“From altars and temples as far back as the Stone Age our forefathers sent up to the skies the smoke of resins and scented woods in order to please the unknown heavenly powers. From these burnt offerings comes our word perfume, from the Latin per fumen meaning ‘by smoke.’ Similarly, our word ‘incense’ is from incendere, meaning ‘to burn’ and it reminds us of the earliest uses of aromatic substances burnt as part of religious ceremonies. Incense and the use of perfumes in ritual and civil ceremony were also an important element in the early Chinese culture and have a long and continuing history of use in the Christian church.
“During the 18th century perfume was sold to be decanted but as it was extremely expensive the containers into which it was decanted were similarly opulent. Perfume flasks were produced by Sevres and in Britain rococo porcelain bottles were made at Chelsea and in jasper-ware in the Neo-classical style by Wedgwood.
” The end of the 19th century saw the beginning of the commercial perfume industry as we know it today. Rather than producing their own scent to be decanted, perfumers such as Coty, and Roger & Gallet commissioned designs from leading glassmakers, including Baccarat (who produced bottles for Guerlain) and Lalique (who produced bottles for an estimated 60 perfumers, including Francois Coty.)
“After the First World War many of the couturiers added perfume to their collections. In 1921 Chanel launched her famous No 5, the first scent to bear the name of a designer. Indeed, Chanel No 5 was revolutionary as it was one of the first perfumes which combined both natural floral and synthetic substances. The elegant, even chunky, bottle with the black and white graphics has become an icon of 20th century perfume bottle design and has changed little since it was first on sale more than 80 years ago.”
(from an article of mine a few years ago, but today as an introduction to my post on perfume)
I have loved perfume since I was young although I don’t recall my mother using it in the early 1950s because after WW2 when all things were scarce she certainly wouldn’t have had money for anything as frivolous as a bottle of scent. But I remember her loving her own special soap – Cyclax Skin Soap – which came in a purple and silver wrapper and it was so precious to her, she would use it, then dry it, re-wrap it and ‘save’ it for her next wash. We made do with Imperial Leather of Knight’s Castile. But her own soap had a wonderful fragrance, but sadly, this gorgeous soap is no longer manufactured.
One of several books I have on perfume and its history
When I was eleven a friend and I were taken by my mother to stay with friends of hers in London. She ‘delivered’ us, returning home to our shop the next day, and then collected us the following weekend. During that second weekend she took us to Swan and Edgar’s department store (no longer there) where she bought me a phial of Miss Dior perfume. I was delighted; this was my first grown-up perfume of my own, and to have the signature perfume of the great dress designer filled me with happiness. I felt so grown up, in my tweed costume (a jacket and matching skirt wasn’t referred to as a suit then, but as a costume) and my Russell & Bromley brown lace-up shoes and white ankle socks.
After that, Mum and I would regularly frequent the perfumery counters in our own town’s department stores, where the elegant sales assistants soon got to know us. They were, I think, surprised that such a young girl took such an interest in perfumes and it was their habit to save their tester bottles for me. In those days, these were miniature bottles often held within a Bakelite stand, with ‘droppers’ inside the stopper, so that you could dab some of the perfume on your wrist, to try it out. Some were almost empty, but a few would be filled with the not-so-popular fragrances, but I liked to try them all.
My mother’s favourite perfume by then was Lanvin’s Arpege, but sadly, the modern version isn’t anything like the 1950s version. Many perfumes which were created years ago aren’t the same today, often pale imitations of how they used to smell. So, Miss Dior and Arpege are etched in my olfactory memory just as much as the scent of cut grass on the golf course of a summer’s evening, or the bunches of daffodils that a customer would bring my mother in our shop, so I can’t blame the diminishing power of nose. My mother was also given a bottle of Guerlain’s Mitsuko by a friend who had been abroad – unusual itself in those days – and brought this back as a duty-free gift. So, again my memory of this perfume goes back more than 60 years.
Over the years I’ve loved many perfumes, and of course, many bring memories to mind. One such perfume is Worth’s Je Reviens. This was introduced to me by a school friend, a young woman two years my senior (which seemed a lot when you are 12 and the other person is 14) who lived in a gorgeous house and I unashamedly envied her beautiful bedroom, with sash windows overlooking a private park, and twin beds covered in green and purple shot silk. My goodness, she even had a pale shell-pink wash basin in her bedroom! Pure luxury in the days before en suite bathrooms! I only have to smell Je Reviens and I’m once again 12 years old, having tea with her on their terrace, her mother serving it from a silver tea pot.
For my wedding in 1964 I used my then favourite perfume, Elizabeth Arden’s Memoire Cherie. Sadly, this is no longer produced, which is a shame because it’s a floral perfume. I had used Arden’s Blue Grass in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
In the 1970s I used Rochas’ Madame Rochas. I bought a bottle of this last year, but again, it’s not a patch on what it once was. And I don’t think I can blame my nose for the change: cut grass smells the same, but perfume doesn’t, hence the perfume has been changed, QED.
In the 1980s I had a brief affair with YLS’ Opium. Oh, my goodness, what a rich perfume that was! Similarly Rive Gauche, one perfume which has remained much the same since its creation.
And then my mother bought me a Christmas present one year of Hermes’ Caleche. This was one of the most unusual fragrances I had ever smelt, and I still love this although its formula has been changed slightly. Diminished, I’d say, as with many of the great fragrances of the past. I also now use Hermes’ 24 Faubourg, and only last week bought Hermes’ Jour d’Hermes. It’s OK, but by no means outstanding.
In the summer I felt I needed something a little lighter and bought my first rose fragrance. I’ve never been one for very floral fragrances, but Acqua di Parma is pleasant but, again, not outstanding. Ditto Lancôme’s O de Lancôme, created as a unisex fragrance.
So where do I go next in my perfume journey? I have no idea, I only wish that some of the fragrances of my past, Coty’s Chypre, Goya’s No 5, Yardley’s Bond Street, were still available. Some were at the cheaper end of the perfume market but they remind me of my young self, in my first pair of high heels, my lovely shirt-waist dresses, nylons, and Yardley’s Pink Magic lipstick. I wonder which are your favourite fragrances? Have you discovered a new one, or do you stick to what you have always used? Do any hold special memories for you, as they do for me?