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On Our Scents of History

The galleons that crisscrossed the Pacific from 1565 to 1815 between the ports of Manila and Acapulco, Mexico, heightened the necessity of maintaining gainful trade, commerce, and cultural exchanges between two continents. Still recorded as an unparalleled romantic saga of the high seas, the Galleon Trade is a story of the largest and richest merchant ships of their age carrying–for two hundred and fifty years—the fabulous luxuries of the Orient to Mexico and returning to the Philippines with cargoes of gold and silver ingots.

Each voyage, for all its worth, was a profitable exchange of material goods; what was not recorded on ship’s manifesto, however, was the hidden, almost forgotten, by-products of specific traded goods processed to lure humans into a sensual trap, commodities that would forever affect our sense of smell. Among the long list of Acapulco-bound items were musks, civets, castors, ambergrises, and camphors used as bases for making perfumes, they were looked upon as elixirs by enterprising European chemists at that time, but the use of any of these mixed with other compounds through centuries would evolve into a wealth-producing industry.

For the uninitiated, musk is a secretion from the “pod” of the male musk deer, an organ used for marking its boundary; civet is a liquid from the anal glands of civet cats; castor is derived from the sweat glands of beavers; ambergris is an oily lump, greyish in color, found in the digestive systems of sperm whales; and camphor is an aromatic crystalline compound from the bark of camphor tree and used as liniment and analgesic in medicine. Horrible and unglamorous as they may appear and sound, they were necessary ingredients in processing varying degrees of sweet scents.

Perfumery is the art of making perfumes; it is all about smelling good, to oneself and to others. The history of perfume is more than just the history of human beings trying to smell sweet and nice. As it was with the Galleon Trade, it is a history filled with much strifes, darings, and innovations. The ingredients used to create scents historically have been important for trade routes; high-class scents have always been used as signs for distinguishing nobility and the wealthy from the working-class; and fragrance has always been associated with the expressions of religious devotions, health precautions, and cleanliness efforts for most of the history of human civilization.

Perfume, from the Latin “per fumus” (English for “through smoke”), is a mixture of aromatic compounds, fragrant essential oils, alcohol, and water, as it is marketed today. Perfumes are classified into scent groups, such as floral, fruity, woody, amber, musk, and oriental. Bottled perfumes are distinguished from each other by the potency of oil used. The so-called Real Perfume has the highest concentration of essential oils with 22 percent; Eau de Parfum, minimum of 15 percent; Eau de Toilette and Eau de Cologne, minimum of 8 percent; and Eau Fraiche, a maximum of 3 percent essential oils for just a hint of fragrance.

Recorded evidence of perfume making began in Egypt and Mesopotamia in 1200 B.C. An Islamic physician, Avicenna, extracted oils from rose petals and mixed these with distilled water to use for medicinal purposes. It was the earliest forms of perfume. In 1370 B.C., perfume began to be used for more than just medicinal purposes. It developed into a product that was favored for its pleasant smell, masking body odor. Oils from flowers or herbs were mixed with water to produce scent; this combination was used until the introduction of a mixture of alcohol solution and fragrant oils. This blend was created by the Hungarians for Queen Elizabeth of Hungary and was known as “Hungary Water.” Soon after this art of perfumery spread throughout Europe. Today, the Grasse Region of France remains the center of the European industry.

By the 20th Century, perfume was a popular product and was widely marketed, which had always been made of natural materials, including oils from flower petals. The introduction in 1920 of “Channel No. 5” changed the perfume market by producing a fragrance made from synthetic material, different “from natural substances,” and producing a light scent that became extremely popular. The recent popularity of “celebrity” fragrances has made an impact on the perfume industry. Today, there are over 30,000 designer perfumes on the market and perfumes are no longer for the wealthy. Several changes in technique, material, and style have been made to create what is now known as the modern fragrance industry, one that incorporates creativity, mystique, romance, and marketing appeal to the masses.

The refinement of perfumes and colognes continued in the 21st Century, when bottles and containers evolved to become as expensive as the fragrance they hold. In 2006, Clive Christian reportedly introduced a new fragrance, “Imperial Majesty,” in a bottle made of crystal with a five-carat diamond in the collar, valued at $215,000 per bottle. Since ancient times perfume bottles have been considered an art form. The container that held the perfume was considered as valuable as the perfume itself. Perfume containers have come in a variety of materials, shapes, and sizes, and differ from culture to culture.

In the past few years, there have been marketed exclusive fragrance brands, known as “niche fragrances,” such as “Amouage,” “Montale Perfume,” “Xerjoff,” “Parfumerie Naturalle,” and “Bois 1920”. What was then a popular brand, “Odori” has been reintroduced to bring back the high quality fine fragrances made by the perfume makers. All these contain the finest oils from all over the world and have revived the passion for perfumery of regular users.

The expansive history of perfumes and their designer bottles is intriguing and is a testimony to human beings exposed for a long time to pleasant scents and works of beauty that speaks notably to our senses of smell and touch. The art of perfumery and perfume bottle design continue to attract seasoned collectors and fickle users, but most of today’s consumers buy perfume for personal reasons, for the pleasure of the scent or for the beauty of the bottle, certainly a throwback to the days when a maiden in the Philippines hung on her neck a garland of Sampaguita flowers to be able to enjoy their lingering sweet smell.

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