What is Perfume?

Posted by Emily van Oosterom on

The concept of perfume is as old as civilization itself, tracing its origins back thousands of years to ancient cultures who first recognized the profound impact of aromatic substances. The term "perfume" comes from the Latin phrase "per fumum," meaning "through smoke." This is a testament to the early human practice of burning aromatic herbs and incense as part of religious ceremonies and medicinal practices (Classen, Howes, & Synnott, 1994).

In these ancient societies, scent was not merely a matter of personal preference or beautification. It was deeply ingrained in cultural practices and spiritual beliefs. Fragrant smoke was often used as a medium to communicate with deities, and the pleasant aromas were believed to be pleasing to the gods. In some cultures, specific aromatic substances were considered sacred and were reserved solely for religious rituals.

Besides the spiritual realm, early humans also recognized the healing properties of aromatic plants. They burned certain herbs and resins not only for their pleasant scent but also for their therapeutic effects. This practice marked the dawn of aromatherapy, where scents were used to improve physical and psychological well-being (Buckle, 2003).

The crafting of perfume, however, has dramatically evolved over time. In the beginning, perfumes were simple concoctions, usually a single aromatic substance burned to release its fragrant smoke. Over centuries, as humans started to experiment with different materials, the craft of perfume-making became more sophisticated.

Our ancestors began to extract the aromatic essences from plants, flowers, and resins, creating fragrant oils that could be worn on the body. These early perfumes were much closer to the concept of perfume we know today, serving as personal fragrances to adorn the body and enhance personal appeal.

As societies developed and trade routes expanded, access to exotic scents from far-off lands became possible. This further enriched the art of perfumery, enabling the creation of complex perfumes with multiple layers of scents. These blended perfumes were more than just mixtures of pleasant aromas; they were expressions of skill and creativity, and they represented status and wealth.

The advent of modern chemistry and technology revolutionized the perfume industry, allowing for the extraction of fragrances from substances previously unusable in perfumery. Synthetic aromatic compounds were also developed, enabling perfumers to create a wider array of scents and ushering in the age of modern perfumery (Gilbert, 2008).

From its ancient origins to its modern developments, the concept of perfume is a testament to humanity's enduring fascination with scent. As a form of art, a symbol of status, a tool for healing, or a medium for spiritual connection, the allure of perfume continues to captivate our senses and enrich our lives.


Classen, C., Howes, D., & Synnott, A. (1994). Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell. Routledge.

Buckle, J. (2003). Clinical Aromatherapy: Essential Oils in Practice. Churchill Livingstone.

Gilbert, A. N. (2008). What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life. Crown.

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