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The History of Perfume and Eau de Cologne

At Czech and Speake, we’re proud to situate ourselves in a long British heritage of perfumery. However, the story of perfume goes back much, much further. Throughout recorded history, humans have experimented with different compounds to mask or enhance natural scents.

The first perfumes can be traced back to Mesopotamia, where a woman named Tapputi is mentioned on a royal Babylonian cuneiform tablet. These early perfumes from the Middle East, India and China were usually aromatic resins and oils, which were burned (the Latin “per fumum” means “through smoke”) to scent the air. When distillation was developed in the East, Arabic treatises spread these techniques, as well as the use of the still, to Europe, particularly Spain and Italy.

However, it was in France, at the perfumed court of the Sun King Louis XIV, that the art of fragrance reached heights never achieved before, and France remained the center of perfumery for many years. In an age where all scents were extracted from natural sources (such as the jasmine flower, or the tonka bean, many of which have minute concentrations of essential oils) perfume was a status symbol, and smelling pleasant a luxury restricted to royalty and the nobility. Different formulations of perfume were developed during this time; Eau de Cologne was developed as a lighter blend of 2% – 4% perfume oils in alcohol and water, for the royal courts of Europe, by an Italian perfumer living in the city of Cologne. (Today, luxury cologne is a term for a product with a varying amount of perfume essence, but one that is primarily marketed towards men.)

This state of affairs lasted until the mid-1800s, when the English hygienist movement popularized cleanliness as a virtue and as a defense against disease. Smelling fresh and clean was desired by an increasingly large proportion of the populace. This demand was met with new raw materials from the colonies via the East India Company. Finally, synthetic products, such as vanillin (used by Guerlain in 1889 to formulate what has come to be called the first modern perfume, Jicky) ushered in an explosion and democratization of fragrance. Companies vied for the best synthetic compounds to tickle the olfactory senses of their customers. The ability to synthesize new scented compounds also set off a great surge of creativity, with perfume houses releasing layered and multi-note fragrances, evocative of feelings and abstract concepts instead of copying natural essential oils. These complex perfumes were far removed from the simple floral and citrus scents that came before.

Today, while fragrances are readily available, a unique scent crafted and blended by a master perfumer is still a luxury, speaking of individuality and decadence. At Czech and Speake, it is also a particularly British luxury, with an emphasis on classic colognes and notes such as leather, tobacco, lavender and bergamot, evocative of the quintessential English gentleman.

 

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