Text and photos courtesy Parfumerie Fragonard
An “industry” as old as mankind
The word “perfume” is derived from the Latin per (through) and fumare (to smoke) because, long before the use of modern techniques, the first perfumes were obtained by burning woods, resins and other complex mixtures. Humans have always been exposed to smells. We can suppose that it was around a fire that our earliest ancestors discovered what smells they could produce by throwing herbs, leaves or twigs of different plant species into the flames. The use of perfume is contemporary, therefore, with the development of the first towns and its purpose was mainly religious, to communicate with the gods and enable the dead to join the hereafter, particularly for the Egyptians.
Egypt: the ancient center of perfume
Of all the ancient civilizations, Egypt has left the greatest mark on the history of perfume. By the end of the Roman Empire, with Rome’s political and economic powers waning, Alexandria, with its guilds of renowned perfumers and alchemists, played a key role in the world of perfume. While it is incorrect to state that the ancient Egyptians used perfume solely for religious and funeral rites, perfume was an essential feature of these mystical ceremonies.
The Egyptians never restricted their use of perfume to purely religious purposes. Although some perfumes were reserved for ritual use, others were used in daily life for healing, adornment and the improvement of home life.
Greece: the beginnings of hygiene and the cult of the body
Egypt and the East passed on their knowledge of perfume to the Greeks via the maritime trade routes of the Cretans and Phoenicians. The Greeks imported the necessary raw materials from Africa and the East through their trading posts dotted around the Mediterranean, eventually becoming experts in preparing perfumed products.
As with the Ancient Egyptians, perfume remained sacred to the Ancient Greeks. Greek mythology even describes the origins of particular fragrances as disputes amongst the Gods.
However, the Greek’s interest in perfume also included the realm of medicine and personal hygiene. The cult of the body, both male and female, which developed in Ancient Greece, is inextricably intertwined with the world of perfume.
The Middle Ages and barbarian influences
In just over a millennium, Rome grew from a small farming village to the undisputed world capital. As Rome’s power and influence grew, its morals were also radically altered. The Republic managed to maintain a certain austerity for a while but eventually yielded to luxury with the discovery of oriental refinement and perfumes.
Public baths attracted a large number of Romans and body care was practiced throughout the rich classes of Ancient Rome. Scents, room perfumes, oils and balms for skin and hair, and spicy aromas from refined dishes were all important parts of Roman life. This profusion in fragrance use caused the moralists of the period to condemn the excessive use of perfume.
From The Renaissance to The Enlightenment
By the end of the 14th century, liquid perfumes were replacing solid ones. Scented waters and tinctures were sought after for their medicinal values.
Bathing was considered to be dangerous and unhealthy, and consequently aristocrats used increasing amounts of perfume to conceal the embarrassing odors of their ill-washed bodies. Strong, heady perfumes, such as amber, musk, jasmine and tuberose, persistent enough to cover-up bad odors were en vogue. Similarly, the fragrance used in perfumed gloves brought to France by Queen Catherine de’ Medici from her native Tuscany masked the unpleasant smell of poorly tanned leather.
The association of leather and perfume was so strong that in 1656 the Corporation of Glovemakers and Perfumers was formed in France. Under Louis XIV, nicknamed “sweetest smelling king of all”, this guild was granted the monopoly of perfume distribution, which had previously belonged to apothecaries and druggists.
Strong demand for perfumed products, mainly imported from Italy, encouraged France to develop its own perfume industry. The Grasse region, in the south of France, which enjoyed a favorable climate and local support from the Montpellier faculty of pharmacy, began to specialize in both aromatic raw materials and the actual production of perfume.
The age of Enlightenment saw a major expansion in perfumery products. Scented waters gave way to toilet vinegars and bathing gradually came back into favor. As flasks adapted to these new products, vinaigrettes, handy recipients for sweet-scented vinegars, were produced.
The French court was the undisputed model of refinement and elegance throughout Europe and eventually France became the home of the greatest perfume makers and most innovative perfumes. While Paris was the capital of trade in perfumed products, the town of Grasse, with its extensive fields of jasmine and rose, became the capital of production.
It was during this period that Grasse began to acquire its worldwide reputation for the diversity and quality of its production.
