ON THE SCENT OF PERFUME

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 February, 2011, 12:00am

IN 1953, MARILYN Monroe said the only thing she wore to bed was Chanel No 5, igniting sales public-relation machines can only dream of. Since then, perfume sales have taken many a welcome boost from well-paid celebrities - there's nothing like a whiff of stardust to mingle with concoctions of essential oils and chemical compounds.

It wasn't always this way. Reports are mixed on when and where perfumes - from the Latin per fumus, 'through smoke' - originated, but popular theories lead to findings made about 4,000 years ago, when incense, made from resins and woods used in religious ceremonies are described by Mesopotamians (modern-day Iraq). Bodies were rubbed down with water and oil that were soaked in fragrant woods as they embalmed the dead with these perfumes.

Egyptian tombs holding embalmed bodies clearly display hieroglyphics of incenses, which were prolifically used from 3000 BC. Botanical gardens, herbs and incense trees were seen as valuable commodities then as incense and perfumed oils were used in rituals from birth till death - and in the after-life. The tombs of Egyptian pharaohs were enriched with gold, artifacts and aromatics; though the scents had evaporated with time, the vessels that held them have been left behind as evidence to their significance.

It's hard to strip away the myths that have built up around Egyptian ruler Cleopatra courtesy of Elizabeth Taylor - whose own White Diamonds remains one of the most successful perfumes yet - and a multitude of books and films. Legend has it that Cleopatra, well versed in the power of scent, was lavish in her use of perfume. When she greeted Mark Antony she arrived on a ship with perfumed sails; the Roman politician fell under her spell before she even came into view.

David Pybus, a chemist who works with perfumers and specialises in recreating scents of ancient times, proposes that Cleopatra might have bathed in Nenufar, a blue lotus extract with hallucinogenic properties - which may explain her many conquests. By the first century AD, Rome was burning its way though 2,800 tonnes of frankincense and 550 tonnes of myrrh a year and Nero, the Roman emperor in 54 AD, is believed to have spent the equivalent of a modern-day US$100,000 to scent just one party.

In the eastern hemisphere the first Mughal ruler of India, Babur introduced Persian-style fragrant gardens to the region, as the variety of climates in India provided a wealth of aromatic plants for perfumery and pharmacy. From Brahmins, Buddhists to Jains that lived from north to Southern India, bathing and ritual washings all included scented oils, powders and pastes applied after cleansing. Hindu rites using sandalwood date as far back as records permit and rituals with jasmine and rose water have trickled down over centuries and are used even today.

Through various trade routes, the scented Indian and Arabian goods travelled by land and sea into China as well, which exported flowering trees; apricot, citrus, camphor, and peach. As delectable as the smells were, they originally played greater parts in medicine. China's contributions to the scented world included fine porcelain with non-porous, glass-like glazes that increased the lifespan of fast-evaporating perfumes. The distillation process, of cooling aromatic condensers with cold water inspired the perfection of the distillation process by Europeans during the Renaissance.

During the T'ang dynasties (618-907) the Chinese upper classes made lavish use of fragrance. Nothing was spared - from bodies and baths, to clothing, homes and temples. The mentions of perfumes can also be found in the Bible. In the New Testament, the three wise men carried gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus. It also depicts how God commanded Moses to take sweet spices and make it a perfume. Frankincense, an aromatic resin obtained from trees of the genus Boswellia, is used primarily in making incense and perfumes that are burnt even now in customs in Catholic and High Episcopal churches.

Albeit for less ethereal reasons, today Christmas is a 'make or break' time for perfumiers as brands of all shapes and size pray for (no pun intended) record sales on and around the winter solstice.

Oddly enough, a great scent isn't enough to ensure sales. Ignited with the glamour quotient provided by actresses, singers, rap stars and sportsmen, women and men's perfume sales see an ebb and flow according to their spokesperson's popularity each year. In 2007, at the tail end of the success of Sex and the City, Sarah Jessica Parker's Lovely saw record sales (over US$25 million).

Meanwhile, Jennifer Lopez is still raking it in courtesy of sales of Glow, and her famous ex, Sean Jean (aka Puff Daddy) holds the men's record as his cologne Unforgivable saw a sale of more than US$48 million.

But not every celeb-utante has translated their moment in the spotlight into six-figure sales. Paris Hilton's Can Can, Britney Spears' Curious and reality TV star Kim Kardashian's eponymous perfume saw middling results on the cash counter. Even the popular Jennifer Aniston's eponymous perfume had poor sales figures. Which goes to show that it takes more than A-list status and a good-girl rep to summon the sweet scent of perfume sales.