I had a patient yesterday who walked into my consultation chamber with the most pleasant aroma following him, an intense smell which managed to refresh and reinvigorate me, brighten up my day and send my senses to an unimaginable crescendo! I have never in my life smelled anything like that and what was most obvious was how it changed the mood in the surrounding. This middle aged gentleman and his wife were from a small city near Lucknow called Kannauj and they were in the business of manufacturing perfumes or ‘ittar’, as they are called in Hindi and Urdu, for four generations now! The word 'attar', 'ittar' or 'itra' believed to have been derived from the Persian word itir, meaning 'perfume' and my patient, a gentleman who never went back to school after passing class seven, today has business in five continents! What mesmerized me was his and his wife’s exhaustive knowledge of the product they sell, how they fare against international competitors and what vision they had for the future of their industry. And then again, when I remember that he was a Class seven drop out, it has only reaffirmed my faith that schooling has very little to do with education!
However, the history of perfumes is not very glamorous all the way and slick glass bottles and airbrushed celebrity campaigns of today’s perfume counters belie a strange history that dates back thousands of years – and involves chemicals derived from the butts of dead cats, the Plague and whale vomit. My patient told me that Musk is a secretion from the musk pod of the male musk deer, an organ used to mark territory; civet is a liquid from the anal glands of civet cats; castor is made from the scent glands of beavers; and ambergris is a grey oily lump found in the digestive system of sperm whales. All these were sources of perfume once upon a time in the western world! The earliest use of perfume bottles is Egyptian and dates to around 1000 BC. The Egyptians invented glass and perfume bottles were one of the first common uses for glass.
In India perfumes have a long history too. Our Ittar is an essential oil derived from botanical sources. Most commonly these oils are extracted by hydro or steam distillation. They can also be expressed by chemical means but generally natural perfumes which qualify as ittars are distilled with water. The oils are generally distilled into a wood base such as sandalwood and then aged. The aging period can last from one to ten years depending on the botanicals used and the results desired. Technically ittars are distillates of flowers, herbs, spices and other natural materials such as baked soil over sandalwood oil/liquid paraffins using hydro distillation technique with deg and bhapka. These techniques are still in use today at Kannauj in India. This is one of the oldest natural fragrant materials, nearly 5000 years old. Some of the first lovers of ittars were the Mughal nobles of India. Jasmine ittar was the favorite perfume of the Nizams of the Hyderabad state.
Traditionally in India, it was a customary practice of nobility to offer ittar to their guests at the time of their departure. The ittars are traditionally given in ornate tiny crystal cut bottles called as itardans. This tradition of giving a scent to one's guests continues to this day and my wise patient and his wife offered me two ittars, one for me and one for my wife! I will now enlighten you with some pearls of knowledge which my patient impressed me with.
Perfume governs us in ways we cannot understand. We know that the smell of vanilla – almost universally beloved – brings water in our mouth. We know that the smell of sandalwood is soothing and devotional. It did not take long, though, for people to discover perfume’s romantic potential and it was used both for seduction and as preparation for love-making. Ittars have special medical value and they are generally classified based on their effect on human body as warm ittars’ such as musk, amber and kesar (saffron) are used in winters, they increase the body temperature. Cool ittars such as rose, jasmine, khus, kewda and mogra are used in summers and have cooling effect on the body! Ittar is mainly used to calm the nervous system because it has a soothing aphrodisiac essence and an anti-depressant. It is also used to control sleeplessness so that you can sleep normally. The oil extracted from Jasmine flowers is a potent aphrodisiac that can be used to attract the opposite sex. Other medicinal purposes include; it relieves stress and strain, helps in treating skin ailments, calms frail nerves, and uplifts mood!
In the west with the arrival of eau de cologne, 18th-century France began using perfume for a broad range of purposes. They used it in their bath water, in poultices and enemas, and consumed it in wine or drizzled on a sugar lump.
