what is perfume

Most of us have opinions about perfume and fragrance – we either love it or hate it or somewhere in between – but you might not know what these words actually mean, let alone ever asked yourself what perfume means to you.

So, what is perfume?

The word comes from the Latin “per fumare” meaning “through smoke”. The words are in line with the original use of fragrant woods and spices as incense in religious

ancient perfume bottles

Egyptian miniature glassware vessels dated 1550-1307BC. Author PericlesofAthens. Taken from commons.wikimedia.org

ceremonies, so it’s related to prayer or communication. It was considered a way of sending a message to God. We know that perfumes have existed  in some of the earliest civilizations through ancient texts and from archeological digs.

Modern perfume, on the other hand, began in the late 19th century with the commercial synthesis of aroma compounds such as coumarin and vanillin, which allowed for the composition of perfumes with smells previously unattainable from natural aromatics.

Modern perfumes can be made from 4 types of materials:

  • Essential Oils – Natural plant materials that are obtained by water and/or steam distillation of flowers, leaves, woods, grasses e.g. Lavender Oil) or expressed from Citrus fruits (e.g. Lemon or Bergamot Oil)
  • Extracts – extracted with solvents (e.g. Ethanol, Hexane, CO2) from flowers and plant materials to produce waxy concretes and then refined to make alcohol soluble absolutes or retinoids from tree resins and gums.
  • Aroma Chemicals –  There are two types: 1)Natural ones (isolates) – separated from essential oils by methods such as fractional distillation and cooling. 2)Synthetic ones – made from sources such as benzene, xylene or hexanefkrom crude oil or pinene from the paper industry and are modified through a series of complex reactions.
  • Animal Products – These come from animal secretions or glands (e.g. Civet, Ambergris, Musk). They are mainly used for tinctures and are steeped and matured in alcohol.

These materials are then blended by a perfumer to compose a specific smell or communicate a unique feeling or image. It becomes much more than the materials used; it needs to communicate the message the perfumer is trying to convey through synergy in the mixture of the materials.

Just like a painting is much more then just a blend of colors and music is much more than a collection of sounds, perfume is much more than a blend of materials used.

When done properly, perfume is a living work of art.

Mona Lisa - Pixabay

Mona Lisa – image taken from Pixabay

Fragrance, by contrast, comes from the Latin “fragrans” and means fragrant or simply “nice smell”. The word “scent” is another word for a distinctive smell, especially one that is pleasant.

Some of the words commonly used to describe perfume are: mood, communication, sculpture, evolves with time, ephemeral, self-expression, collectible, memories, journey or gift.

What words would you use to describe what perfume means to you? Please feel free to leave a comment below!

Until the next time,












  1. Cristina says:

    Hello Erica, 

    What a clear way to explain what a perfume is and what it is made of. When reading your article I learned something today. Answering the question you ask us: What does a perfume mean to me? I like a lot, I have several and depending on the mood I have, I wear one or the other. One day I can feel sexy, the next day I want to project executive security or femininity. So I have a stock of about 4 or 5 perfumes.