I once implored my husband to go to Bloomingdale’s to buy me perfume as a birthday present. When he returned, he was pale, and his eyes were glazed. “Jane,” he said, “The whole ground floor is devoted to fragrances — literally thousands and thousands of them!” He claimed he got so confused that he ended up just buying himself an aftershave.
For many women, finding the perfect perfume can be as difficult as choosing the right shoes (or parallel parking) and the quest has gone on for centuries.
The history of perfume
The world knew about fragrance as far back as 4000 B.C. According to history, the burning of incense that accompanied religious rites in ancient China, Babylonia and Egypt led to the personal use of perfume. In fact, that’s where the ‘fume’ in perfume comes from — the Latin per fumum, by smoke. And while our Northern European forebears were still romping in bearskins, the rulers of Tunis and Algiers were swathing themselves in silks saturated with sensuous scents. Ancient India was the first to make use of essential oils from flowers, around 3000 B.C.
Perfume as we know it today, essential oils blended with an alcohol solution, wasn’t created until the 14th century at the command of Queen Elizabeth of Hungary, who used the mixture for medicinal purposes. They discovered that alcohol made the scents of the essential oils last longer. Soon perfume was the rage — especially during the Renaissance in Italy. When Caterina de’ Medici married Henry II of France and moved to Fontainebleau, the story goes that she took her personal perfumer, Rene, with her. By the 18th century, perfume making had become a great French art. Rumor had it that Madame de Pompadour spent hours in her boudoir just mixing hundreds of essential oils. And the rest, as they say, is histoire.
Today fragrance has become a way of life, and it’s more than just spraying, dabbing or swabbing our pulse points. Estée Lauder once told me: “I have always believed that there is more to a perfume than just a beautiful scent. It exists in the mind as well as the nose.” And many psychologists agree that people who assume that others think they smell good have more confidence and a more positive attitude toward socializing.
The three perfume formulas
My husband certainly isn’t the only one still unaware of the pros and cons of perfume, eau de parfum and eau de toilette. Luckily, Karyn Khoury, Senior VP of Corporate Fragrance Development Worldwide for The Estée Lauder Companies, explains that the different forms reflect the different fragrance concentrations: the proportion of essential oil, alcohol and water used in each.
“Eau de toilette,” she tells me, “is the least concentrated form, using the lowest proportion of the fragrance’s essential oil. Eau de parfum is next and parfum is the most concentrated form.” Karyn says that the stronger the concentration of essential oil, the richer the fragrance impression will be and the longer it will last. Therefore, parfum will be the most enduring of all.
However, Karyn says that the lighter concentrations still have a true-to-character impression and they may be more preferable to wear to work or during the daytime when you might want to make a more subtle statement.
So the next time I send my husband to buy me a fragrance, to avoid any confusion, I’ll be specific and have him get me my favorite eau de parfum spray. Or better yet, I’ll just go myself.