The History of Perfume - A Curious Tale

How did perfume evolve from ancient civilizations through to the present day?

An Introduction To The History Of Perfume

The history of perfume is interesting, complex and intrinsically linked to the development of human society around the world.

The first recorded use of ‘perfume’ dates back to when ancient cultures burned incense and enjoyed the resulting pleasant aromas.

Perfume as a noun finds its origins in the Latin phrase ‘per fumus’ which translates to “through smoke”. Although, the French later also invented the term ‘parfum’ to describe the burning of incense in order to produce a fragrance.

The History Of Perfume Is Not Only For Enthusiasts

We are passionate about the origins of perfume

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The Ancient History Of Perfume

This history of perfume in ancient civilizations started as an offering to the gods because it was thought to cause sublimation of the body to make it more ‘god-like’. The earliest recorded use of ‘perfume’ is when the Mesopotamians first discovered incense 4000 years ago.

Fragrance (as we know it today) did not exist in Egypt, Greece nor any other ancient societies. The aromas they produced would simply come from raw materials. Popular ingredients for perfumes, such as scented botanicals and resins, were used in ancient times during ceremonies to show devotion to the gods.

However, throughout the ancient civilisations, the interest in aromatic ingredients grew exponentially, as did the variety of their applications. The rich and poor alike were able to make use of such inventions as fermented liquors, fumigations, balms and even oils in an attempt to feel closer to their gods.

This is believed to be the first period in the history of perfume where a strong association was established between fragrance, beauty and power.

Although, in the years that followed this esteemed association would decline into decadence. In contrast to their previous sacred associations, perfumes later became quintessential of raucous orgies.

The History Of Perfume is Multi-Faceted

The history of perfume is just as complex as the humans who wear them

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Ancient Egypt

We have traced the history of perfume in Egypt to when it first arrived at its shores around 3000 B.C. From there, its popularity grew exponentially under the rule of Queen Hatshepsut.

The Queen would lead expeditions in search of incense and other valuable commodities that were received with such admiration and awe that these expeditions are recorded throughout the temple built in her honour.

Furthermore, perfume was of great prominence throughout the Egyptian high society as well as their spirituality with Nefertem (an Egyptian god) being appointed the ‘Lord of Perfume’.

The most popular Egyptian fragrances were derived from aromatic woods, fruits, and even local flowers. Although, when it came to international relations and commerce, the trade of incense and myrrh proved most effective.

Perfumes & Fragrances Played A Key Role In Ancient Civilisations

Ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome and China

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Ancient Persia

The history of perfume during ancient Persia can be summarised in two words: pivotal and innovative.

Persia dominated the international perfume trade for centuries. They were given this prestige by becoming the first developers of non-oil based perfume and the innovative practice of infusing fragrances with water.

Recovered documentation indicates that throughout Persia there was an abundance of fragrance-producing workshops and perfume-manufacturing equipment.

It is needless to say that the modern perfume industry owes a great debt to Persian ingenuity. The Persians conducted extensive experiments to improve upon distillation processes and the quality of the aromas they produced. But perhaps one of their greatest innovations was being the first to create non-oil based perfumes.

Perfume was held consistently in high regard by the nobility in this ancient civilisation. This opinion was also shared throughout ancient Persia. Inside Persia, the wearing of perfume may have been an exclusivity reserved only for royalty who would often demand that paintings and art be created depicting them with bottles of perfume and holding flowers in their hands.

Ancient Civilisations & the Perfume Industry

An Era Of Commerce & Innovation

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Ancient China

An often forgotten but incredibly important and influential part of the history of perfumery is that of the ancient civilisations further east. Ancient china actually took their adoption of perfume much more mainstream where even simple items such as stationery and ink would be infused with perfume.

While they would also use perfume in religious ceremonies, rather than for just grand occasions, perfume would be used to decorate places within the home that were also dedicated to worship.

The Chinese were pioneers in regards to using perfume for (perceived) medicinal purposes by ‘purifying’ the environment around them, e.g. ridding the area of disease. They took the approach that 'prevention is better than cure' and usually applied perfume to rooms and objects rather than themselves or each other when looking for health and wellbeing benefits.

