Scent holds powerful sway over us. Be it pleasurable aromas we purposely invite into our ecosystems, or indirect, secondary smells that fill the world around us. Without a doubt, the fragrances that waft into our olfactory system exit having manipulated our thought, feeling and behavior. Sometimes without us even realizing!
It’s no wonder why the fragrance industry puts so much effort in curating scents that are evocative. Why perfumeries scour far reaches of our planet in search of ingredients that add value to their concoctions. And create signature scents that transcend time.
In my last post I talked about the brief history and benefits of oud, orris, and ambergris. In this post, I am going to illuminate you on the highly controversial musk (read on to find out why!), tuberose, and civet. But before we get there, let’s do a quick historical recap of perfumery!
The history of perfumery dates back to 1200 BCE Mesopotamia linking to a single woman named Taputti Belatekallim. Taputti was a female chemist and perfume-maker who oversaw the Mesopotamian Palace. She was the first chemist in human history and is accredited for having invented world’s first ever scent extraction techniques and also recording them! Her documentation laid the groundwork for makers of perfume throughout history. Ancient radical feminism anyone? All Hail Kween Taputti! Ok, had to. Let’s move right along… (Source)
First recordings of aromatherapy and ingredients used in modern perfumery known to yield health benefits can be traced back to 3300 BCE to 1300 BCE in the Indus Valley Civilization. According to Ancient Sanskrit Ayurvedic texts “Charaka Damhita” and “Suśruta-saṃhitā,” Ittar was developed for aromatherapy benefits. Namely, Ancient Indian innovators pioneered the first distillation apparatus which was made from terra-cotta.
Overtime, the Islamic world introduced raw materials and refined perfumery. Arab chemists Jābir ibn Hayyān and Al-Kindi founded the perfume industry with extensive research. They succeeded in intricately compounding spices, herbs, flowers, precious woods, resins, and animal fragrances through sophisticated distillation methodology.
Avicenna, a Muslim poly-math, philosopher, and chemist, hailing from what is now modern day Uzbekistan, developed the first distillation process that turned oil into alcohol. This revolutionized perfumery and is how modern perfumes are made to this day!
It wasn’t until the 14th century that the first modern perfume would be manufactured. It would be called “Hungarian Water,” developed in Hungary, of course, with the keen application of an array of perfumery know-hows obtained from trade with the Middle East. (Source)
Romans further perfected the art of industrial perfumery during the Renaissance when European underwent one of its most notable cultural explosions.
By the 16th century, global superpowers France and England had grown supremely fond of the art. Nobility began using perfumes to disguise body odor in stench-laded Europe where people lacked personal hygiene. Without much surprise, soon after the acquisition of the art of perfumery from the Eastern worlds, it was made into an insignia of Western aristocracy. After all, anything touched by the French and English must ooze overt prestige, intellect and all things divine, right? Sigh…And so it was deemed. The French began touting themselves as the world’s number one manufacturer of perfumes and cosmetics, and the rest, by the demands of the French, is history. (Source)
The modern perfume industry only came to be in the late 19th century. Synthetic ingredients were only popularized well into the 20th century with the advent of high-tech manufacturing devises. As well-to-do brands gained world-wide notoriety and perfumes became accessible to the masses, major perfume houses wrestled for prestige and set sail in search of the rarest ingredients to benchmark against their competitors.
Designed for the world’s elite, some of the most coveted contemporary perfumes with so-called “rare” fragrance oils run the fiscal gamut from $1 million dollars per dainty bejeweled bottle to $444.18 per ounce of liquid luxury.
Now that we’re all hip to the relevance of perfume as a cultural symbol, here are 3 rare fragrance oils and their astonishing history and benefits:
Used in medicine for thousands of years, musk is a potent and unbelievably expensive substance that also happens to be the single most controversial of all fragrance oils. It has raised many ethical concerns and has lead to the poaching and near extinction of musk deers. In 1979 the use of natural musk was actually prohibited by law because of this. Traditionally, a musk deer, indigenous to the Asia subcontinent, must be killed in order for the musk glands to be extracted and dried to derive its rare oil. Hence the jaw-droppingly high cost of musk! It, however, is not limited to musk deers alone. The aroma can be derived from other animals such as the North American beaver (castoreum), sperm wales (ambergris), and civet (see number 3!). Some plants also produce musk although the scent is not quite as powerful as its animal counterparts’. In 1888 a synthetic alternative to musk was discovered by scientist Albert Bauer ON ACCIDENT when experimenting with…uh…EXPLOSIVES. He called his chance creation Musk Bauer. Contemporary perfumery almost exclusively uses this form of musk. Controversy and expensiveness aside, musk oil has been noted for many health benefits. It’s not just an aphrodisiac, but has been used to treat nerve problems, seizures, heart pains, strokes and even coma! (Source)
Coined “The Forbidden Queen,” “Queen of the Night,” or “Raat ki Raani” in Hindi, tuberose is an elusive flower that blooms only in the darkest hours of the night! During the Renaissance and Victorian Era, young girls were forbidden from sniffing the aroma of tuberose flowers in fear that they might become too sexually aroused…Some ladies, purportedly, even stuffed their undergarments with these seductive flowers to allure men. Contrary to popular misconception, tuberose is native of Mexico and not South Asia! Although it’s been used in Ayurveda for centuries! Surprisingly, tuberose or “rajnigandha” didn’t reach India until the 16th century. How it got there is still a mystery! Aside from it being ascribed as nature’s ultimate love potion, tuberose absolute is considered rare due to its astonishing extraction process. To produce a single pound of tuberose absolute oil 3,500 POUNDS of handpicked flowers are needed! It’s been used in Ayurveda to summon the gods and goddesses and open wide the heart charka which is attributed to balancing the “world of matters” with the “world of spirit.” Additionally, tuberose oil is widely used for its deodorant, sedative, relaxant, and psycho-spiritual healing properties. (Source)
Much like its cousin musk oil, which as we know was originally extracted from musk deers, civet musk is a made with the secretion taken from a sac around the testicles of male civet cats. Ouch! Male civets are known to produce more musk than their female counterparts. Understanding of this phenomena forayed into the popular custom of civet farming in Ethiopia and the export of civet into European counties despite the unethical process civet musk harvesting involves. Due to the animal cruelty aspect of collecting civet musk secretion, the scent nowadays is thankfully mostly emulated in laboratories. Chemists have formulated a civet synthetic oil called civetone for the use of perfumery. Unfortunately, civetone fails to successfully replicate the rich musky, animalic, floral odor of pure civet oil. Which has lead to an uprise of purported “ethical” and “humane civet farming in parts of the third world. According to Discover Magazine, farmers in Thailand have made claims of treating their caged civets in these so-called ethical farms in a humane fashion feeding them twice a day, cleaning their wages every 3 days and not inflicting any physical harm. Alas, the quest to humanize pure civet oil continues! Withal, this extremely rare oil has been attributed to invigorating the limbic system, being a natural aphrodisiac, relaxant, and sedative. (Source)
And there you have it! You’ve officially earned your bragging rights to plow forward into our aromatic world with your knowledge of perfumery and rare fragrance oils, and their roles in human history along with our biochemistry.
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