Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

Scents and sensibility: the history of perfume

A new exhibition traces the history of perfume, from the frankincense and myrrh of ancient times to the celebrity fragrances of today. It's nothing less that the story of our civilisation, argues Michael Bywater

Unaccommodated man," said King Lear on the blasted heath, "is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art." He might have added "rank", too; the naked hairy man (or naked hairy woman) is a malodorous creature, bad as a goat, with the difference that I suppose Goat (A) finds the terrible downwind hogo of Goat (B) alluring, all other things being equal (or unequal, depending on the creatures' preference).

A human being, unwashed, smells bad, and that's how it is and there you have it. Just before his line about "unaccommodated man", Lear says that, naked and natural, "you owe the cat no perfume". He's talking of civet (which you can still smell in the glove-room at Hampton Court, four centuries on), and he speaks of it explicitly: "give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary, to sweeten my imagination"; his hand "smells of mortality", and the quest to dissipate or overwhelm the smell of mortality has occupied our minds, pockets and noses from the first syllable of recorded time.

History would have it that perfume, whose very name comes from the Latin pro fumum, "through smoke", was originally reserved for the gods. It doesn't hold water. What the gods wanted was the rank bloodsmoke of sacrificial victims, and if a more fragrant offering were burnt before them, it was to disguise the smell from us, not to please them.

Nor is there anything specially religious about incense. In those parts of the world where you can get it, people habitually burn incense to perfume their houses. I have seen, in Morocco, a young Berber woman standing in her wedding clothes astride a small silver thurible burning aoud – Cambodian agar wood, a dark, soft, melting smell with the strange simultaneous qualities of satin and fur, depending how it catches the olfactory light – to perfume not only her clothes but her body for her wedding.

Incense can be as sensual as any caress, whether it is lemon balm, frankincense, agarwood, sandalwood, or any of Othello's medicinal gums that dropped from their Arabian trees.

Whatever the annotated version of the King James Bible may claim, the "Song of Solomon" is a piece of the most sustained, heartbreaking erotic longing ever written, and the girl's medicinal gum is myrrh. "I have gathered my myrrh with my spice ... I rose up to open to my beloved; and my hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers with sweet-smelling myrrh," the poet writes. The garden in which it is set is a garden of perfumes: camphire, spikenard, saffron, calamus and cinnamon, frankincense, aloes, and, of course, the myrrh with which her hands and her fingers are dropping. It is a literal "paradise" – after the ancient Persian pairi-da�za, a walled garden – not to look at but to smell; the girl calls for the winds to "blow upon my garden that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden", and he, too, is a compounded perfume; "His cheeks are as a bed of spices, as sweet flowers: his lips like lilies, dropping with a sweet-smelling myrrh" and anyone who can read it unmoved is not quite human.

If you want to smell the "Song of Solomon", dab the tiniest drop of spirit of camphor on your wrist and then spray on some of Guy Robert's original Amouage. Wait as long as it takes to murmur "My beloved is unto me as a cluster of camphire in the vineyards of En-gedi. Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou hast doves' eyes," and then inhale.

Magic will happen. The magic which the poet George Herbert spoke of when he wrote of his pomander of ambergris as "a speaking sweet". Or, as Leontes has it in A Winter's Tale, "If this be magic, let it be an art/Lawful as eating."

And it is a special art. The architect and perfumer Octavian Coifan, whose blog 1000 Fragrances is perhaps the best of the lot (Coifan, unusually in the genre, knows what he's talking about instead of following the nonsense put out by perfumery PRs), describes it as "the Eighth Art" and anyone who has smelt beyond the sad, shuddering array of duty-free or department-store fragrance counters will surely agree with him.

But it is a unique art: in consuming it, we consume it. A piece of music is still there however often we listen to it. A book can be read and re-read. Even a play or an opera can be revived. But every time a perfume, whatever its provenance, works its magic, it dies a little. The olfactory delight is provoked by the evaporation of molecules: transient ones like the lime or grapefruit oils at the top of your morning spritz, or heavier, slower-evaporating ones – musks, ambers, civets, woods – at its base. When they're gone, they're gone, into the atmosphere and around the world. Gone. The laws of entropy dictate that you simply cannot stand there and wait for that bottle of Mitsouko (the one you blithely used up before Guerlain "re-formulated" it and spoiled it for ever) to somehow reassemble itself around you. As Nellie Lutcher sang, it's "real gone, real, real gone".

