People use perfume every day. Statistics for the perfume industry show that annual global perfume sales revenue reached US$27.5 billion in 2012. In the US alone, the annual industry revenue reached US$5.2 billion. More details about the American perfume industry can be seen in the following table:

Annual global perfume industry sales revenue $27.5 billion
Annual US perfume industry sales revenue $5.2 billion
Percent of American women who don’t use perfume 17 %
Number of perfume brands carried by US department stores in 2002 756
Number of perfume brands carried by US department stores in 2010 1,160
Percent of fragrance market held by Coty Inc 13 %
Percent of designer perfume brands priced at over $75 46 %
Percent of celebrity perfume brands priced at over $75 1 %

 

source: http://www.statisticbrain.com/perfume-industry-statistics/

So, if only 17% of American women don’t use perfume, then a staggering 83% do. And yet, how many of us know the history of perfume? One thing’s for sure, it’s been used for so long that it’s hard to pinpoint the time when the first perfume was made because fragrances were used long before the beginning of written history.

The first perfumes

It’s believed that the first perfumes were used in the Bronze Age, or possibly even the Iron Age, somewhere in East Asia. Of course, we shouldn’t start picturing people from that time using perfume before going out hunting. So, what did it actually mean back then? Exactly what it should, considering that the word perfume comes from the Latin per fumus, meaning “through smoke.” People used to burn scented herbs and flowers in order to create an odor that would please the gods during their rituals.

Enfleurage

The capacity of the same herbs and flowers to alter and improve the smell of our skin was later discovered by the Egyptians around 1000 BC, or at least that was when the first bottles of perfume were made. Perfume oils were extracted through enfleurage, a method in which flower petals are placed on glass, over a thin layer of fat. This method is hardly ever used nowadays because of the high cost and duration of the process, but back then it was the only way people could extract aromatic oils from plants. An interesting fact is that glass had only just been discovered in those times, and it was often considered more precious than jewels. Perfumery was one of the few fields it was worth using glass for.

Distillation

From around 1000 BC, perfumes started being used throughout the world in various religions, and priests from every culture acquired perfumes for their rituals and celebrations. Meanwhile, perfumes became quite a common thing among the richest people in the great empires, such as those of the Romans and the Egyptians. Arabs then advanced the process of making perfumes one step further through distillation, a method that is widely used nowadays.

Obtaining a more delicate scent had a great impact, and people started using perfumes not only on special occasions, but also in their everyday lives. Soon a large variety of perfumes had been developed, catering to different personal tastes. A few rich people even had their own perfumeries, like Catherina de Medici, who linked the laboratory and her home through a secret passage, so that no one could steal the recipes.

These are only the highlights of the journey from the simple odor of burning herbs to the perfume samples waiting to be tested in stores all over the world, then to be brought home to complete our fragrance collections. To truly appreciate something we can’t imagine living without, we need to know its journey through history. Perfume’s history is far from being over and each and every one of us can help write it bit by bit.

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Featured photo credit: Un ragazzo chiamato Bi via photopin cc

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