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The history of fragrance is an interesting one. Walking through it, as I did with Floris perfumer Nicola Pozzani recently, shows how subjective many of associations with smell.

(You can read the full post about my bespoke fragrance consultation at Floris here.)

perfume fragrance sample bottles floris

Although fragrance was originally used in the way we use it today – to make us smell nice – it was also used as a restorative, and as a medical aid. The refreshing smell of citrus or florals was a pick-me-up, to be splashed on at regular intervals during the day, in much the same way as we use soap or moisturiser after washing our hands.

Strong scents were used to wake people when they fainted, and were drunk as treatments for all manner of illnesses. ‘Cologne’ water would be drunk as often as splashed on – in both cases with the aim of enlivening the senses.

This was one reason light smells were so widely used. They were meant to evaporate quickly, to have an immediate effect rather than hang around all day.

When you start thinking about fragrance in these broad terms, it makes complete sense that an old house like Santa Maria Novella in Florence has bottled perfume as just one section amidst soaps, candles, creams, pot pourri, teas, liqueurs and so on. They are all just ways of applying scent to our senses.

bespoke perfume samples

Fragrance was first dissolved in alcohol by the monks of Santa Maria Novella in the 17th century. Previously it had been held in oils, which were less pleasant and more expensive.

The vast majority of fragrances were floral – understandable, given they were both pleasant and abundant. They make up one of the four or five fragrance families often referred to in perfume, the others being colognes, woods, orientals, and fougeres.

Each one emerged at a different point in history when a particular fragrance became wildly popular. It led to a vast range of spin-offs and copycats, and was often spurred by a scientific advancement.

Colognes became popular at the turn of the 18th century, when Giovanni Maria Farina managed to create a complex yet consistent combination of essences in his Eau de Cologne – using lemon, orange, neroli (orange blossom) and bergamot (a type of orange).

old perfume recipes

All fragrances were florals or colognes until the end of the nineteenth century, when Fougere Royale burst onto the scene. This was spurred by the discovery of a technique to isolate molecules out of raw materials, vastly expanding the potential of perfumery. 

“It means you can be much more precise with your creations,” says Nicola. “In a fragrance I recently created for Floris, for example, I took a very light fraction from jasmine from among 200 or so molecules. You wouldn’t use most of them, but the isolation gives you much more control.”

Fougere itself isolated coumarin, a molecule found in tonka beans, and its sweet smell made it wildly popular around Europe. It is also the basis for many famous ‘male’ fragrances – Brut, Boss, Cool Water etc.

Interestingly, all fragrances were seen as unisex until the 1960s, when the beauty industry started heavily promoting scents for one sex or the other. Until then, men and women simply wore scents they liked. Which makes me feel better about my love of lavender.

perfume auditorium floris

The next trend was woody fragrances, started by the scent Chypre (French for Cyprus) in 1917. It used oak moss at its heart, and was distinguished by the contrast between that and citrusy top notes. Musk and patchouli are often used in chypre scents as well.

The 1920s saw the growth or ‘oriental’ fragrances – the last major family. They were driven by a very western idea of the orient – sensuous and warm, usually around an extract of vanilla. Ouds, which have become very popular in recent years thanks to Tom Ford, are also orientals.

In the past 50 years, perfume has gone through several trends. They often last 10-20 years – the 1980s were all about musk, patchouli and other heavy scents, while the 1990s were dominated by an ingredient called ‘marine’, which was the first successful attempt to make fresh smells without using citrus.

This last ingredient was a real eye-opener to me. As soon as you smell a ‘marine’ fragrance it takes you back to the 1990s, even though you wouldn’t say they had a defining smell. It smells of shower gel, of all Calvin Klein scents, of Acqua di Gio (there were a lot of things with ‘water’ in the title – a cleansing reaction to the heavy 80s).

floris sample bottle

There are a lot of heavier fragrances around at the moment, like the ouds, tobaccos and ambers (actually from ambergris, nothing to do with the stone), partly driven by big-spending markets like Russia and the Middle East.

“Oud has been used in the Middle East for centuries,” says Nicola (who lived in Saudi Arabia for a while). “It’s very much part of religious and cultural rituals – there are even sections of the Koran prescribing when certain scents should be used.”

The relationship between fragrance and culture is a fascinating one. The contrast, for example, between Japan and China that don’t have much of a fragrance culture, tending to focus on cleanliness, and the sense-heavy, incense-drenched catholic countries of Europe. But perhaps another time.

As mentioned on Monday’s bespoke post, it’s a heady world and one I’d highly recommend getting lost in with Nicola and the Floris team.

All photography from Floris perfumers, Jermyn Street. By Jamie Ferguson @jkf_man