Unlike their other ancient counterparts, it is believed that they were amongst the first through the history of perfume who placed a heavy emphasis on oriental herbs and spices. By taking advantage of the fragrant smells from their foods and medicines, the nobility was able to import ingredients via the silk roads to create personal fragrances.

Another curious part of the history of perfume throughout ancient china is the use of fragrance being spread much more widely across the general populace. Historians believe this trend was established through the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.

The Recreation Of Ancient Perfumes

Historians have found several documents detailing the manufacturing processes from ancient civilisations

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Ancient Rome

Authentic perfumes from ancient Rome can actually be experienced today thanks to ancient Romans and Greeks having the foresight to document their processes for perfume making.

Fortunately, historians have been able to help perfume houses to recreate one fragrance that dates back to 1850 B.C. and is thought to have been originally manufactured in the oldest perfume factory in the world.

Similar to Persia, perfume had a significant impact on the economy of ancient Rome. They developed a global commercial network from what previously could be described as a basic farming village.

Immense imports of frankincense and myrrh every year allowed fragrances to be more widely available. Oil perfumes for both hair and skin were used for general body care as well as in public bathhouses.

However, it must be recognised that this passion and acceptance of perfumes was not universal. In fact, many associated perfume and fragrance with wastefulness and opulence. Unfortunately, as the roman empire fell, so did its perfume industry with perfume and similar luxuries and products being forbidden.

This sentiment is often attributed to Pliny the Elder who was undeniably a key figure in the history of perfume during the era of the Roman Empire and its demise.

Fragrance & The Aristocracy

Historically, perfumes were worn (almost) exclusively by the upper classes and nobility

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The History Of Perfume - The Middle Ages

The travels of the crusades and the expeditions from Marco provided a tremendous impetus to the spice industry, the use of new raw materials and fragrance techniques. The history of perfume has one of its more significant developments when European alchemists started to use ethyl alcohol in their distillation processes.

Once again, the use of scented fragrances blossomed to produce a new art of living. Femininity was celebrated passionately by artists such as poets as well as couples indulging in scented baths for carnal pleasures.

Throughout the middle ages, perfumes were beginning to be explored in regards to their possible health benefits despite alchemy being outlawed by The Church. Oriental perfumes provided whispers of carnal pleasures and fragrant plants were used with the belief that they protected against disease.

This discovery was destined to prove invaluable when protecting oneself from the "Bubonic Plague". Doctors would fill their ‘bird-like masks’ with oils, herbs and spices and wear them similar in a manner to modern-day PPE.

The perception that fragrant defences were effective against deadly and infectious diseases led to an explosion of perfume wearing throughout medieval Europe.

Innovation During The Middle Ages

European alchemists made significant progress when they started to use ethyl alcohol in their distillation process

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Perfume & The Renaissance (1490-1600)

Pioneering Italian alchemists were often caught in the crossfire between European aristocrats. The upper classes would stop at nothing to obtain secret formulas containing ingredients imported from The Americas and Asia.

The Renaissance brought with it a new wave of innovation and an abundance of European scholars, artists, architects and engineers. The art of perfume for the first time became a science. Chemists started to take over from alchemists and they created innovative new bouquets out of the exotic ingredients discovered by Christopher Columbus on his campaigns.

In this new age of scientific advancements, chemists could make far better use of their fragrances. They went on to produce more recognisable contemporary notes such as cardamom, clove, cocoa and vanilla.

The commercial aspects of perfume were born from competition between French female aristocrats who were after beauty secrets and 'hacks'. This led to the migration of Italian and Spanish perfumers establishing themselves in the fragrance capital of the world at that time - Paris.

The Renaissance & Scientific Advancement

Chemists produced more recognisable contemporary notes such as cardamom and vanilla

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"The Classic Era" (1600 - 1700)

Moving away from Paris, the Versailles Court became the epicentre of the perfume industry with the levels of fragrance use often described as ‘Intoxicating’.

Versailles dictated and influenced the customs, fashions and practices of perfume while a culture flourished around flowers and medicinal herbs.

