When we were in Wellington, we took the tram to the top of the hill, to the Wellington Botanic Garden, established in 1868. In the upper station we discovered the Fragrifert parfumeur™. Gustave Fragrifert (1880-1911) was a brilliant French perfumer who never managed to bring a single one of his exquisite perfumes to market, As a result, his name and work were about to be forgotten by history. Fortunately for us, fate had other plans. As luck would have it, in 2011, a century after Fragrifert went missing in the jungle of Borneo never to emerge again, some of his possessions were discovered in New Zealand where they made their way into the hands of budding perfumer Francesco van Eerd. Having just completed his training, van Eerd recognized the outstanding quality of Fragrifert’s formulations and, counting his lucky stars, realized that he found himself in the unique position of being able to rescue Gustave’s magnificent olfactory oeuvre from oblivion and Fragrifert parfumeur™ was created to make his gorgeous fragrances available to the world for the first time. Francesco has created those few of Gustave’s olfactory masterpieces that he has so far been able to reconstruct according to his meticulous albeit veiled instructions.
I have previously written on Roman perfume bottles and the importance of glass in the Roman Empire. Perfume was also central to ancient Greek life. It was so popular that the politician Solon temporarily banned the use of it to prevent an economic crisis. It was at the center of hospitality, wealth, status, daily life and even philosophy. It was seen as erotic, mystical and spiritual. It was linked to beauty which was inextricably linked with divinity. The origins of perfume and perfumery are interwoven with Greek mythology. In Homeric tradition, the Olympian gods taught perfumery to people. The color and scent of the rose is attributed to events surrounding Venus and Cupid. Lekuthos were used for liquid perfume and were slim elegant glass bottles. Aryballes were used for oils and unguents. Alabastron perfume bottles were highly prized, mainly among women and it was common for the craftsmen to brand the bottles to mark their craftsmanship, making them even more collectable. Even so, terracotta vessels, metal or alabaster were the most common materials for scented oil. The exquisite perfume vessel shown above is a exaleiptron (an older name was plemochoa) used for storing large amounts of perfume, possibly for washing and anointing the feet of visitors. The exaleiptron has religious significance in that it was used during the Eleusinian Mysteries when, on the last day they filled two plemochoai and set them up one to the east, one to the west, and then overturned them, saying mystic words as they did so. They were also used as grave goods.
Perfumes have been known to exist in some of the earliest human civilizations, either through ancient texts or from archaeological digs. The word perfume used today derives from the Latin “per fumum”, meaning “through smoke”, probably referring to frankincense and myrrh. Perfumery, or the art of making perfumes, began in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt and was further refined by the Romans and Persians. Scent was also an important factor of beauty. Women who smelled good were presumed to be healthy. Due to the stench of many of the ingredients used in cosmetics at the time, women often drenched themselves in copious amounts of perfume. Perfumes were very popular in Ancient Rome. In fact, they were so heavily used that Cicero claimed that, “The right scent for a woman is none at all.” They came in liquid, solid and sticky forms and were often created in a ground process with flowers or herbs and oil. Deodorants made from alum, iris and rose petals were common. The glass perfume container to the right above was created with glass rods of different colors and then swirled to create this pattern. This would have been a very expensive flask, for an upperclass woman and for me, one of the stars of this post.