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Perceptions of Perfumery in Heritage

By: Tricia Gnadt

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In 2018, UNESCO registered a video discussing the history of French perfumery into

their Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.¹ The video discusses Grasse’s modern perfume history, the plants and processes used for the perfumes, and the methods the region uses to preserve their heritage for the future. Although French perfume is an important piece of French history, the story of perfume—the sourcing, processes, history—goes much deeper than Grasse. Perfumery has influential histories within various societies around the globe, yet this is the only archive in the entire Intangible Heritage List that discusses perfumery.


Honeysuckle flowers used in enfleurage (a French perfume technique). (Terrene Perfumery). Source.

Museu del Perfum in Barcelona, Spain outlines more than 5000 years of history on perfumery.² They discuss how scent has been significant to humans since ancient times. The

museum outlines how perfumery has been uncovered in most ancient societies—Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, etc. Although the history is much more thorough in this museum, it uses a generally Eurocentric model; for example, it does not discuss in detail on perfume developers like Persian physician Ibn Sina who invented the hydro-distillation model that the French use today.³ Despite this, this museum in neighbouring Spain discusses many global histories which are missing in UNESCO’s Grasse perfumery archive. Other museums on perfume such as the Musée du Parfum in Paris similarly only discuss modern French perfumery and techniques, despite the cross-cultural significance of perfuming through history. In general, UNESCO and the perfume museums in Europe include a narrative that perfume has changed into a modern commercial industry—which is has in some regions. Not all places, however, have turned to modern commercial perfuming techniques.


In Kannauj, India, some of the last traditional attar craftsmen use traditional recipes to

develop scented oil. These scents in include “enigmatic mitti attar, which evokes the scent of earth after a rainfall thanks to baked alluvial clay in the distillation. Shamama, another coveted invention, is a distilled blend of 40 or more flowers, herbs, and resins that takes days to make and months to age.” The village sits closely to the Indus River Valley, and the similar vessels and distillation method suggests that this technique is similar to the Mesopotamian techniques found in 3300 BC to 1300 BC. “Kannauj has been concocting attar (also known as ittr) for over 400 years—more than two centuries before Grasse, in France’s Provence region.” These perfumes have been documented in India in ancient texts like the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata — complied in the 3rd century.


Perfume craftsmen pour petals into a copper still in Kannauj. (Tuul and Bruno Morandi/National Geographic). Source.

Although the craft used to be commonplace, British colonization of India “killed the attar industry” as Indian technicians used different practices to make their perfumes better fit into the colonizer economy.¹⁰ This resulted in less preservations of the extensive knowledge

and specific equipment this traditional perfumery requires. Today only a few families in

Kannuaj continue to practice using this technique; the families which still create the attars are dwindling due to today’s economic pressures. The dying art fragmented the centuries old

lineages of familial practice of attar perfumery. The lack of effort to preserve this important

aspect of Indian heritage has led to its near extinction.


Nonetheless, the oil crafted using this technique in Kannuaj are the last of their kind in

the world, and no Western perfumer has been able to replicate the scent. Perfumers from

around the world venture into Kannuaj to find the attar, using rose, jasmine, or vetiver to make intricate accords they are unable to replicate with their technology.


“'People from Grasse come here to see how we make mitti attar. They’ve tried [to make]

it but they can’t get the right essence,' he says, showing his WhatsApp chats with French perfumers. Some of Mehrotra’s other buyers mix synthetic materials with attar to create new, unique scents of their own. 'Attar is the base. They can’t make those perfumes without it. So anyone who wants natural perfume oil has to come here,' he says.”¹¹


The most famous perfumery museums centred in France do not mention the importance

of India in their own perfume history. Although France’s modernization of perfumery began after experimentation with resources and techniques from other cultures, their narrative of their history quoted verbatim from Musée de Grasse reads as follows:


“Obviously, such a museum could only be found in France, where contemporary

perfumery was born in the early twentieth centurye century thanks to François Coty and

when Coco Chanel launched the fashion for perfumes rich in aldehydes.”¹²


The contemporary narrative of perfume puts France at the head of the table, despite how

involved French perfume is to other histories of perfume. This technique is a common

methodology used to assimilate knowledge to a Western lens. In this case, French perfumery acts as an authority over perfume—they took techniques and scents from cultures which fall outside of the colonial narrative and developed them to the modern perfume industry we know today. This technique is employed in academic institutions to narrate our history with a bias towards colonial power.¹³


Perfumer in Pays de Grasse. (Daniel, Serre, M. Roudnitska APVPG 2014). Source.

Today perfume is beyond heritage tradition—it is a commercial industry raking in $61.79

billion USD, with many monoliths located in occident countries.¹⁴ Industrialization and modern chemistry synthesized tradition into mass-produced fragrance. Colonizer countries like France could control economy and infrastructure globally, resulting in their methods becoming the most advertised and funded throughout the 20th century. Traditional methods of perfumery are still common in many parts of the world such as Kannuaj, but these processes cannot economically compete with the perfume monoliths who industrialized perfume en masse. Without heritage consideration, these histories may soon be abandoned.