Manufacturers of fragrances, scented powder and perfumed gloves also put their mark on the history of perfume. They developed their trade and took advantage of novel floral ingredients such as carnation, lavender, rose and jasmine to name just a few.

The Perfume Capital Of Europe

Moving away from Paris, Versailles became the Epicentre of the Perfume Industry

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The Century Of Lights (1700 - 1789)

Celebration, happiness and carefree are all adjectives that could apply to this period in the history of perfume.

Throughout this period of perfume’s history, the more merciless side of the industry emerges where women are almost enslaved to the tyranny of fashion in perfumes, hairstyles and make-up. Contemporary newspapers and magazines published and imposed canons of feminine elegance upon the population.

The court of Louis XV was named the “perfumed court”. It was mandatory for him to never wear the same fragrance twice.

The History Of Perfume Isn't Always Glamarous

Throughout history, populations had barrages of feminine elegance imposed upon them

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The Napoleonic Years (1789 - 1860)

The French Revolution left France smelling of gunpowder and fragrances had never been so unpopular in the history of perfume. In fact, perfume finally made a comeback with the emergence of the French empire.

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 a double extract of jasmine every month.

However, 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.

The History Of Perfume & Napoleon Bonaparte

Past the gun powder, perfume came back in to favour with the emergence of the French Empire

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The Turn Of The Century (1860 - 1900)

By the end of the 19th century, the perfume industry was increasingly targeting middle-class women. The second empire was characterized by a brief but excessive infatuation with vetiver and patchouli.

However, this trend came to an end when the emergence of a strong middle class led to more sophisticated fragrances. The olfactory revolution was triggered by a brand new process of chemical synthesis that produced the first aldehydes. Perfumery was increasingly seen as an art and the trade of luxury goods flourished.

The History Of Fragrance & The Middle Classes

Perfumery was increasingly seen as an art and the trade of luxury goods flourished

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The History of Perfume During The 20th Century

Middle-class women were becoming ever more the target of the fragrance industry towards the end of the 19th century and the first synthetic perfume ingredients were making their debut.

The brief ‘trend’ of patchouli and vetiver came to an end when the middle-class market demanded a more refined fragrance leading to the blossoming trade of luxury goods.

‘Modern’ perfume was birthed when both original and new fragrances such as heliotropin, coumarin and the first aldehydes caused an olfactory revolution as they were created through chemical synthesis.

Early 20th Century Perfume

The world enthusiastically welcomes the "Art Nouveau"

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Early 20th Century (1900 - 1920)

1900 is referred to as the ‘Belle Epoque”, fragrance and perfume became a luxurious product with a beautiful bottle given a prestigious name. The world accepted and welcomed this “Art Nouveau” with great enthusiasm.

Celebrated perfumers such as Coty emerge as they release La Rose Jacqueminot in 1904 which, made them a millionaire almost overnight.  Coty would also collaborate with Lalique to develop other early successes such as L'Effleur and Amber Antique.

Other fashion pioneers such as Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden who opened their doors at a similar time would add their own fragrances in later years such as the iconic Blue Grass in 1934.

The Extensive History of Perfume

The tale is certainly a curious one

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1920 - 1930

The 1920s are often synonymous with nights dancing to the Charleston, giddy lightness and innovations and breakings of speed barriers galore. However, there was much more at work in regards to the history of perfume.

During the extravagant years of the 1920s, women became emancipated and disposed of their restrictive garments (e.g. corsets etc.) and joined the workforce with pride.

The era of the boyish Garconne Flapper was the golden age of fragrances in the 1920s and early 1930s. Aldehydes gave the fragrance a touch of freshness and energy as well as a hint of sweetness.

There is no question, Chanel No. 5 is the fragrance that defined the 1920s but in many ways also the twentieth century, as it is even today amongst the best-selling fine fragrances. Wearing perfume was something only the very rich could afford at the time. Marilyn Monroe famously stated: “What do I wear in bed? Why, Chanel No. 5, of course.”

Guerlain’s Shalimar (1925) is another fragrance from this decade and it has become one of the most popular fragrances of all time!

