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The beginnings of modern perfumery

It was in the 19th century that perfume making, and industry in general, was completely revolutionised.

The emergence of modern chemistry, gradual democratisation, 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, 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 industrialisation 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.