From its “elite heritage” to its use in therapeutic remedies, perfume has evolved to become a luxury commodity with brands and celebrities wanting a share of the spray…

No matter who you are or where you come from, your scent leaves an indelible mark on the people around you. Like an expensive pair of shoes, perfume is more than a “sensory accessory” but a powerful signifier of how we want the world to perceive us.

But where did it all start? And just how much is the fragrance industry worth today…


Tapputi, a female chemist from Mesopotamia, is known for being the first “alchemist” and was widely known for her secret elixirs that she procured for the Elite class (known as ‘patricians’). 

However, it was the Egyptians – 3 000 years ago – who were the first people to make perfume an important part of their culture. They did this by inventing stone and glass vessels to hold their balms, mixtures and oils. Although many of these traditions are redundant today, some practices such as “Bakhoor”, where incense and wood are burned in order to perfume clothing, are still practised today.

Originating from the Latin word par fumum, the word “Perfume” translates as “through smoke”.

In Egyptian high society, perfume was a credulous symbol of status and wealth. So important, the god Nefertem was heralded as “the lord of perfume”. In Egyptian paintings, Nefertem is often depicted with water lilies – a common ingredient used in ancient perfume making. Using fruits, aromatic woods, bark and flowers, the Egyptians distilled these natural ingredients with oils to create various scents that they would then wear and use in rituals and ceremony. The most mystical fragrance was Kyphi. Although its composition varied among temples, the scent featured over 16 ingredients that were mixed and burned as an offering to the sun god, Ra.  

DID YOU KNOW? Eau de Cologne, usually worn by men, was invented by an Italian barber in the 18th century in the German city, Köln.

Perfume was not only used to honour the ancient Egyptian gods. In Roman times, fragrance was used as a purifying aroma in temples and during worship. It is said that the Romans used 2 800 tons of frankincense and about 550 tons of myrrh each year in their bathhouses as well as in their balms, oils, and perfumes made specifically for skin and hair.

For the ancient Chinese, perfume was used in everyday items such as ink and stationery, as well as in their temples. Unlike the Egyptians and Romans, the ancient Chinese did not focus on using perfume to scent the body. Instead, they believed that perfume could get rid of diseases, and it was combined with herbs and spices in the production of medicine.

With advances in chemistry and distillation techniques during the Renaissance period, perfumery became widely known for its medicinal properties; it was common for doctors to wear masks aromatised with spices, oils and herbs to help ward off the stench of illness.

By the 14th century, perfumery was popular with the Italians who experimented with different ingredients to create scents to perfume the skin and leather accessories. The introduction of precious commodities – vanilla, cocoa, cinnamon and ginger – evolved perfumey from its medicinal use into a commercially driven industry with the Italians at the forefront.

“Demand to create top perfumes has created a globally competitive industry that in 2018 was worth $31.4 billion.”

With the high demand for perfume came new restrictions on what perfumers could produce during the Victorian Age. Covertly, new advances in synthetic and chemical compounds boosted demand, inspiring new blends and methods in modern perfumery production.

At the beginning of the 19th century, further chemical discoveries lead to the creation of innovative scents and high-end women’s perfumes. Chemists became adept at making synthetic versions of natural compounds, boosting perfume production. Ingredients such as musk and patchouli were added along with extracts of flowers, roots, bark and citrus fruit.

Modern perfumery began in the 20th century and the introduction of designer perfumes signalled the end of simplistic and understated fragrances. Paris was fast becoming an international fashion capital and the new epicentre for perfume production. With a strong focus on luxury, perfume demand was enhanced by beautifully bespoke glass packaging and couture colognes. Ladies’ perfume soon became sought-after artworks and companies began to commoditise and create cosmetic ranges for women’s toiletries.

Designers like Francois Coty revolutionised the industry with cutting-edge collaborations and the procurement of bespoke scents for high-end clientele. Popular perfumes for women were given evocative names, and men’s fragrance was introduced to the market as aftershave. And then came Chanel.


The demand for good perfumes for women can be traced back to Coco Chanel who, in 1921, created a popular female fragrance that’s known all over the world today. Chanel was attracted to the nostalgic scent of freshly scrubbed skin and soap, which reminded her of her late mother – a laundrywoman. Chanel hired perfumer Ernest Beaux (who created popular perfumes for Russian royalty) to create her signature scent and best-selling women’s perfume.

Ernest created 10 samples for Chanel, each with a different number. Chanel chose “No.5”, the perfume that reminded her most of her mother – clean, soapy and linen-like. Famous for its distinct but soft aroma, Coco famously described the scent as: “A woman’s perfume, with the scent of a woman.”  Today, Chanel No.5 is the most popular women’s perfume of all time!

“A woman who does not wear perfume does not have a future!” – Coco Chanel

Commercially branded fragrances took off following the launch of Chanel No.5. From 1960 to the late 90s, designers crowned their collections with perfumes and eau de toilettes to enhance their brand visibility and value. Household names like Calvin Klein, Yves Saint Laurent, and Dior quickly elevated perfume to a symbol of status and luxury! Since then, the demand to create top perfumes has created a globally competitive industry that in 2018 was worth $31.4 billion.

The trend towards personalised products has also given rise to the bespoke fragrance industry in South Africa. Although still a niche market, artisanal and celebrity fragrances are big business for companies like Halo Heritage with the creation of signature scents such as Boity Pink Sapphire (“Boity’s Perfume”), named after South African personality, Boity Thulo.

With a cacophany of designer perfumes on the market, it’s not easy to know your Eau de Parfum from your Eau de Toilette. Read this article to find your perfect perfume!

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