· Chanel No.5: woody (patchouli, sandalwood), powdery/amber, aldehydic, floral (ylang-ylang, rose, iris)

· Guerlain Shalimar: balsamic (vanilla, opoponax), citrus, woody (sandalwood), powdery

The Emancipation Of Women

A breath of freshness and energy is added to the history of perfume

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1930 - 1940

Then in 1930, we are greeted by widespread unemployment and the Great Depression.

The most notable fragrance of the 1930s was Joy by Jean Patou It was launched in 1929 (the year of the Crash on Wall Street) and despite being launched as ‘the world’s most expensive perfume’ at the time, it became a huge commercial success.

With its rose accord, it is to this day considered as one of the greatest floral fragrances of all time:

· Joy by Jean Patou: white floral (Jasmin, tuberose, ylang-ylang), rose, woody (sandalwood)

Perfumery & The Great Depression

The Great Depression brings with it one of the greatest floral fragrances of all time

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1940 - 1950

The 1930s were concluded and followed by World War 2, fascism, communism and genocide.

On the other hand, as you have seen throughout the history of perfume, the industry can be incredibly resilient. Post-war couture perfumes created images of female seduction inspired by Hollywood for the images and females of a romantic Hollywood.

The fashion and beauty sector adapted incredibly to the more restrictive environment. Publications such as New Look and Marie Claire contained new agony columns as well as whole sections dedicated to beauty and fashion.

In order to stand out in these publications, designers would create their own “character fragrances” specific to their own style. In order to stand out, consumers would also wear designer fragrances

After the war, lighter and fresher perfumes became more popular.

Two of these are:

· L'Air du Temps by Nina Ricci: warm spicy (clove, carnation), floral (gardenia, jasmine, iris), aldehydic, woody and powdery.

· Miss Dior by Christian Dior: woody (oakmoss, vetiver, patchouli), green (galbanum), floral (narcissus, iris, carnation), aldehydic.

Perfumery During War Time

The fashion and beauty sector adapted incredibly to the more restrictive environment

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Mid-20th Century (1950 - 1960)

The history of perfume now meets a world in turmoil. The cold war is just beginning, Europe looks towards the sex appeal of the US where rock'n'roll, chewing gum and blue jeans rule supreme.

The advent of automated household appliances has changed the lives of millions of women for the better with mainstream access to washing machines and refrigerators.

Ready-to-wear garments slowly replaced mass-produced clothing and fragrances became far more accessible. The keys to fragrance became mainstream, easier to comprehend and appealed to a broader audience.

The 1950s also saw the discreetly elegant and masculine vetiver and lavender Eaux de Toilette emerge into the mainstream grooming routine.

We also welcome Estee Lauder’s first fragrance into the World - Youth Dew.

The most memorable perfume of its era was Femme de Rochas (1944). This rich, sultry perfume was the scent of the ‘femme fatale’. Although Arpege by Lanvin was launched in 1927, it became very popular in the 1950s to become another scent of this time.

· Femme de Rochas: warm spicy (clove, cinnamon), woody (oakmoss, rosewood, vetiver), fruity (plum, peach, apricot), balsamic (benzoin, amber) and leather.

· Arpege de Lanvin: white floral (ylang-ylang, jasmine), woody (sandalwood, vetiver), aldehydic and powdery.

The Emergence Of Designer Perfumes

The beauty of Fougere is its combination of warm sensuality with light freshness.

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1960 - 1970

As we reach 1960, we are over halfway through the 20th century, the ‘hippie’ movement and feelings of rebellion and sexual liberation covered the USA and the capitalist west. 

However, the fashion industry took no notice of the conflict between economic prosperity, low unemployment and violent demonstrations against the Vietnam War.

In regards to fragrance and perfume, new olfactive freshness started to appear.

It should be recognised that there is a debate as to whether the Eaux fraiches were an indictment of perfume or a search for new lightness.

One memorable fragrance from the 1960s was:

·· Christian Dior’s Eau Sauvage: citrus (lemon, bergamot), aromatic (rosemary and fresh spicy (basil) - perfect for invigorating a room's atmosphere and washing away a stressful day.

