The world in a bottle: perfume through the ages

Fragrance speaks the loudest on a subliminal level,” the writer Marion Bendeth once famously remarked. For thousands of years, people all over the world have delighted in the unlimited scents of manmade perfumes. Though the primary use of perfume in North America is cosmetic, the origin of perfume, surprisingly, lies in religion.

The Middle East

In Islamic culture, the frequent use of perfume as a religious duty has been documented as far back as the 6th century. The ritual started when Muhammad declared that every male Muslim must use perfume after a weekly bath. Such duties gave incentives to scholars to search for and develop a cheaper and more effective way to produce incense. As a result, Arabian chemists developed many techniques still used in perfumery today: distillation, evaporation and filtration.

“You almost greet people with how you smell,” says Sumit Bhasin, a perfumer who creates scents inspired by the fragrances of the Middle East.

To him, perfume is about more than smelling good, it’s a form of personal expression. Most of Bhasin’s perfumes layer strong, heady scents that feature prominently in traditional Middle Eastern perfumery: smoldering incense, earthy wood, sensual oud and, of course, musk.

A collection of traditional Middle Eastern perfumes | Photo by Gina Zakaria, Flickr.

A collection of traditional Middle Eastern perfumes | Photo by Gina Zakaria, Flickr.


Perfumes were first brought to Europe from Arabia in the 11th century, but it was the Hungarians who ultimately introduced the first modern version. Hungary Water, as it was known, was created in 1370 for the queen of Hungary and was notable for being the first alcohol-based perfume. Until Eau de Cologne appeared in the 18th century, Europe’s appetite for Hungary Water was insatiable.

But in the 18th century, France, especially Paris, emerged as the capital of perfumery. The French were more daring than anybody else in their pursuit of the “it” scent and weren’t afraid to experiment with ingredients unpopular in European perfumery at the time. This willingness to explore new territory led to iconic fragrances like Guerlain’s Shalimar, expanding the range of bouquets from sweet and syrupy to dark and spicy. Perfumes such as Shalimar, Liu and Mitsouko also showed heavy influences from Middle Eastern and Oriental culture. Chanel N°5, the first perfume made with synthetic materials such as aldehydes, was also created in Paris and remains the top-selling scent of all time.

In the meantime, a preference for fresher, lighter scents had developed in southern Europe.

“As you move across the region, Mediterranean freshness is de rigueur, and citrus and neroli are typical scents,” says Courtney Dunlop, a beauty writer and perfume aficionado.

North America

“When I look for perfumes, I always find myself drawn to the sweeter, more floral ones,” says Anna Scarlicki, a frequent shopper at the Gallery of Perfume in Metrotown.

Looking at the list of perfume bestsellers in Canada, it turns out a large number of Canadians share her taste. With all the sugar and corn syrup North Americans consume daily, it may come as no surprise that we not only have a sweet tooth, but a sweet nose. The best-selling perfumes in North America have traditionally been feminine florals that feature sugary, fruity notes like vanilla and strawberry. The Americans also pioneered the unisex fragrance – a clean, crisp scent anyone could wear.

Although France remains the centre of perfume design and trade, America comes in a close second.


In China, perfume preference is often influenced by the local climate.

“Woody notes tend to do better in dry Beijing, while fruity florals are more suited to warmer Shanghai,” says Wang Xiaoli, who writes a popular Chinese perfume blog.

In contrast, popular Japanese scents tend to be lighter and more delicate.

“Rather than flaunting one or two standout notes, you find nothing overpowering – almost smelling cosmetic-like [in Japanese perfumes],” Bhasin says.

Some of the newest perfumes to hit the shelves | Photo by Laura Lim, Flickr.

Some of the newest perfumes to hit the shelves | Photo by Laura Lim, Flickr.

What next?

So what’s next for perfume? Many companies try to answer this question, predicting trends for the next year or even the next decade. According to Bell Flavors & Fragrance, there will be a 1920s trend inspired by the 2013 movie, The Great Gatsby, with the creation of perfumes evocative of the Jazz Age era. Another trend is fruity notes such as lychee and berry. Ultimately, no one can be sure. What is certain is that perfume will continue to evolve, and delight and inspire the world, much as it has done since its inception.