Now the domain of fashion houses and celebrities, perfume as we know it was born in the monastery. By Rebekah Kendal
I step into the Santa Maria Novella perfumery in Cape Town’s trendy De Waterkant and am immediately struck by an intoxicating blend of flowers and spices that is somehow both unusual and familiar. I mentally line up my list of questions: choosing a scent, trends, perfume faux pas… But owner Michelle Knapp, who is effortlessly glamorous in a loose-fitting kaftan, has something else in mind. ‘I am going to give you a little history lesson,’ she says.
Knapp takes me on a journey back to the year 1221, when Dominican monks settled in Florence to start a monastery dedicated purely to helping those in need and constructed the church now known as the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella. The monks, who grew herbs in the monastery garden, soon became well known for the balms, cures and elixirs they created from the plants. Without knowing it, they started what has turned out to be the world’s oldest still-existing pharmacy and perfumery.
Of course, perfumeries have changed somewhat over the centuries. Ever since the introduction of synthetic chemicals, perfumes have become far more accessible and affordable. However, these perfumes sit differently on your skin, compared to oil-based fragrances.
‘An oil-based fragrance develops and softens on your skin, like your own signature,’ says Knapp. ‘It is not the same on everybody’s skin. It’ll smell different on me than on you. I’d suggest spraying it on your skin, and then walking around for a bit and seeing how it develops. You’ll know exactly which one you fall in love with.’
But, back to that history lesson: while the monks focused on healing, many of their cures had beautiful fragrances (and, by modern standards, rather questionable medicinal value). For example, their Acqua di Rose (rose water) – which is still made today and smells heavenly – was used as a disinfectant in homes during the 14th century when the plague swept across Europe. These days, you’re a little more likely to splash it on as a toner than to guard against Ebola!
Fast-forward a couple of centuries and these fragrant waters, which were initially dispensed to the poor, found a somewhat wealthier fan base. Catherine de’ Medici – a member of one of the most powerful families in Renaissance Florence – heard about the monks’ work and commissioned them to create a special perfume to mark her marriage to the king of France (at the tender age of 14). This perfume, which was created in 1533 and called Acqua della Regina (Queen’s Water), was made from Sicilian citrus, bergamot, neroli and rosemary. Santa Maria Novella still creates this perfume – now called Acqua di Santa Maria Novella – according to the monks’ original recipe. With Catherine de’ Medici as its patron, the perfumery’s reputation grew and, in 1612, it opened its doors to the public.
When asked how to choose a fragrance, Knapp points out that, while some scents may be better suited to certain times of day or year, it is also okay to wear some-thing simply because it matches your mood or personality.
‘We have a scent called Peau d’Espagne (Spanish Leather) that is very woody and heavy and made for men, but there are four women in Cape Town who wear it, and it is absolutely exquisite. That being said, there are certain fragrances that lend themselves better to certain seasons. The fresher fragrances – and maybe those that are more delicate, more floral and perhaps sweeter – work better in summer. And the heavier, muskier fragrances work well in the evenings and in winter.’
It’s easy to see why Knapp kicked off our interview with that little history lesson. I want to spend hours sniffing every single perfume, picking out familiar scents from the range of single-floral-note fragrances. I want to buy something – even one of the quaint silk bags of potpourri – so I feel I’m somehow a part of this rich heritage.
Iconic perfumes of the 20th Century
Chanel No. 5 Arguably one of the most famous fragrances in the world, Chanel No. 5 has been worn by the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Nicole Kidman. At a time when most fragrances featured the scent of a single flower, Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel decided that she wanted to create a perfume that embodied the liberated feminine spirit of the 1920s. She enlisted the help of perfumer Ernest Beaux, who presented her with a selection of vials. She choose vial number five and reportedly told Beaux: ‘I present my dress collections on the fifth of May, the fifth month of the year, and so we will let this sample number five keep the number it already has; it will bring good luck’. The perfume was launched in 1921, and in 1924 the bottle took on its current shape.
Jean Patou Joy In reaction to the 1929 Wall Street Crash, French couturier Jean Patou asked perfumer Henri Alméras to compound a luxurious perfume that defied the economic depression. The result was a floral extravaganza that reputedly required 10 600 jasmine flowers and 336 roses for 30 ml of perfume. Later a favourite of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, the perfume was created to smell like the idea of a flower rather than a specific flower. Patou shipped off 200 bottles of this opulent item to his wealthy clients in the US. Despite the Depression, Joy was a huge success and went on to become one of the bestselling perfumes of all time. While it was once one of the most luxurious perfumes on the market, it is no longer close to being the most expensive. In 2002, the House of Jean Patou created a contemporary take on Joy – called Enjoy – for younger women.
Guerlain Shalimar Created by Jacques Guerlain in 1925, Shalimar was inspired by the love story between Shah Jahan and his empress, Mumtaz Mahal, for whom he built the Gardens of Shalimar. The fan-shaped bottle, which was designed by Raymond Guerlain, mimics the fountains in the garden. One of the first oriental-style fragrances, Shalimar is the kind of scent you are likely to catch a whiff of in the theatre or opera house. In 2004, Guerlain issued Shalimar Light by perfumer Mathilde Laurent, which was replaced by Eau de Shalimar in 2008.
Nina Ricci L’Air du Temps Launched in 1948 at the end of the Second World War, this light feminine fragrance, with a floral-spicy note of carnation at its centre, has been worn by young women for decades. Compounded by Francis Fabron, the perfume was created when Robert Ricci decided he wanted to expand his mother’s fashion house. The dove at the top of the bottle – perhaps a little old-fashioned now – was a perfect symbol for the time.
Yves Saint Laurent Opium While the other perfumes on this list embody femininity and sophistication, the evocative Opium has always been a little scandalous and forbidden. Created for Yves Saint Laurent by perfumers Jean-Louis Sieuzac, Jean Amic and Raymond Chaillan, the perfume – with its top notes of mandarin orange, coriander and pepper – caused quite a stir when it was launched in 1977 at an ostentatious party on a tall ship called Peking. However, demands that Saint Laurent apologise and change the name only fuelled the perfume’s popularity and it soon became a bestseller.
Photography: Courtesy images