 -- giving rise to the blossoming perfume industry in France. 

Romans may have loved perfume but it was the french who worshipped it. Each reigning king had their own personal perfumer, and the fountains of Paris were overflowing with fragrant herbs and flowers for every festival. Napoleon practically bathed in it -- going through 60 bottles a month and Louis XV's love of fragrance earned Versailles the title of the "perfumed court" during his reign. With a reputation for excess, it comes as no surprise that Marie Antoinette had a special affinity for scent. Her personal perfumer jean-louis fargeon created scents for her every whim and classified them as "compositions for health" or "perfumes for embellishment." scent and odor were considered indicators of health and class during this time, where perfume was thought to provide protection against airborne disease and pleasing aromas signified wealth and well-being. Philosophers even recognized scent as a source of knowledge that stimulated the mind. Just as music, fashion and art prospered during the industrial age of the 20th century, perfume followed the tides of progress, embellishing the lives of the everyday woman (and man) with innovative blends and masterful aromas.

"Within the spiritual essence of scent lies the spirit of its time, the scented imagination -- the volatile, ever-changing cluster of mental images triggered by olfactory experience at different times of modern European history."

-- Richard Stamelman, perfume: joy, obsession, scandal, sin: a cultural history of fragrance from 1750 to the present.

The Power of Perfume 

The sense of smell is truly the most democratic of all the senses. A scent always fits and perfumes rarely go out of style. A perfume is experienced through an individual's filter of emotion and memory. Memory and fragrance are the keynotes of perfume, our sense of smell is directly connected into the limbic system -- the seed of memory and emotion in the brain. "It is a matter of seconds from scent to memory," says dr. David rubin, psychologist at duke university. While Alan Hirsch, md, founder and neurological director of the smell & taste treatment and research foundation found that: "when exposed to smells that they love, people become happier and more positive towards others. They listen better and are more agreeable." It is this visceral reaction that attracts and repels people according to each scent. Researchers have also found that our ability to recall a specific scent surpasses even our ability to recall what we've seen. It is individual intimacy and recollection that differentiates each fragrance and ignites the imagination.

The science and nature of perfume the art of perfumery is an intellectual process as well as an aesthetic one. A juxtaposition of art and science, the concept exists before the formula is crafted. There are over 500 perfume launches a year, from the profound to the superficial -- some being whipped up in a matter of weeks while others are carefully composed over many years. In the progression from plant to perfume, the aim is not to recreate something found in nature, but to create something new -- an abstract idea. The world of perfumery has over 600 natural extracts and more than 3,000 synthetic ones at its disposal. This is the palette that every perfume is created from. The process is not an exact science but of art and enchantment -- creating perfume is a form of olfactory travel. Most perfumes rely on 80% synthetic substances, usually with just 15% natural ingredients. Because synthetic molecules make up so much of commercial perfumes, creating a complex fragrance without synthetics can cost time and money. Most large fragrance companies will sacrifice complex for simple, making natural perfumery something of a lost art. Since it takes 800 kilos (close to 2,000 pounds!) of roses to produce one kilo of absolute extract, synthetic perfume is considered stronger, longer lasting, and cheap. The difference between naturals and synthetics is complexity. Pure, natural materials are composed of tens and hundreds of molecules, and our sense of smell is capable of recognizing it as richness and depth -- serving as a reminder that some smells can never be replicated in a laboratory. Synthetic perfumes can contain harmful phthalates and synthetic musks that can accumulate as toxic pollutants in our oceans, water supply and our bodies. 

"Natural oils are glorious, unspeakably romantic, and silken. Science is grand, but nature is grander"

-- Cathy Newman, perfume: the art and science of scent.  


"When you start mixing things [scents] together, which is what perfumers do, things can become very unpredictable. Which is why perfumery ends up being so empirical and artistic. You can predict what you'll get if you mix two colors, you actually can't predict what will happen when you mix two smells."

-- Leslie Vosshall, ph.D, head of the laboratory of neurogenetics and behavior, Rockefeller University.

Red flower perfumes

The pursuit of rare, pure botanical oils that capture the sublime and naturalistic beauty of living scent is what brings forth the creation of red flower perfumes. An innovation in perfumery, this trinity of perfumes represents the first certified organic and synthetic-free fragrances to the luxury market. Seeking a complexity of raw material that can only be found in nature, each perfume contains rich concentrations of flower distilled essential oils, resinous woods, bright, fresh herbs and ripe fruit extractions to produce an exquisite and indelible scent. Carefully distilled to maintain the living essence of their original sources, these essential oils each contain a unique molecular structure -- shaping the way it feels and smells on the skin. The scent of a natural rose contains over a hundred different molecules that vibrate like a living pulse, while the frequency of a synthetic rose scent falls flat with only one. This vibrational quality of oil blends allows each scent to come alive on contact -- evolving on the skin to create an original scent that reflects the individual. Each scent: guaiac, champa and ambrette offers a reconnection to the sensual world of nature and the ephemeral pleasure of natural fragrance. A ray of light, the precious champa flower of east India represents the transcendent nature of spirituality -- a divine blend of heady florals, sweet mimosa and hint of white fruit that is both feminine and bright. Emerging from the musky seed of scarlet hibiscus, ambrette captures the visceral scent of warm skin, a sensuous blend of subtle florals and sophisticated musk -- it melds into the scent of the human pulse. From the humid depths of the South American jungle, the tree of life, the rare guaiac, offers a provocative blend of leathery, warm woods and a citric burst that evokes the expanse of possibility. All ingredients used in red flower perfumes are sustainable, biodegradable and biocompatible. Each scent is offered in a portable, stainless steel roller ball applicator and oil base for smooth, sensual delivery or a potent concentrate -- in a crystal-cut glass vintage bottle with an organic alcohol base for a refined, lasting scent. Each perfume is simply packaged, allowing the fragrance to speak for itself. 

"It is my deep belief that self-expression is among life's greatest luxuries and liberties. With this belief in mind, I created the new trinity of organic perfume. Experience the absolute difference of a synthetic-free fragrance -the wildly pleasurable scent of a perfume composed of the intense purity of natural materials. To perfume oneself thoughtfully is to offer a subtle gesture, a hint of the inner secret, a touch of the essence. Red Flower is no more and no less."

-- yael alkalay, red flower founder.


"One feels about this perfume as one would a tiny blossom, impossibly lovely, ridiculously fragile, evanescent, guaiac one of the most exquisitely lovely perfumes you have ever smelled"

-- Chandler Burr, New York Times., 


"Champa fragrance is as if after all these years, someone has made a perfume just for me."

-- Jean Godfrey-June, Lucky Magazine


"Wear it to yoga to lift stress-related fatigue or anoint your pulse points with it as an aphrodisiac"

-- Melisse Gelula, well and good nyc



Learn more Perfume: The Art and Science of Scent – Cathy Newman The Scent Trail: How One Woman's Quest for the Perfect Perfume Took Her Around the World --Celia Lyttelton Perfumes: The A-Z Guide -- Luca Turin & Tania Sanchez TED Talks: Luca Turin on the science of scent Perfume: Joy, Scandal, Sin: A Cultural History of Fragrance from 1750 to the Present --Richard Stamelman Scents and Sensibilities: The Invisible Language of Smell Synthetic Fragrances in the Aquatic Environment: Overview of Chemistry, Monitoring, and Significance, E.P.A Study Perfume Critic: Chandler Burr Leslie Vosshall Ph.D


6 years ago
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