An Era Of Rebellion & Sexual Liberation

Masculine 'Eaux de Toilette' became mainstream in the 1960s


1970 - 1980

In terms of the history of perfume, the 1970s saw a sizable shift against a background of feminism and neo-romanticism. Clothes were becoming a means to express one’s personality, ideas and attitudes towards life. As a consequence, people would approach perfume in the same way.

Both in France and in the USA, new fragrances endeavoured to be for the woman who saw themselves as proactive and sophisticated but yet also natural and softly romantic. The perfumes that didn’t meet this expectation were left on the shelf and abandoned. This led to women wearing a ‘lifestyle’ scent and claiming their individuality.

Men also started to use their fragrances outside of their shaving/grooming ritual.

Once Eaux de toilette arrived on the scene, fragrances truly designed for men joined the market. This pivotal moment in the history of perfume is best summarised as the clear distinction being made between men’s fragrance and after-shave.

Another way to make your room smell great and add to the ‘Flower Power’ of a 70ies styled atmosphere is with incense or an oil burner. Remember the Hippies?

The 1970s also saw a continuation of the 'Hippie' Movement who had their own unique scents that you can virtually smell when reading these:

· patchouli,

· sandalwood, or

· tea rose attars.

Burning incense from a beautifully carved, Indian-themed holder or warming patchouli oil in an oil burner would certainly give an instant retro feeling to a home.

A designer fragrance that exemplifies the era is YSL’s Opium with an accord centred around notes of incense (myrrh), spices (cinnamon, cloves, pepper) and sandalwood.

Three other notable fragrances were:

· Charlie by Revlon: woody (sandalwood, oakmoss), green (galbanum, hyacinth), aromatic (vetiver).

· Anais Anais by Cacharel: white floral (lily of the valley, hyacinth, lily, jasmine, honeysuckle) and green.

YSL's Rive Gauche: a fragrance for free and independent women, a gracious inhabitant of the city who likes the sun and wind more than anything but who is also quintessentially metropolitan.

Fashion & Self Expression

Clothes and perfume were a means to express one's self, ideas and attitudes

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1980 - 1990

When the Berlin Wall collapsed, the 1980s were a decade of strong sensations and the dismantling of established cold war conventions. Bodybuilding and extreme sports explode into popularity and the corporate ‘rat-race’ is born.

In order to ensure a professional exterior, women would wear overly strong fragrances with ‘power suits’ while men’s fragrances simply enhanced the natural masculine essence. In the USA there were attempts to put a spin on these fragrances by adding new fruity notes that had moderate success.

The standout fragrance of the Eighties was Poison by Christian Dior. You could not only see the big shoulder pads but Poison had unrivalled power to radiate its perfume and announce your entrance with a scent!

· Poison by Christian Dior: floral (tuberose), fruity (plum, berry), balsamic (Opoponax, honey) and woody.

The Professional Exterior & The Masculine Essence

Women would wear overly strong fragrances with "power suits''

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The Turn Of The Century (1990 - 2000)

onAids, War and the ‘millennium bug’  brought concern and fear to the centre of people’s minds who were pining for a purer world. The internet, a terrifying but exciting new phenomenon, creates an international community soon to affect all parts of our lives.

In such a harsh world, the history of perfume provides a more gentle and tender mood. Aromas and essences from caramel, vanilla and milk were used to recreate fondly remembered childhoods.

Distancing themselves from the 1980s, people were now wearing fragrances in order to seduce one another and men were becoming open to the idea of sharing their emotions. Bouquets and “Eaux” of freshwater satisfied our thirst for purity.

The fragrances and bouquets of the 1990s went back to basics by focusing on the four main elements: earth, wind, fire and water. This would create natural aromas that would imitate the sea, flowers and other plants.

The iconic fragrances from the 1990s include:

  • Angel (1992): This star-shaped bottle is the dream of designer Thierry Mugler, with its bright red-white colour scheme and the characteristic red and white lettering. It was used to capture the spirit of the 1990s and was born of Mueller's love of the city of Paris and its rich culture and history.
  • CK One (1994):  The first unisex fragrance with widespread appeal. Composed by perfumers Alberto Morillas and Harry Fremont, CK One is infused with a combination of dried wood, earthy notes and a hint of citrus that gives the iconic 1990s scent a barely-there flair.
  • Gucci Rush (1999): Found in a red bottle that looks like an evening bag and it is very distinctive, with its smoky notes that add depth to the opening rubber and a juicy peach remedy that dries out on a warm floor. Often imitated, it is very unique and unmistakable as it blends well with the other fragrances and adds depth through the openings of the rubber.

