The Most Expensive Perfume in the World
What do Paris, Clive Christian, Firaun, Egypt, Archangel Jibrail, a grave and Prophet Muhammad’s ascension to heaven have in common? The answer; they are all related to very valuable scents or perfumes, writes PARVEZ AKHTER
The word perfume comes from the Latin phrase, “per” meaning “through” and “fumus” meaning smoke.” The French later gave the name parfum to the pleasant smells that drift through the air from burning incense. There are few periods of history that have not been influenced by perfume. The history of perfume is often intertwined with the history of the human race. The first form of perfume was incense. Incense was first discovered by the Mesopotamians about 4,000 years ago. Ancient cultures burned many kinds of resins, bums and woods at their religious ceremonies. They often soaked the fragrant woods and resins in water and oil, and rubbed their bodies with the liquid. They also embalmed the dead with these perfumes. We have learned from hieroglyphics on ancient Egyptian tombs that perfume played a part in the lives of the Egyptians.
Incense made its way to Egypt around 3000 B.C. and with Queen Hatshepsut, it became very popular. She led expeditions in search of incense and other valuable commodities, and the results of which were later recorded on the walls of a temple created in her honour. In the temple was a botanical garden filled with incense trees recovered from these expeditions. Perfumes were found in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs. But these were not the most expensive perfumes in the world!
Perfume was held in high esteem in Biblical times and there is frequent mention of fragrance in the Bible. In the New Testament, the three wise men carried gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus. Long before, Moses was commanded by the Lord to “take unto thee sweet spices, stacte and onycha and galbanum…with pure frankincense… And thou shalt make it a perfume.” Frankincense is probably still the best known of the plants alluded to in the Bible. Burning incense was the privilege of priests in the earliest civilizations. The custom is still in use today in Catholic and High Episcopal churches. But this incense was not the most expensive perfume in the world!
Tutankhamen, Greeks and Romans Incense, aromatics, and perfumed oil became available to all Egyptians as the priests gradually relinquished their exclusive rights. Citizens were commanded to perfume themselves at least once a week. The Egyptians, fastidious in their personal habits, took elaborate baths, which were the forerunners of the luxurious bathing establishments of the Greeks and Romans. They soaked their skin in oils because it gave them pleasure, and helped protect their bodies from the drying effects of the torrid sun. Egyptians created many scented creams and emollients. They would shape them into cones and would melt them to cover their hair and bodies. Bathing was an enjoyable, social pleasure, sometimes washing as often as three times per day.
Egyptians carried perfume with them from birth until after their death. Many Egyptians put perfumes in their tombs to keep their skin silky smooth in the afterlife. Since the Egyptians believed that the soul ascended into heaven, relatives saw to it that perfume accompanied the spirit. Urns encrusted with gold, jars of delicate pottery, and chalcedonies filled with aromatics were placed in the tombs. So potent were some of the oils used, that 3,300 years after Tutankhamen’s death, a trace of fragrance in the tightly sealed pots of unguents could be detected when the tomb was opened. Perfumes were used during the embalming process and took 40 to 70 days to complete! Powdered myrrh, cassia and other perfumes were used in the embalming process.
The Greeks are attributed with the art of making the first liquid perfume, although it was quite different from perfume as we know it today. Their perfumes were fragrant powders mixed with heavy oils, devoid of alcohol. The liquid was stored in elongated bottles made of alabaster and gold, called alabastrums. But these were not the most expensive perfumes in the world!
Imports from India
Favourable climate conditions allowed Egypt to import many spices and aromatics from India, such as ginger, pepper and sandalwood. Egypt still holds a prominent place in perfume’s essential oil production, responsible for a significant portion of the world’s jasmine production. The ancient Greeks and Romans learned about perfumes from the Egyptians. Trade between Crete and Egypt was healthy and symbiotic. Like the Egyptians, the most highly regarded flower of Cretans was the lily. The rose was also popular.
Greek culture took a while to develop after that of the Cretans. Using a variety of fragrance carriers made from vegetable oils, such as olive oil and almond oil, they added essential oils made from lilies, roses, anise and orris root. Despite an earlier ban in the sixth century prohibiting the use of perfumes, men and women alike applied them lavishly, before and after baths, during the day and on all parts of the body The Roman public baths were spectacular, and the baths of the Emperor Caracalla were the most famous. One room, called the “unctuarium,” had shelves with pots of unguents, jars of fragrant oils, and essences in bottles of varying size.
