Copyright © 2011-2012 Ilona Goin.  All rights reserved.  Garden of Light Photography is a service of Opus 9 Media LLC.

By Ilona Goin
Light Source, August, 2011

In the study of history, as in a garden, we have to work our way through a certain amount of compost. It is a good thing, then, when we come upon a subject as favorably fragrant as the use of flowers in the art of perfume making.
While countless cultures have come and gone, their gods, languages, and lives largely forgotten, the scent of their perfumes still emanates from the pages of history. From ancient Mesopotamia to modern Morocco, and from the Mediterranean to the mountains of China, flowers have been collected for their precious oils.

As far back as archaeology and records go on the subject, some 4,000 years, humankind has practiced aromatherapy. In those early days the Mediterranean island of Cyprus had a prominent perfumery indicative of large-scale trade. While some cultures also used incense–or, in the case of the Far East, preferred it–most indulged in perfumed body oils.

Living in unsanitary times, some cultures needed to. In times and places where clean water was a rare commodity, washing with water might be limited to priests taking ritual baths. Rivers and irrigation canals could be polluted, and drinking water scarce and precious. Oils were therefore applied and scraped off again to cleanse the skin.

Both carrier oils and essential oils from herbs and flowers contain substances that heal the skin. Many plant oils commonly used on the skin in ancient times had specific medicinal properties, such as being anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, healing wounds, or increasing circulation. It was a pleasant bonus that the sweet and spicy fragrances lingered on the skin.

The Ancient Egyptians made a careful study and personal ritual of perfume oils. Egyptians took great pride in their appearance and cleanliness, taking daily soak baths and applying perfumes frequently. Among their preferred fragrant oils were lily, lotus, rose, cassia, spikenard, cypress, frankincense, and myrrh.

Due to their rarity and cost, perfume oils were often more easily available to the upper echelons of society. More importantly, body perfume was an extension of earlier incense burning, which had been an exclusively religious practice. Thus, the use of perfume among the early Hebrews was strictly limited to priests. Essential oils worn by Biblical priests (Exodus 30:22-33) included myrrh, cinnamon, fragrant cane, and cassia.

Later, the Islamic culture that emerged in the region contributed steam distillation to the art of perfume making. Trading across much of the know world from the west of Africa to India, they brought with them new scented plants such as jasmine and varieties of citrus, along with exotic musk and amber.

In the Middle Ages, Hungary became influential through the use of alcohol as a solvent and base for perfume oils, the formula for making modern perfumes. Another country in the south-east of Europe, Bulgaria, is still considered the source of the most sublime of rose perfumes. Their rose otto rivals even that of Morocco.

During the Renaissance, Italy, with its well-connected trade centers at the heart of the Mediterranean, had easy access to exotic wares from lands to the south and east. In the following age of divine rulers and sun kings–their vast retinue dressed in great quantities of fabric, milling through enormous palaces with no running water–France took the lead in perfume manufacture (presumably by necessity).

Ever since, the French royalty and nobility required copious amounts of fashionable scents to cover up body odor. Napoleon had a standing order for two quarts (liters) of violet cologne each week, and is said to have used sixty bottles of double extract of jasmine per month. Josephine, however, preferred musk.

Their choices may seem to us an odd bit of a gender role reversal–it is a little difficult to imagine the ruthless conqueror exuding a cloud of violet perfume while his delicate wife adds a masculine punch from musk ox glands. However tastes change, it appears that Chanel and Dior follow a long tradition of making the French smell good.

But it wasn’t just the French who doused themselves in floral scents: Catherine of Medici, of the infamous Italian Renaissance family, while in France brought along her Italian perfumer, Rene le Florentin. His laboratory was linked by a private passageway to Catherine’s apartment to prevent the secret formulas from falling into the wrong hands. Alluring scents have always been a woman’s weapon in matters of love, but Catherine managed to turn her perfumes into state secrets guarded as carefully as would be the plans for a trebuchet or a canon.

In our own time, perfume is big business. Although exclusive boutique perfumeries are still treating the creation of personal scents as high art, commercial perfumes are made in ways reminiscent of chemical industries. Annual industry sales are in the billions (according to some reports around $35 billion, although consistent and accurate data are difficult to find).

Many essential oils lift the spirit, calm the nerves, or put one in the right mood for one thing or another — for love, for sleep, or for a religious festival. But even beyond these subtler functions lies yet another reason why people wish to carry the essence of flowers with them all the time.

Each flower and its scent has its own distinct vibration, like the unique tone and pitch of a musical instrument. Blended together, scents perform much as a string quartet or a jazz trio, creating their own special sound. It is no wonder that perfumers regularly refer to individual herbs or aromatics as base notes, middle notes, and high notes. Composing a fragrance follows the same principles as arranging a song.

We all like scents that harmonize us within ourselves and with our environment–that eases tension and soothes our heart, or perhaps boosts our energy and lets our imagination soar, all depending on our own unique needs. Flower have the amazing ability to benefit us on every level, both through their beauty and their scent. What an amazing invention of nature. What a blessed gift.

© 2011 Ilona Goin. All rights reserved.