In the hills surrounding the southern French city of Grasse, also known as the Perfume Capital of the World, the air is imbued with the intoxicating fragrance of fresh flowers. Heady jasmine, heavenly rose, and earthy lavender are all grown here, set to become the base, middle, and top notes of perfumes crafted by the world’s great perfume houses.
People flock to this beautiful region of France from every corner of the globe to immerse themselves in the beguiling history of perfume—the many ways it has been celebrated throughout the centuries, how it’s produced, how to wear it, and how to blend one’s own customized scent. The experience can be not just informative, but deeply personal, too; discovering what essences resonate with us, and how fragrances can alter and enhance our moods, presents an unexpected avenue for supporting our wellbeing, naturally.
Since beginning my own journey into the fascinating realm of scents, I’ve discovered that I am partial to sweet floral notes, which, considering my sweet tooth, is hardly surprising. My nose gravitates to gardenia, jasmine, and pikake—three flowers that, on the surface, take me on a sensorial trip to tropics. On a deeper level, these essences have a direct effect on the central nervous system, promoting a sense of relaxation and stress-relief—an unexpected perk with zero side effects beyond making me smell like a floral bouquet.
Long before the distillation process for transforming flower petals into highly prized essential oils was even invented, ancient Egyptians were making scented concoctions out of herbs, woods, and resins blended with oils for ritualistic purposes and for pleasure. Among the most popular were frankincense and myrrh, which were used to prepare royalty for burial (they were discovered in King Tut’s tomb), to ward off diseases, and for ceremony and celebrations.
The Romans took the art of perfumery to the next level, creating incense to send special scented messages up to the heavens and appease the gods. They would also line the streets with rose petals as a display of respect for visiting dignitaries, and add scented oils to the public baths for both purification and beautification purposes. Julius Caesar was famous for his love of scent, and reportedly never went out in public without anointing himself with Telinum, an aromatic pomade infused with fenugreek and marjoram.
In the 17th century, the royals at the Palace of Versailles in France helped propel perfume into the mainstream by making it fashionable to wear not just as a fragrance for the body, but for hair and clothing, too. Today, the global perfume market is valued at $30 billion, with every major fashion house producing a line of perfumes, but not all scents are created equally. While scent made from actual flowers is still an artform being practiced by perfumers around the world, synthetics are supplanting some scents found in the natural world, and for vegans, that’s a good thing,
While the first record of perfumes suggest that they were produced entirely from plants, over the centuries, animal derivatives found their way into fragrances, often as fixatives that helped fragrances linger longer. Those include musk—a waxy oil derived from a gland on the stomach of the Asian musk deer—and civet, an oil secreted by the animal of the same name. Chanel No. 5 is one fragrance that historically used civet but switched to the synthetics after backlash from animal advocates who, for obvious reasons, denounced the animal products as cruel and exploitative.
Laws protecting animals from becoming ingredients in perfumes are a fuzzy gray area, and with many perfume-makers keeping their proprietary formulas under lock and key, the level of transparency is not ideal for conscious consumers. When in doubt, either buying from a reputed vegan company or, better still, creating your own bespoke fragrance from essential oils, is the best way to ensure that your scent aligns with your values.
Perfume dos and don’ts
If you’ve ever been stuck in an elevator with someone wearing a too-potent perfume, you know that there is a right and wrong way to apply scent. As we age, our scent perception fades, but it’s not just older people overdoing the eau de Cologne; the issue is widespread enough among every imaginable demographic that fragrance-free zones are becoming a workplace trend.
Way back in 2002, the city of Portland, Oregon developed a fragrance-free policy that applies to all city employees—an initiative that has become the model for other cities and towns around the world. It’s not just perfume that’s verboten, but also the fragrances that appear in our laundry detergents, dish soaps, and shampoos and conditioners. Generally speaking, when it comes to fragrance, less is more—especially when you’ll be in an enclosed space like an office or on public transportation.
Perfume and personality
The scent you choose broadcasts something personal about you to the world: are you bold and daring, classic and understated, or playful and carefree? When we inhale the scent of perfume, our limbic system is activated, evoking powerful reactions linked to emotion and memory. This is why a scent can instantly transport us—and those close enough to smell us—back to the people and experiences of our past. And while you may be inadvertently triggering memories for those around you, more important is how the scent makes you feel about yourself.
The best way to know which scents feel most like you is to familiarize yourself with the essential oils that form the foundation of many personal fragrances. Your local natural foods store is a good place to find essential oils, and they often have testers so you can add a drop of scent on your skin to see how it reacts with your own body’s chemistry. Do you have an affinity for earthy wood-derived fragrances like patchouli and sandalwood, or do you prefer the lighter florals like neroli and geranium? You’ll find yourself gravitating toward scents that make you feel good, and you can use that intuitive information to help you find a ready-made scent at your favorite beauty counter or to create your own personal fragrance at home or at a perfume-making workshop.
Don’t know where to start your fragrance journey? Start with some of my favorites!
Kai Body Glow Perfume
I love this entire line for its clean scent and equally clean ingredients. This is my go-to during the week, but switching to a different scent on the weekend helps reset my energy for more relaxed downtime.
Jasmine Body Oil Lotion by Cantika
When the workweek is over, and I’m ready to recalibrate my energy into a more relaxed and playful state, I reach for this light and lovely lotion. It makes me feel like I’m eating pineapple on a beach in Bali!
Pikake Jasmine Coconut Oil from Island Soap Candle Works
Whether I’m layering scents or just going for a light application in the form of a body lotion, this is a favorite. The tropical combination of jasmine and coconut takes me straight to the islands, where I feel most at peace!