The Amusing History of French Perfume

It all started when an Italian duchess married the king of France.

Parfums Grès Cabochard

Stealing my first drops of perfume in my grandfather’s Mercedes Benz leather back seat feels like yesterday. Like a lick of scotch or the smear of red lipstick, it was bittersweet, memorable, abstract, unmistakably grown up. It was my Franco-loving mom’s French perfume. Cabochard comes from the old French “caboche,” meaning “headstrong.” And the French are fanatical about craftsmanship, aloofness, and sensuality. Mom’s Cabochard embodied all three in spades.


Just what is it about the French and their perfume? What is its je ne sais quoi?

 Interior of the royal bedroom at Palace of Versailles.

Elisabeth de Feydeau, French historian and perfume expert, describes perfume as an echo of the past and the future: “An echo between the lived and the re-lived, perfumes awaken memory. In less than one second, their nuances, their accents, their vibrations lead us, sometimes in the past, sometimes to the future.”

Perfume’s journey in France began through the fragrant smoke from the religious pyres of antiquity (from the Latin “per fumum”). Later during the French renaissance, as the aristocracy demanded the smearing of precious floral essences on their leather gloves to hide the remnants of tanning, the art of perfume was elevated into a prestigious craft


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If Catherine de’ Medici, fanatical about gloves to protect her white hands, hadn’t come to France in 1553 to marry King Henry II, the perfume industry might have remained Italian, for all we know. When she left Italy, she brought with her Renato the Florentine, her trusted perfumer. Her arrival boosted the local industries of essences in Montpellier and Grasse in the south of France.

The true turning point of elevating perfumery from alchemy into full-blown artistry came with scent-obsessed King Louis XIV (1638–1715). The King’s minister of finance, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, set out to grant privileges to the guilds of “perfumers and glove-makers” on a basis of excellence, encouraging the development of this delicate craft and securing France as the centre of the European perfume industry.

Chanel Chance Eau Tendre Eau De toilette Spray

Moving his court from Paris to Versailles, Louis XIV was determined to elevate every activity into the pinnacle of elegance. Inside the palace, “faire la toilette,” or the daily grooming of oneself, involved applying cosmetics to the body and face, dusting scented powders on hair wigs, and sprinkling fragrant waters on fresh linen. This elaborate ritual is the source of the term “eau de toilette” emblazoned on our fragrance bottles.

The palace itself was perfumed to the brim, earning Versailles the name “the Perfumed Court.” In an era without indoor sanitation, the French royalty found aromatic solutions to keep a pleasant living environment. They filled water bowls with blossom petals and scented their furniture, fabric, and feather fans — even the garden fountains — to sweeten the air. Louis had his own shirts scented with Aqua Angeli, made from nutmeg, cloves, benzoin (a sweet-smelling gum), storax and aloeswood (two exotic Eastern materials) boiled in rosewater to which orange flower, jasmine and musk were added.



Guerlain Eau de Cologne Impériale

Even after sanitation became more developed, the royal French patrons continued their use of perfume. Queen Marie Antoinette commissioned lavish scents to the House of Houbigant to reflect her romantic moods. Even Napoléon Bonaparte, a military man, was mad about them. He ingested cologne-soaked sugar cubes to rejuvenate!

Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III and luxury fashion icon, favored Guerlain. The historical perfume house’s citrusy Eau de Cologne Impériale received the royal warrant in 1853 and is still in continuous production.

From the courts of France to international globetrotters today, fragrance continues to express femininity in the most glamorous and elegant way.

“Fragrance defines a woman in the same way as the features of her face or the shape of her body,” says de Feydeau; “Absolute femininity is a grace, a special radiance, a power deeply bonded to the inner life, which escapes the clichés of fashion and olfactory archetypes.”

Mom and her Cabochard would have felt right at home, I bet.