Referring back to the initial UNESCO archive, one limitation of video is that it does not

explain how the exotic plants like Vanilla which are native to the New World arrived in Paris, or why these plants have become a staple in French perfumery.¹⁵ This is one example of many in the current perfume industries who fail to connect their industry as a method of imperialism. Many of the plants used in today’s commercial perfumes come from historically colonized places. The tuberose that grows in Grasse’s gardens originates from the resources extracted by Spanish colonizers who explored the Aztec Empire and transported the plant back to Europe.¹⁶ The accords which cannot be grown are imported from small suppliers in these various countries, processed in house using the industries equipment, then “re-exported into the commercial market of their country of origin as the finished product.”¹⁷


In addition, the unequal distribution of wealth between Western countries and “source”

countries prevents Eastern perfumers from entering into the commercial perfume industry.

Craftsmen in Kannuaj do not have the equipment to mass produce in competition with

monopolies like Chanel. Their local economies cannot charge the prices that Western

perfumeries charge for perfumes, because wealth is measured differently in those areas. It is less costly for a Western country to import mass-produced perfume to India and sell at a high dollar than it is for attars to be transported to Europe and sold as similar prices—especially if Western countries have already synthesized Indian attar as a note in their own perfumes.


Copal incense burned during Día de los Muertos. (Jordi Cueto-Felgueroso Arocha CC BY-SA 4.0). Source.

Scents also have different cultural significance. In Mexico, indigenous harvested copal is

used as a sacred resin incense for ritual.¹⁸ This sacred resin is less likely to be developed into a commercialized perfume due to its cultural significance and religious use; the resin is considered medicinal and “the blood of trees” which are regarded as holding up the universe in Aztec legend.¹⁹ Western perfumers take these materials and remove them from their sacred context to use them as an accord in their alchemical creations. This action occurs in many instances of imperial history such as the imperial use of sacred cacao into cash crops.²⁰


Imperialism made the sacred material of other sites become coveted in modern perfumes;

local plant scents became commonplace as foreign plants became exotic and unique. The

UNESCO intangible heritage list should be inclusive to these processes, global histories, and

sacred significances of perfumery both in France’s archive, and in other registrations.


Fragments of perfume jars found at a site believed to be one of the oldest production sites for perfume in Cyprus. (Reuters/ABC News). Source.

Other historical preservation efforts have worked to exhibit the impactful histories of

perfumery. In Greece, the Cyprus Perfumery Theme Park now allows you to create a perfume

using an ancient technique inscribed on a 4000 year old tablet created by a Cypriot perfume

merchant, found in the ancient Greek city of Thebes.²¹ Scholars in India have outlined the long history of perfumery throughout the country, which continued archival efforts of the vast

histories of Indian perfume tradition.²² These examples showcase how we can implement these histories into the museum field. UNESCO designations should also reflect these intricate histories.


Notes


1 UNESCO. “The skills related to perfume in Pays de Grasse: the cultivation of perfume plants, the knowledge and processing of natural raw materials, and the art of perfume composition.” Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. France, 2018. https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/the-skills-related-to-perfume-in-pays-de-grasse-the-cultivation-of-perfume-plants-the-knowledge-and-processing-of-natural-raw-materials-and-the-art-of-perfume-composition-01207

2 Fundació Planas Giralt. “History.” Barcelona, Spain. 2010. Museu del Perfum.  http://museudelperfum.com/en/history/

3 Gutas, Dimitri. “Ibn Sina (Avicenna).” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 15 September 2016. Ibn Sina [Avicenna] (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

4 Fragonard Parfumeur. “Musée du Parfum.” Musée du Parfum. Paris, France. https://musee-parfum-paris.fragonard.com/

5 Kannauj Attar. “Kannuaj Attar: The Eternal Essence of India.” Kannuaj Attar. Kannuaj, India. 2021-2025. Kannuaj Attar

6 Sachasinh, Rachna. “How did Kannuaj become the Perfume Capital of India?” National Geographic. 17 December, 2020. How did Kannauj become the perfume capital of India? (nationalgeographic.com)

7 Rathnayake, Zinara. “How Indian Perfumers Capture the Smell of Rain.” Atlas Obscura. 2 August 2023. How Indian Perfumers Capture the Smell of Rain - Atlas Obscura

8 Sachasinh, Rachna. “How did Kannuaj become the Perfume Capital of India?” National Geographic. 17 December, 2020.

9 Rathnayake, Zinara. “How Indian Perfumers Capture the Smell of Rain.” Atlas Obscura. 2 August 2023.

10 Sachasinh, Rachna. “How did Kannuaj become the Perfume Capital of India?” National Geographic. 17 December, 2020.

11 Rathnayake, Zinara. “How Indian Perfumers Capture the Smell of Rain.” Atlas Obscura. 2 August 2023.

12 Musée de Grasse. “HISTOIRE DU MUSÉE INTERNATIONAL DE LA PARFUMERIE.” Musée International de la Parfumerie. Pays de Grasse 2020. History of the International Perfume Museum | Museums of Grasse (museesdegrasse.com)