The Romans indulged in the practice of applying perfume three times a day. Pet dogs and horses were also perfumed. At feasts, birds were released from their cages to dispense perfume from their wings; draperies, candlesticks, tables, and cushions were all perfumed. The servants wore musk, marjoram, spikenard, and other aromatics. But these were not the most expensive perfumes in the world!
Alexander, Cleopatra and Anthony
With Alexander the Great’s invasion of Egypt in the 3rd century BC, the use of perfume and incense became even more widespread in Greece. The Greek Theophrastus of Athens discussed the various carriers of scents, the essential oils and their plant origins, and even the effect of various scents on our moods and thinking processes. He also researched how we perceive scent, and noted the connection between the perception of odors and taste.
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. 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 by provoking an asp to bite her.
The cedars of Lebanon have been famous throughout the ages. Cedar was used by King Solomon in the construction of the temple; oil of cedar was used to coat papyrus manuscripts to protect them from insects in the time of the Roman Emperor Augustus, and today cedar is sprayed in wardrobes to keep moths away. But this was not the most expensive perfume in the world!
The Phoenicians of Syria were the traders or salesman of antiquity. Aromatic gums brought overland from China were bought by Europeans who could afford them. Possession of the sweet-smelling herbs was evidence of wealth. It was prestigious to wear perfume, and owners of large amounts of oils and unguents were greatly respected.
Arabs and Avicenna
Linking the past and present of the perfume industry are the Arabs. The process of extracting oils from flowers by means of distillation, (the procedure most commonly used today), was developed by Avicenna, the Arabian doctor who was also a chemist. He first experimented with the rose. Until his discovery, liquid perfumes were mixtures of oil and crushed herbs, or petals which made a strong blend. Rose water was more delicate, and immediately became popular. But this was not the most expensive perfume in the world!
Napoleon and Henry VIII
During the reign of Catherine de Medici in France perfumes flourished. Catherine brought her own perfumer, Rene le Florentin from Italy, with her. His laboratory was connected with her apartments by a secret passageway, so that no formulas could be stolen en route.
Perfume enjoyed huge success in Europe during the seventeenth century. Perfumed gloves became popular in France and in 1656, the guild of glove and perfume-makers was established. Perfume came into its own when Louis XV came to the throne in the 18th century. His court was called “le cour parfumee,” “the perfumed court.” Madame de Pompadour ordered generous supplies of perfume, and King Louis demanded a different fragrance for his apartment everyday. The court of Louis XV was even named due to the scents which were applied daily not only to the skin but also to clothing, fans and furniture.
Perfume substituted for soap and water. The use of perfume in France grew steadily after Napoleon came to power, exorbitant expenditures for perfume continued. Two quarts of violet cologne were delivered to him each week, and he is said to have used sixty bottles of double extract of jasmine every month. Josephine had stronger perfume preferences. She was partial to musk, and she used so much that sixty years after her death the scent still lingered in her boudoir. But this was not the most expensive perfume in the world!
Perfume reached its peak in England during the reigns of Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I. All public places were scented during Queen Elizabeth’s rule, since she could not tolerate bad smells. It was said that the sharpness of her nose was equalled only to the slyness of her tongue.
The French Revolution
As with industry and the arts, perfume was to undergo profound change in the nineteenth century. Changing tastes and the development of modern chemistry laid the foundations of perfumery as we know it today. Alchemy gave way to chemistry and new fragrances were created. The French Revolution had in no way diminished the taste for perfume, there was even a fragrance called “Parfum a la Guillotine.” Under the post-revolutionary government, people once again dared to express a penchant for luxury goods, including perfume. A profusion of vanity boxes containing perfumes appeared in the 19th century.
In early America, the first scents were colognes and scented water. Florida water, an uncomplicated mixture of eau de cologne with a dash of oil of cloves, cassia, and lemongrass, was popular. But this was not the most expensive perfume in the world!
Due to its jasmine, rose and orangegrowing trades, the town of Grasse in Provence established itself as the largest production center for raw materials for perfume. The statutes of the perfume-makers of Grasse were passed in 1724. Paris became the commercial counterpart to Grasse and the world center of perfume. Perfume houses such as Houbigant (produces Quelques Fleurs, still very popular today), Lubin, Roger & Gallet, and Guerlain were all based in Paris. Soon bottling became more important.