The beginnings of modern perfumery
It was in the 19th century that perfume making, and industry in general, was completely revolutionized.
The emergence of modern chemistry, gradual democratization, the rise of an industrial middle class, and a flood of scientific and technical discoveries all caused a complete structural change in the skills and products of the perfume trade.
Advances in organic chemistry produced synthetic compounds that reproduced smells of the rarest essences. Both the glove maker-perfumer and the alchemist gave way to the contemporary perfumer- a professional well versed in all the scientific and technical possibilities available. During this period, with the predominance of bourgeois taste based on moral values such as reason and decency, society turned towards more delicate perfumes. Perfume was consumed in the form of perfumed bath salts, fragranced sachets for linen cupboards and incense pastilles. The atomizer, invented in 1870 by the writer Brillat-Savarin, made it simpler to use spirit-based products.
In the 20th century, perfume became increasingly luxurious and is still strongly associated with other artistic endeavours. Perfume was used and desired not only for its fragrance but also to highlight the attractiveness of the wearer.
The names evoke far-away places (Mitsouko, Shalimar, Cuir de Russie), emotions (Scandale, Je reviens, L’Heure bleue) and nature (Vent vert, Fleurs de rocaille).
Crystal-makers, like Lalique and Baccarat, devoted their talents to designing elegant perfume bottles and the advertising industry promoted new perfumes. Leading fashion designers – following Paul Poiret, the first to associate a perfume (Les Parfums de Rosine) with a line of women’s clothes – gradually moved into the secret specialised world of perfumery. In 1925, Ernest Beaux created the most mythical designer perfume ever, Chanel N°5. Lanvin, Rochas, Patou, Ricci, Balmain and Dior, soon joined this expanding business that linked designer clothes with designer fragrances. In the 1950s, men’s fragrances began to gain popularity.
Today, marketing is key to every form of creation in perfumery. “Noses”, the creative artists, have to compose perfumes within the strict framework of particular fashions and detailed specifications. Hundreds of new perfumes are launched each year, but very few are able to survive beyond their first year.
While this massive expansion and industrialization of the perfume industry continues, today, there are still artisan perfume makers who offer original high-quality creations designed and produced in the traditions of the great perfume houses of the past.
The House of Fragonard
– a story of perfume making…
Shortly before World War I, Eugène Fuchs, an entrepreneur at heart seduced by the magic of perfume, decided to set up his own perfumery based on the novel concept of selling perfumery products directly to tourists who were beginning to discover the charms of the French Rivera. Parfumerie Fragonard was opened in 1926. Eugène Fuchs chose to name it after the famous Grasse-born painter, Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), as a tribute to both the town of Grasse and to the refinement of 18th-century arts. Similarly, the choice of name expressed his desire to run his business in accordance with traditions.
This spirit has been loyally perpetuated by the three succeeding generations who have run and are still running the company with production plants and retail outlets in Grasse, Eze and Paris, France.
It was under the tenure of Jean-Francois Costa that the Parfumerie Fragonard experienced rapid growth and modernization. As an avid art collector, he acquired a large and unique collection of antique perfume related items that has both enriched the House of Fragonard and given the town of Grasse a new cultural dimension.
Today, Jean-François Costa’s daughters, Agnès and Françoise preside over the perfumery, and are as concerned as the preceding generations with continuing to build the company while adapting it to current market needs and desires.
Fragonard Home Scents
Jean-Marc Fray French Antiques now offers Fragonard scented candles, and home fragrances imported from Grasse, France.
If the white biscuit porcelaine pot blends beautifully with your interior décor, it serves further to highlight a soft, pervading fragrance. These candles bring a soft, convivial atmosphere to your house. Available in 12 fragrances: Sandalwood, Ylang-ylang, White Flowers, Cinnamon/Orange, Orange blossom, Vineyard Peach, Vanilla, Brioche, Cappuccino, Date & honey and Bientôt minuit. $42.
They partner your interior decoration, highlighting its character and bringing you a most enjoyable sensation of harmony. These elegant fragrances come in equally attractive glass spray bottles, so decorative and traditional. Available in two scents: Eau d’oreiller and Chambre d’Amis $53.