Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 April 2004
Issue No. 686
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875


Lubna Abdel-Aziz

Scent of a woman

Click to view caption
Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962) She wore Chanel No 5
By Lubna Abdel-Aziz

You cannot see it, hear it, taste it or touch it, yet its dominant presence is unmistakable. It fills the air with visions of Paradise, of roses and hyacinth, of sunny Mediterranean shores, and soft snow-capped mountain tops. It is the enticing scent of subtle, soothing, seductive perfume that has been an essential component of our lives since our primeval existence.

Preoccupied with his quest for food, early man believed the greatest sacrifice he could offer his gods was his most precious possession, a slaughtered animal. To mask the stench of burning flesh he burned sweet smelling leaves and woods to deodorise the carcass. "Perfume" from "per fumare" (or through the smoke) is an accurate description of how the fragrant aromas reached worshipers through the smoke of the burning sacrifice. In time, those smoking fragrances in themselves, became the symbolic substitute for the offerings.

The transition from incense to perfume occurred some 6,000 years ago in the Middle East. Egyptians and Sumerians literally bathed themselves in oils and alcohols of herbs, flowers, trees and plants... jasmine and honey-suckle, iris and lilies, frankincense and myrrh. Egyptians used balms for religious ceremonies and their women applied a different scent to each part of the body. Cleopatra bathed in milks and rosewater, covered her hands with oils of roses, crocus and violets and her feet with almond, honey, cinnamon and orange-blossom lotions.

The Ancient Greeks learnt of Egypt's euphoric perfumes, and even though Greek males shunned facial cosmetics, they copiously embraced the various scents, one for the hair, another for the skin, and another to perfume their wines. So fashionable was their use among males, Athenian statesman Solon promulgated a law prohibiting the sale of fragrant oils to women. Women were so outraged and the law was repealed two months later. Roman soldiers were quick to copy macho Greek males. They were considered unfit to ride into battle unless anointed with perfumes.

As the Roman Empire expanded they acquired cedar, pine, ginger and mimosa from the Far East, and from the Middle East citric oils of tangerine, orange and lemon. Emperor Nero was partial to roses, spending the equivalent of $160,000 for rose oils, rose water and rose petals on one single night, for him and his guests. At his wife's funeral in 65 AD more perfume was doused, splashed and sprayed "than the entire country of Arabia could produce roses in one year". The early Christian church scorned such excesses of "decadence and debauchery", and condemned the personal use of perfumes in the second century. For the next few hundred years perfume making was chiefly an Oriental art, and was returned to Europe in the 1200s with the Crusaders from Palestine. England and France both adopted the trade. One of the costliest perfumes was "rose attar" extracted from the oils of the damask rose. Two hundred pounds of feather light rose petals produced a single ounce of "attar". European interest in the magical aphrodisiac was re-kindled, and new elements were introduced by Eastern pharmacists. Small portions of certain animals' sexual and glandular secretions were found to be intoxicating to humans. Though their odours are nauseating and revolting, in minuscule amounts and mixed with other oils they are greatly pleasing. How this was discovered is inconceivable. Nevertheless, those small glandular "sacs" were worth their weight in gold. Musk, ambergris, civet and castor are now fundamental essences in the production of modern perfumes. Musk comes from the male musk deer, ambergris from the sperm whale, civet is secreted by the African Civet cat, and Castor is derived from Russian and Canadian beavers of the 'Castor fiber' family. All four of these animal essences, besides adding an indefinable mystique to the scent, possess a fixative wax, that prevents the smell from rising too quickly above the liquid's surface, escaping into the air.

The father of the industry in modern times, is Jean Baptist Farina, an Italian barber who arrived in the city of Cologne, Germany in 1709 with a concoction of lemon spirits, orange bitters and bergamot fruit. He called it "Eau de Cologne" (water of Cologne). Soon the city became the major producer of the famous "Cologne" throughout Europe. "Cologne" has only 4% essential oils the rest is alcohol, followed by Eau de Parfum with 15-22 per cent and perfume with 22 per cent essential oils. In the 1800s some members of the Farina family moved to Paris and established a branch of the business. It was taken over by two cousins Armand Roger and Charles Gallet in 1860. Their products were known as 'Roger and Gallet'. Since the 19th century the French have dominated the perfume business. Grasse, a town in Provence was established as the capital of the perfume kingdom, the centre of flower and herb growing. Today France's share is 50 per cent of the world market now over a $10 billion industry.

Scientific advances created synthetic products that replaced hard to find ingredients, but flowers remain the basic components of all perfumes. The end of WW I saw the beginning of mass production of French perfumes. A hungry American market was opened, and perfume making began to flourish. Popular Fashion designer Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel introduced the most renowned fragrance of all time in 1921. Ernest Beaux created a special floral scent of ylang ylang and neroli with a heart of blends of jasmine and rose, above a base of sandalwood and vetiver. It was unlike any other on the market. The bottle "Mademoiselle" chose was the fifth presented to her; she launched the perfume on the fifth day of the fifth month, and called her perfume Chanel No 5 since five was her lucky number. Lucky indeed! Mademoiselle collected $15 million dollars during her lifetime and this precious elixir has been the highest selling product ever since, currently reaching five per cent of the world market share, selling at a bottle every 30 seconds. After all, did not the love goddess of the century Marilyn Monroe confess that Chanel No 5 was all she wore to bed.

Everyone is getting into the game. Apart from classic perfumers like the House of Guerlain, Couture Houses, Cosmetic Houses, Jewelers, Filmstars and even Liquor Houses want a piece of the fragrance pie. Highly pleasing and reasonably priced Cosmetic Houses have produced affordable perfumes for the masses, such as Coty, Yardley, Max factor and Bourjois. But if your taste is for Haute Parfum, most of the Couture Houses have their own creations. More exclusive still are custom-made perfumes for the more discriminating noses. If the fresh clean scent of 4711 is not for you try "Creative Perfumers" in London. It will take them months to create your special perfume at prices that start at $4,500... or if in a hurry, go to Florence where Lorenzo Villoreal can whip up your essence in 2 hours, for under $1,000. In Paris, Europe's favourite among the royals is "the House of Creed". Only $7,300 per litre, but the minimum order is 10 litres. There is more. Arthur Burnham of PARFUM VI in London charges $71,000 per ounce of exclusive personal fragrance. Did I mention that he throws in a platinum and 24 carat gold bottle, studded with rubies and diamonds, on the house!

The 20th century saw a burgeoning of the perfume industry. Each decade introduced scents to match the mood of the era, complementing the taste, motifs and moods of the ladies. But perfume is no longer purely a woman's domain. It appeals to men almost as much, and men's fragrances are a rapidly growing business. While nine out of 10 women use perfume, one out of two men indulge. Children are now targeted and perfume makers use less alcohol content, substituting with fragrances of chocolate and cherry.

What is perfume? A frivolous, petty product for a fleeting forgettable effect? A foolish excess, trivial and skin deep, or a quiet essential compound of pleasurable and sensual delights that seduces and hypnotises all of God's creatures. They say, " promise her anything, but give her-love ". Do add a bottle of her favourite scent... so appealing, so satisfying to our finer as well as our basic instincts.

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