Perfume is a mixture of fragrant essential oils or aroma compounds, fixatives and solvents in liquid form used to give the human body, food, animals, objects and living-spaces an agreeable scent. Perfumes are formulated from various sources, such as aromatic tree resins, spices, flowers, fruits, herbs, animal and vegetable matter and exotic woods. Perfumes are generally diluted in alcohol, which acts as a fixative to delay the evaporation of the perfume and also contributes to its longevity.
The history of perfume dates back thousands of years. During the seventeenth century perfume became hugely popular in France where King Louis XIV was known as ‘the fragrance king’ and it was used extensively at court and throughout his palaces. During Elizabeth’s reign in England public spaces were also fragrant and scent was used to mask bad body odours, something still practised today.
Fragrance is produced by distillation and extraction of the fragrant essences from plant materials. To produce a kilogram of essential oil, up to 40,000 flowers may be needed, which explains why perfumes can be so expensive. Once the essences have been extracted they are’matured’ or ‘aged’, a process that can take up to a month and then blended with other ingredients such as alcohol, which acts as a fixative and gives perfumes their longevity by delaying their evaporation.
Once the blending and maturing process has been completed the perfume is tested for its suitability and allowed to continue ‘aging’ for a further month to a year or more, during which time it is stored undisturbed in a darkened area to allow its structure to strengthen. At the end of this period the perfume is re-tested and if it passes the quality control process it is ready to be sold or distributed.
There are many different formats that perfume can be purchased in, from small sample bottles (called tester vials) and larger bottles to spritzers and wipes. Perfumes are available in a range of concentrations, which vary according to the strength and lasting power of the perfume. The most potent, strongest perfumes are those that contain the most essential oils or aroma compounds.
Patrick Suskind’s 1985 best-selling novel Perfume is about an 18th-century Frenchman who has a preternaturally acute sense of smell and becomes obsessed with capturing the essence of scent. The film version by director Tom Tykwer, starring Ben Whishaw as Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, takes Suskind’s story into the modern day Lower Rhine region of Germany and was considered unfilmable at the outset because of its central theme, but it has proved to be an atmospheric thriller.