Three very different and powerful women having such a passion for perfume makes for fascinating reading where seduction, fashion, captivity and politics being intricately woven into their love for everything that is fragrant.
Cleopatra the Queen of Egypt
Perhaps the most famous ruler of Egypt was Cleopatra. Cleopatra, well versed in the power of scent, was lavish in her use of perfume. After the assassination of Julius Caesar, she left Rome to become the queen of Egypt. There she greeted Mark Antony, a Roman politician, on a ship with perfumed sails. Cleopatra’s arrival was announced by clouds of perfume before her barge came into view. Cleopatra also has a reputation for sending her fastest ships to Turkey to obtain some of the most expensive rose oils in the world, with the intention to lure Anthony. Antony fell under her spell and in fact was so in love with her, that he killed himself upon hearing a false report that she was dead. Likewise, on hearing of Anthony’s death, Cleopatra killed herself.
Cleopatra owned a perfume factory by the Dead Sea, the ruins of which contain seats where customers may have received beauty treatments. According to perfumer Davis Pybus, “The Sacred Scent of Cleopatra”, evokes the fragrance of the blue lotus, which was sacred to the Pharaohs, frequently depicted on tomb walls, and had hallucinogenic properties.
Marie Antoinette the Queen of France
Jean-Louis Fargeon (1748-1806) was a young Montpellier perfumer who arrived in Paris to learn more about the perfume trade and to become recognized in his profession; eventually he gained the attention of a young queen of France, Marie Antoinette (1755 – 1793) who requested him to make many scents, perfumes and beauty products for her.
Marie Antoinette reputedly had a life-long love of flowers; flowers such as roses, violets, lilies and jonquils were added to her vast toiletry of perfumes.
In order to win the French queen’s favor, Jean-Louis Fargeon decided to make Marie Antoinette customized gloves scented with a very personal fragrance; it was the fashion at this time for ladies to wear perfumed gloves. Fargeon combined the scents of blood-red carnations, hyacinths, violets and musk jonquils to create a natural fragrance for Marie Antoinette’s gloves; the gloves were made from kidskin and were treated with a mix of sweet almond oil, white wax and eau de rose. The gloves were laid on fresh roses and accented with nutmeg, to ensure the gloves would protect Marie Antoinette’s hands from her riding reins, in effect, a “natural restorative beauty treatment”.
Marie Antoinette was delighted with Jean-Louis Fargeon’s creation and ordered many more gloves to add to her collections. She then requested a perfume to add to her bath; Jean-Louis Fargeon prepared perfumed sachets which included ingredients of sweet almonds, pine nuts, linseed, lily bulbs and marsh mallow root and other aromatic plants. The success of the perfumed sachets led to many more requests from Marie Antoinette.
The French queen purified the air in the royal apartments with vinegars seasoned with lavender and orange blossom; she had essences of both lavender and lemon added to her baths. Marie Antoinette had pomanders made with the fragrances of rose, carnation, jasmine, vanilla, frangipani and tuberose; she had beauty powders and creams created specifically for her to purify and whiten her complexion.
Marie-Antoinette always took her favorite perfumes and perfumed sachets with her when she traveled; even when she was fleeing for her life, Marie Antoinette insisted on filling orders for perfume bottles, powder jars and unguents with her favorite perfumes for the journey; ultimately, the resulting delay of waiting for her favorite perfumes may have cost Marie Antoinette of France her life. Many historians actually go further to say that her perfumes left such a strong trail that her captors dogs had no problem sniffing her out of her hiding place!
Coco Chanel Designer and Perfumer
From her first millinery shop, opened in 1912, to the 1920s, Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel rose to become one of the premier fashion designers in Paris, France. Replacing the corset with comfort and casual elegance, her fashion themes included simple suits and dresses, women’s trousers, costume jewelry, perfume and textiles.
She adopted the name Coco during a brief career as a cafe and concert singer 1905-1908. First a mistress of a wealthy military officer then of an English industrialist, Coco Chanel drew on the resources of these patrons in setting up a millinery shop in Paris in 1910, expanding to Deauville and Biarritz. The two men also helped her find customers among women of society, and her simple hats became popular.
In 1922 Chanel introduced a perfume, Chanel No. 5, which is still the most sold perfume in the world today. Chanel had entered what was in those days a male dominated industry, yet she persisted. She revolutionized the perfume industry by being one of the first perfume houses to introduce synthetic perfume ingredients in Chanel No 5. Resulting in an explosion of natural and synthetic perfumes being resealed by other perfume houses!
Chanel is known for comments such as “A women who does not wear perfume has no future” and a young women was once quoted as asking Chanel where one should wear ones perfume and she commented “Wherever you wished to be kissed”!
Berman, Phyllis and Zina Sawaya. “The billionaires behind Chanel.” Forbes, 1989.
Brower, Brock. “Chez Chanel: Couturiere and courtesan, Coco made her own rules as she freed women from old fussy, frilly fashions.” Smithsonian, July 2001.
Feydeau, Elisabeth de, 2007 A Scented Palace: The Secret History of Marie Antoinette’s Perfumer UK: I.B. Taurus & Co. Ltd