Perfumes and their use dates back to the dawn of time, developing alongside civilisations.
It seems that it was in the Middle East, around 7000 BC when the first objects considered as perfume and cosmetics vases appeared. These civilisations employed various odorants, mainly resins widely used as early as 4000 BC in ritual fumigations in censers or incense burners, reserved for the gods and reserved for royal families.
Egyptians knew the techniques for capturing fragrances in fat, cold maceration or hot decoction, but they were still unaware of distillation. Although enormously popular, the products obtained did not possess the olfactory power of our modern perfumes. This art, which still struggled to infiltrate the secular world, would disappear at the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200 BC. It was not until the archaic period (sixth century BC) that fragrances were popularised. They were then contained in simple containers, aryballos or alabasters. Thus scent occupied a prominent position at the crossroads of the sacred, therapeutic, cosmetic and culinary, which it would maintain throughout the middle ages, regardless of the civilisation in question.
In Grasse, raw materials were widely used in the emerging perfumery industry. Although natural and raw fragrances from spices, flowers, mineral or vegetable resins were used, scented oils or waters obtained by decantation, maceration or filtration were also employed. The question of perfume remains closely linked to the development of distillation techniques, which were popularised with the spread of the still and alchemy, with the translation of Arabic treaties by doctors from the School of Salerno in the twelfth century, and then by the dissemination of distillation techniques to Andalusia in the thirteenth century. Alcohol was invented in Salerno in the twelfth century and had a strictly medical use until the fifteenth century. Its use in the manufacture of perfumes spread in the sixteenth century.
The French Revolution ruined perfumers but did not suppress the taste for perfumery. After the Terror, people wore perfume more than ever. The industrial sector experienced a fundamental change; this was also the great intellectual and social period for Grasse. High taxes caused the rapid regression of tannery in favour of perfumery which developed through improved technical processes. As well as scented pastes, there were now powders, soaps, tobacco etc. Pleasure, the watchword of the period, also produced a proliferation of boxes and gewgaws, related to the development of new materials while other civilisations still employed perfume burners... with the scented materials being solid.
In Europe, smell marked a social division until the arrival of the English hygienist revolution in the eighteenth century. Personal cleanliness was promoted leading to the development of lighter fragrances. Meanwhile, the perfumers' palette was enriched with new raw materials imported by the East India Company. Advances in chemistry questioned disinfection measures using strong scents.
Eighteenth century Europe also underwent a transformation in terms of commerce, moving from glove-making to perfumery. The nineteenth century saw a change in this artisanal activity, which become powerfully industrial.
Modern perfumery began in the late nineteenth century with the first use of synthetic products, developed in the twentieth century from real creations, based on discoveries of odorant products through research in organic chemistry and brought together with irreplaceable natural products from new technologies. Houbigant and Guerlain were the first to use synthetic products: Fougère royale in 1884, Jicky in 1889, considered the first modern perfume, celebrating the advent of vanillin. They paved the way for the great works of the twentieth century. François Coty, the father of modern perfumery, a pioneer and industrialist, commonly used natural "Absolutes", from the development of the extraction technique using volatile solvents, that he used with new synthesis products. Technique became the slave of creation and thus the perfumer could recreate the scents that are so inextricably linked to them.
Globalisation went hand-in-hand with the development of the fragrance industry and created uniform customs and standardisation, in all of the big cities. France played a predominant role in this "Grand Siècle" due to the combined and complementary action of Grasse, the world's largest centre of natural raw materials for Perfumery and their derivatives, and Paris, the world's fashion capital. In the City of Perfume, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the perfume industry was characterised by the treatment of natural products, and had a virtual world monopoly. After a flurry of creation without any real price limits, through an elitist distribution, the second half of the twentieth century was marked by the provision of fragrances in greater quantities resulting in a lower factory cost and so a lower price. There were more launches with more or less success. The average life of a product was restricted. With few exceptions, perfume changed from being exceptional to everyday and from super selective to having mass market appeal.
Some civilisations were not – and are still not – affected by the globalisation of perfume; it is the same today. In Oceania, people rubbed their body and hair with plants selected for their fragrance. Asia is still synonymous with floral offerings, as fresh flowers are everywhere in secular and religious life. Scent has a power of seduction and purification. Bodily practices associated with fragrance constituted a model for social life in the UAE. Gradually, in China, scents played a role as a personality marker as was already the case in the West. Perfume was a product with therapeutic, aesthetic and ritual value. It was an accessory for seduction or eroticism, a way to celebrate the gods, a method of purification.
In eighteenth century Africa, the art of perfumery was linked to the major coastal towns of East Africa but also to an "ambiguous Africa", mysterious and primitive. Perfumes and preparations based on odoriferous plants still contributed very differently to magical and therapeutic strategies in both rural and urban areas. In the twentieth century, perfume imported in bottles became increasingly fashionable, becoming synonymous with social success, in large cities and in the most remote villages.