Perfume maker Francois Coty formed a partnership with Rene Lalique. Lalique then produced bottles for Guerlain, D’Orsay, Lubin, Molinard, Roger & Gallet and others. Baccarat then joined in, producing the bottle for Mitsouko (Guerlain), Shalimar (Guerlain) and others. Brosse glassworks created the memorable bottle for Jeanne Lanvin’s Arpege, and the famous Chanel No.5.
In 1921, Couturier Gabrielle Chanel launched her own brand of perfume, created by Ernest Beaux, she called it Chanel No.5 because it was the fifth in a line of fragrances Ernest Beaux presented her. Ernest Beaux was the first to use aldehydes in perfumery. In fact, Chanel No.5 was the first completely synthetic mass-market-fragrance.
The 1930’s saw the arrival of the leather family of fragrances, and florals also became quite popular with the emergence of Worth’s Je Reviens (1932), Caron’s Fleurs de Rocaille (1933) and Jean Patou’s Joy (1935). With French perfumery at it’s peak in the 1950’s, other designers such as Christian Dior, Jacques Fath, Nina Ricci, Pierre Balmain.. and so on, started creating their own scents. But these were not the most expensive perfumes in the world!
$215,000 for a bottle
Although there has always been a trade in scents by the year 2002 perfume had become a $10 billion industry. Today women have fragrance wardrobes of many different perfumes, rather than a single signature perfume.
While the cost of perfume has been reduced to a level where every single person can afford to buy some sort of fragrance, there still exist very expensive perfumes which are out of the reach of most people. One of these is known as Parfum VI. This was created by Gianni Vive Sulman, after being inspired by the Rolls-Royce Phantom Six and the box is even made by Rolls-Royce coach builders. The box is made of exotic wood and gold and the key made of gold, diamonds and rubies which justify the nearly $90,000.00 USD price tag. Only 173 bottles were ever made. The king of perfumes however is, Imperial Majesty, which costs $215,000 a bottle. The reason Imperial Majesty costs so much is that Clive Christian, a British designer-turned-perfumer, poured 16.9 ounces of his hit perfume known as Clive Christian No.1 (costing US $ 2000 per ounce) into a Baccarat crystal bottle, stuck a five-carat diamond into the 18-carat gold collar and unveiled it at Harrods in London and Bergdorf Goodman in New York City.
Graves and Perfume
Although Imperial Majesty is the costliest perfume in the world there is a scent which is much more valuable than that. In fact, its worth cannot be estimated. The scent is from the place from where most would least expect it; a grave. I said most people, because a number of people know that some graves give off sweet smelling odours. If you happen to be near the graves of martyrs (those killed in the way of Allah) you may have smelled a sweet fragrance emanating from the grave. In fact, whole graveyards and surrounding areas have been known to have been filled with scents coming from such graves.
Well, the most valuable perfume I referred to above was not from a grave of a martyr in a battle but from the grave of a simple mother and her children. It was also not from a grave of the Muslims of the present times but from the Muslims of the earlier times.
By Muslims of earlier times, I am referring to a time before even Prophet Muhammad (saws). Now I hope you are aware that Muslims have been around since the time of the first man. The reason for this is because there are several levels of Islam and several types of Muslims. There is the Islam of rocks, trees, animals, humans and everything that is created, at a general level, for example they follow the laws with which they were created in their nature i.e., a tree can grow in one place, it can’t walk around or fly etc., a fish can swim in water but not survive on land (unless you happen to believe in evolution which supposes otherwise). Nothing, living nor non-living can go against the nature they were created with. That is the general level of Islam, or submission, which everything that is created follows. Second, there is the Islam of who choose to follow the path of Allah from the first man till now. As opposed to those who choose to live against the dictates of Allah. This includes peoples from the time of Adam to now and, Inshallah, people until the end of time. Those people who believed in Allah and followed the Prophet of their time (like Adam, Nuh, Ibrahim, Musa, peace be upon them all) are also classified as Muslims. Finally, there are the Muslims of the present times who are believers of Allah and followers of the last Prophet; Muhammad (saws). I hope that clarifies the confusion.
Anyway, back to the grave with the expensive smell. This grave was in Egypt from the time of Prophet Musa (asws). So, we are talking about 3000-4000 years ago. Its scent, however, was still arising from inside it around 1500 years ago. It was picked up by the brother (in faith and mission) of Musa (asws) named Muhammad (peace be upon him), in the seventh century.