13 Falcucci, B. (2021). Visualizing Colonial Power: Museum Exhibitions and the Promotion of Imperialism in France, Belgium, and Italy. Nuncius, 36(3), 676–722. https://doi.org/10.1163/18253911-0360300

14 Mordor Intelligence. “Frangrance and Perfume Industry Size and Share Analysis—Growth Trends and Forecasts (2023-2028). Market Analysis. Hyderabad, India. 2023. https://www.mordorintelligence.com/industry-reports/fragrance-and-perfume-market

15 Sethi, Simran. “The Bittersweet Story of Vanilla.” Smithsonian Magazine. 3 April 2017.

16 BLOGS.IFAS. “Fact Sheet: Tuberose.” University of Florida. 11 June 2017.

17 Hagger, Alastair. “The Smell of Money: The Growth of the Blooming Perfume Industry in Africa.” Forbes Africa. 2021. The Smell Of Money: The Growth of the Blooming Perfume Industry in Africa - Forbes Africa

18 Mendoza Nunziato, Rebecca. “Sacred Smoke of Copal: From Mesoamerican Religion to Chicanx Ceremonies.” Revista: Harvard Review of Latin America. Winter 2021, volume XX, number 2. 22 February 2021. https://revista.drclas.harvard.edu/sacred-smoke-of-copal/

19 Mendoza Nunziato, Rebecca. “Sacred Smoke of Copal: From Mesoamerican Religion to Chicanx Ceremonies.” Revista: Harvard Review of Latin America. Winter 2021, volume XX, number 2. 22 February 2021.

20 Sethi, Simran. “The Bittersweet Story of Vanilla.” Smithsonian Magazine. 3 April 2017.

21 Cyprus Perfumery Theme Park. “Cyprus Perfumery Theme Park.” De Strobel Publisher. 2018. Cyprus Perfumery Theme Park (perfumecypark.org)

22 Nibha Bajpai, Pamela Das. “Indian History of Perfume, Its Evidences and Evolution from Different Era.” International Journal of Creative Research Thought (IJCRT). Volume 9, Issue 11. 11 November 2021. ISSN 2320-2882.

Works Cited


BLOGS.IFAS. “Fact Sheet: Tuberose.” University of Florida. 11 June 2017.

Cyprus Perfumery Theme Park. “Cyprus Perfumery Theme Park.” De Strobel Publisher. 2018.

Cyprus Perfumery Theme Park (perfumecypark.org)

Falcucci, B. (2021). Visualizing Colonial Power: Museum Exhibitions and the Promotion of

Imperialism in France, Belgium, and Italy. Nuncius, 36(3), 676–722.

Fragonard Parfumeur. “Musée du Parfum.” Musée du Parfum. Paris, France. https://musee-

Fundació Planas Giralt. “History.” Barcelona, Spain. 2010. Museu del Perfum.

Gutas, Dimitri. “Ibn Sina (Avicenna).” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 15 September

2016. Ibn Sina [Avicenna] (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Hagger, Alastair. “The Smell of Money: The Growth of the Blooming Perfume Industry in

Africa.” Forbes Africa. 2021. The Smell Of Money: The Growth of the Blooming

Perfume Industry in Africa - Forbes Africa

Kannauj Attar. “Kannuaj Attar: The Eternal Essence of India.” Kannuaj Attar. Kannuaj, India.

2021-2025. Kannuaj Attar

Mendoza Nunziato, Rebecca. “Sacred Smoke of Copal: From Mesoamerican Religion to

Chicanx Ceremonies.” Revista: Harvard Review of Latin America. Winter 2021, volume

copal/

Mordor Intelligence. “Frangrance and Perfume Industry Size and Share Analysis—Growth

Trends and Forecasts (2023-2028). Market Analysis. Hyderabad, India. 2023.

Musée de Grasse. “HISTOIRE DU MUSÉE INTERNATIONAL DE LA PARFUMERIE.”

Musée International de la Parfumerie. Pays de Grasse 2020. History of the International

Perfume Museum | Museums of Grasse (museesdegrasse.com)

Nibha Bajpai, Pamela Das. “Indian History of Perfume, Its Evidences and Evolution from

Different Era.” International Journal of Creative Research Thought (IJCRT). Volume 9,

Issue 11. 11 November 2021. ISSN 2320-2882.

Rathnayake, Zinara. “How Indian Perfumers Capture the Smell of Rain.” Atlas Obscura. 2

August 2023. How Indian Perfumers Capture the Smell of Rain - Atlas Obscura

Sachasinh, Rachna. “How did Kannuaj become the Perfume Capital of India?” National

Geographic. 17 December, 2020. How did Kannauj become the perfume capital of India? (nationalgeographic.com)

Sethi, Simran. “The Bittersweet Story of Vanilla.” Smithsonian Magazine. 3 April 2017.

UNESCO. “The skills related to perfume in Pays de Grasse: the cultivation of perfume plants,

the knowledge and processing of natural raw materials, and the art of perfume

composition.” Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.



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