A Time For Seductive Fragrances

The 'Eaux' satisfies a thirst for purity

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Perfume In The 21st Century

In the search for purity and simplicity of the 1990s, the 21st century is about the entrepreneur's ability to determine their own destiny.

There are in fact up to ten different perfumes that are changing people’s thoughts about which smells are acceptable as well as fragrance more generally. To say these fragrances are becoming slightly unorthodox would be an incredible understatement.

Two standout examples would be:

- Mark Buxton’s Comme des Garcons replicates that of ‘a swimming pool of ink’.
- Antoine Lie’s Sécrétions Magnifigues produces accords that resemble the odour of sweat and semen.

Needless to say, the question in regards to which perfumes are acceptable is certainly being asked.

The Power of Perfume In The 21st Century

The passion to write one's own story and for their fragrance to reflect it

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2000 - 2010

Post 9/11 brought an urgency for instant gratification but after that torrid phase, people transitioned to focusing more on authenticity and emotional connection and many perfume houses were drawn to explore ‘vintage’ aromas and bouquets.

This curiosity led to a boom in nouveau chypres that were given a modern twist with floral or fruity touches such as Coco Mademoiselle.

A Thriving Focus On Emotional Connectivity & Authenticity

A further exploration of 'vintage' aromas and bouquets

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2010 - 2020

Borders also disappeared with the invention of social media platforms such as Facebook when the whole world is opened up and people have so many more options to explore.

This grew into a massive fad of the fragrance industry showing near 100% devotion to limited-editions to try and compete with the rest of the world.

We found a few examples that we think illustrates this point perfectly:

  • Coach Dreams Eau de Parfum - The Joshua tree provides the unexpected base for this new 2020 fragrance. This perfume has a beautiful aroma, especially in combination with orange and gardenia, with a hint of citrus and a little earthy spice.
  • Miss Dior Rose N’Roses Eau de Toilette - Fresh Rose from Grasse is the main note but It also exuded notes of white musk and spicy bergamot, giving it a touch of warmth and spice.
  • YSL Black Opium Eau de Parfum Neon - This potent 2020 perfume is formed by a bold mix of notes from dragon fruit, orange and coffee. If you are looking to make an entrance, your presence certainly won’t go unnoticed.

Perfume As A Means To Take Control

The 21st century opened up a whole new world with so much to explore

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The Present Day & Looking Forward

Today, fragrances and perfumes are popular fashion accessories that are used by millions of people all over the world. Several layers form rich and complex perfumes that are often a blend of both natural and synthetic ingredients.

We have also never been so spoilt for choice with an abundance of timeless classics and celebrity perfumes alike. From your inexpensive to boundless exclusivity in regards to price points, the potency of the perfume is very much up to the consumer.

Throughout the history of perfume, fragrances have never been so abundant and accessible to the masses. They are no longer reserved for the upper classes and aristocracy.

The history of perfume is being written every day and emerging trends such as the campaigns for sustainable development and ecology certainly leaves the door open for an exciting new chapter.

Wearing perfume and cologne is now a fun way to express your personal tastes and style! If you’re wondering what fragrances are available to purchase you can browse.

The Rise of Niche Perfume

Looking forward to the fragrances of the future

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As a warm welcome to the family & friends of Pairfum London, we will send you a free gift, the e-book “Perfume” by Patrick Sueskind.

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Risk Free Trial

We understand that shopping online for a new perfume is different, which is why we offer our 100% Happiness Guarantee:

  • Free Tester: We will include a mini sampler with your Eau de Parfum so you can try the perfume before you open the pack.
  • Free Returns: Should you not love your perfume, then we will collect it free of charge from your home (unopened product in perfect condition). No quibbles from us.
  • Free Shipping: over £50 (UK), varies by country.
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