If it's a magical and erotic art, perfumery is also a social art. Sometimes antisocial – when the fashion for gargleblaster fragrances stormed America in the Eighties, one Manhattan restaurant extended the discreet brass plaque on its door to read: NO PIPES. NO CIGARS. NO GIORGIO. Ever smell Giorgio? Bet you never smelt Giorgio Homme Extreme. Bet you never wore it. I wore it. Twice. Someone had to do it. If I breathe in on a dark night, I can still smell its ghost.

But social, too. Some contemporary fragrances, infested with ill-mannered molecules which would be greatly improved by a damn good thrashing and a permanent ASBO (yes, Calone™: I'm thinking of you), are out of place and over-applied, but generally speaking good scent, subtly applied, will somehow orchestrate itself so that walking into a room full of perfumed women (and, often now, men) can lift the spirits and prime one for good times. Smelling good is a potent sign that we have made an effort, we are intending to please, that erotic adventure (her fingers dropping with myrrh) may be on our mind but being civilised is even more so. As an eccentric Cambridge academic once observed to a friend-of-a-friend: "After a certain age, dear, a little lipstick is a kindness to others." As with lipstick, so with scent.

Perfume governs us in ways we cannot understand. We know that the odour of vanilla – almost universally beloved – is very close to that of a milky breast. We know that sandalwood smells very close to testosterone (which makes it a little odd that men should like it much more than women do). We know that the Guerlains believed that civet (now illegal, sadly for us but happily for the civet cat) was the profound, true scent of a woman. (I'd not agree. I'd classify women's own natural scent into four: musk women, civet women, ambergris women and castoreum women. I'll not explain why here in a family newspaper, but enough to say that they – or their synthetic near-equivalents – are the Big Four of fixative base notes which hold fine perfumes together and give them their distinctive "dryout" or staying power.)

We live in an age of fragrance. It's big business. The time of the little individual producers in Grasse, carefully preparing their batches of rose absolute or concrète of jasmine, has given way to giant firms like Firmenich, IFF, Givaudan and Symrise: strange aesthetico-chemical repositories where brilliant organic chemists (the development of artificial musks was so complex that the chemists involved won a Nobel Prize) work alongside marketing people and highly trained "noses" to build both custom fragrances and individual molecules for sale to independent perfumers.

The individual "aromachemicals" can make fortunes. When the great Dior perfumer Edmond Roudnitska bought the exclusive rights to a molecule called Hedione in 1966, he used it in the creation of one of the great classics of the last hundred years, the clean yet strangely floral Eau Sauvage.

Other molecules come into and go out of fashion. The current top performer is iso-E Super, an odd "floraliser", insignificant on its own but – as the name suggests – capable of adding an inexplicable floral effect to almost anything it touches. For a while you couldn't go into a city office without being hit by a wave of dihydromyrcenol, a sort of intense but colourless citrus smell. The miserable "sport" fragrances so beloved by men who don't know what cologne they should wear (but still think they can pull a 23-year-old) were inspired by Pierre Bourdon's magnificent Cool Water for Davidoff but degenerated into a series of shuddering, wind-whipped bony little things – you know those dogs you see trembling and bored on Ilkley Moor in November? Those – based around the synthetic watermelon-ish scent of a laundry-detergent fragrance called Calone.

But fragrance is everywhere. In your soap, your toothpaste, your shampoo, your conditioner, your hairdressing, your deodorant, your polish, your washing-up liquid, your washing powder, your make-up, your hand cream, your lip salve, your fabric conditioner, your fly spray, your everything. Even your fragrance-free things have "odour neutralisers" in them to take away their intrinsically nasty smells. And we think nothing of it, until we suddenly panic.

"Fine fragrance" – what we'd think of as "scent" or "perfume" or "cologne" or "eau de toilette" is, properly, a little over a century old. Most date it to the release of Guerlain's Jicky in 1889, a perfume so deeply strange, to a market used only to fresh eaux-de-cologne or florals, that, initially, only the gay dandies of Paris would wear it. What was it like? Dirty. But dirty in a delightful way. Sean Connery wears it. 'Nuff said.

Or rather, not enough said. Because one of the great difficulties is getting to know perfumes in their socio-economic, their cultural context. You can't walk round a perfume gallery like you can round the Tate Modern. But, for the next month, you can at least get a glimpse of the story, because Harrods are this week launching The Perfume Diaries, an exhibition of, if you like, the last hundred years in perfume history (though it goes back further), decade by decade. The exhibition, which opens at the store on Thursday, was the brainchild of Harrods' fragrance buyer, Emma Hockley, and curated by perfume evangelist Roja Dove, upon whom Guerlain, for whom he formerly worked, bestowed the honorary title of "Professeur de Parfums."