The history of Perfume is thousands of years old, with evidence of the first perfumes dating back to Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Cyprus. The English word "perfume" comes from the Latin pro fumum, meaning "through smoke." Those were the days of animal sacrifice and what the gods wanted was the rank blood-smoke of sacrificial victims, and if a more fragrant offering were burnt before them, it was to disguise the smell from us the humans, not to please them, the Gods.
A famous perfume critic Luca Turin wrote: "Nobody ever died from wearing Mitsouko, but lots of babies were born as a result of it." Quite so. Vive les nez! The ingredients that are used to create scents have historically been important for trade routes; high-class scents have always been used as a way to distinguish nobility from peasantry, and fragrance has been tied to expressions of religious devotion, cleanliness, and health precautions for most of the history of human civilization.
The Ancient Egyptians were the first to incorporate perfume into their culture, followed by the ancient Chinese, Hindus, Israelite, Carthaginian, Arabs, Greeks, and Romans. The oldest perfumes ever found were discovered by archaeologists in Cyprus. They were more than four thousand years old. A cuneiform tablet from Mesopotamia, dating back more than three thousand years, identifies a woman named Tapputi as the first recorded perfume maker. But perfumes could also be found in India at the time.
The Egyptians loved perfume, and they used it for both ceremonial and beautification purposes: fragrance was believed to be the sweat of the sun-god Ra. They even had a god of perfume, Nefertum, who wore a headdress made from water lilies, one of the most popular perfume ingredients of the time!
Persians invested heavily in perfumes and their kings were often painted with perfume bottles. The Persians dominated the perfume trade for centuries, and many believe that they invented the distillation process that led to the discovery of base alcohol. One thing we do know is that Avicenna, the Persian chemist, doctor, and philosopher, experimented extensively with distillation to try and make better scents, and was first to work out the chemistry behind perfumes that weren’t oil-based.
Many ancient Roman and Greek perfume recipes have survived that it’s actually possible to recreate ancient perfumes in our modern era so accurate was their documentation. In fact, there’s even a mural in a perfume-maker's house in Pompeii that documents the process of making Greco-Roman perfumes. First the oils were made by pressing olives, then ingredients such as plants and wood were added to the oil using meticulous measurements, this was then left to steep so that the oil could take on the scent of the ingredients, thus creating perfumes!
The ancient Chinese utilized scent by burning incense and fragrant material instead of wearing it on the body. Histories of the use of scent in Chinese society tend to emphasize that perfumes weren’t considered a cosmetic there; rather, they were used for disinfection and purity, as they believed they could eliminate diseases from a room. So the biggest difference between this and other perfume traditions was that most Chinese perfume ingredients were used for other purposes such as food and medicine and not worn on the body.
If you were anybody in Europe from the 1200s to the 1600s, you carried a pomander – a ball of scented materials, kept inside an open case, and used to ward of infections and bad smells. Since medieval Europeans believed that bad air could make you sick, these little balls were seen as life-savers. The first alcohol-based perfume was created in this period too: it was known as Hungary Water, because it was believed to have been created for the queen of Hungary during the 14th century, and included distilled alcohol and herbs. A serious breakthrough in perfume production came in medieval Italy, when they discovered how to create aqua mirabilis, a clear substance made of 95 percent alcohol and imbued with strong scent. And thus, the liquid perfume was born. After this invention, Italy, Venice in particular, became the center of the world perfume trade for several hundred years. Coty and Guerlain were the first companies to mass-produce perfume, and Chanel No 5 smashed sales records and made perfume history! Famous women such as Elizabeth Taylor and Katy Perry have given their names to and marketed their brand of perfume markets for decades.
For thousands of years ittars were used and understood to be something that attracted angels and warded off darkness or evil spirits. Saints and spiritual aspirants would adorn themselves with the finest scents to assist them in their journey towards enlightenment. Today, perfumes are a multi-million dollar industry and our own Ittars are competing with the best in the world for a share of the lucrative pie!!