Dove is the author of The Essence of Perfume and supremo of the Haute Parfumerie in Harrods (and like me, began as a medical student at Cambridge), and he is as passionate about perfumery as ... well, as anyone is passionate about anything. "Doing this exhibition by decades," he says, "is fascinating. For example, you see Chanel No 5 and how many people would realise it's 90 years old? Or that Gabrielle Chanel thought nobody would buy it so she originally gave it to her customers as a gift? And we're very lucky because Chanel are sending along a complete set of their bottle designs – they've changed very subtly over the years." Dove also has the only known full set in the world: Chanel Nos. 2, 5, 11 and 22.

"The social changes are really, really interesting," he said. "In the 1910s, we had very, very traditional images of what 'feminine' meant. Floaty dresses, gardens and flowers, flowers, flowers. Guerlain had a wonderful fragrance called Voilà Pourquoi J'aimais Rosine (And That's Why I Loved Rosine). You wonder who's supposed to be saying it." I remind him of my favourite Guerlain of the time, the miraculously named Jardin de mon Curé. "Marvellous, isn't it," he says. "Who on earth now would call a perfume My Vicar's Garden?"

Times have changed. Suffrage, as he points out, utterly altered women's attitudes to themselves and to how they presented themselves. Poiret got rid of the bustle, the bustier and the corset, and the new freedoms of dress were reflected in the perfumes of the time – like l'Heure Bleu and the great, but forgotten, L'Origan by François Coty, perhaps the greatest perfumer of all time. After the First World War, the "new petites garçonnes came along, with perfumes like Chypre – which gave its name to an entire "family" (perfumes based on an "accord" of oakmoss, musk and, often, patchouli). "That was the time of Mitsouko, and Caron's 1919 Tabac Blond – they called it that because Virginia tobacco was considered too effete for men but for women, smoking a Virginia cigarette, tabac blonde, was very daring and independent."

Dove's olfactory history continues through the days after the Second World War, when Patou launched L'Heure Attendu ("The Awaited Hour"), Chanel No 46 (only sold in that year), Lucien Lelong's Orgeuil, and Coeur Joie by Nina Ricci. Baccarat are lending the original Salvador Dali bottle for Roy Soleil: a stopper in the shape of the sun, birds flying across the sun making a face, the bottle like the sea, a dabber in the stopper with gilded sun-rays, and a box in the shape of a shell, lined in duchesse silk satin: "a reference to the Birth of Venus, an absolute summation of femininity reborn after the war years".

Social history lives in every bottle as well as the scents they contain. In 1971, Yves St Laurent commemorated the Space Age (the Moon landing had been just 18 months before) with Rive Gauche in a futuristic aluminium can: out with the Right Bank, in with the left; out with bourgeois glass, in with metal. And Revlon produced Charlie: the first perfume designed to a specific marketing concept, aimed at the "Cosmo Girl".

The list is vast. Houbigant sent a receipt to Marie Antoinette, one to Madame Bovary, and a letter from "the Children of France" – the royal princelings – which arrived at Dove's house in Brighton in bubble wrap in a Chronopost carton. Dior have loaned the original Miss Dior dress and the Baccarat bottle – over 85 Baccarat bottles will be in the exhibition – which inspired it.

The sponsor, Givaudan – one of the aromachemical giants – will also be providing a rare experience: the chance to smell the original molecules, both natural and synthetic, which go to make up modern perfumery. Though the rise of the "perfumistas" and their perfume blogs like Basenotes and Now Smell This have changed the face of the market, perfumery PRs (who know they are selling image more than fragrance itself) are still as soupy and mendacious as ever. Look at what they say is in the stuff and you'd think that we were in 1755, or on Mars. Perhaps if people knew what was in the stuff — Frutonile (peachy, lactonic), Givescone® (rosy, spicy, fruit, woody), Petiole® (green, floral, hyacinth) or Velvione® (musky, powdery, slightly animalic) they might cavil. Personally, I find it infinitely more interesting to know how fragrances work.

We are not unaccommodated men. We are civilised creatures. Better to smell fine than foul. And better still to know the story of the Eighth Art. The regulators of the EU may be making increasingly stupid and pointless rules about what perfumers can use (if there's something you like, stock up now) but as chemist and perfume critic Luca Turin wrote: "Nobody ever died from wearing Mitsouko, but lots of babies were born as a result of it." Quite so. Vive les nez!