Royal, Historical Perfumes

(French article here)

In a previous article about Lost Perfumes, I’ve mentioned the Osmothèque, a big scent archive in Versailles, near Paris. The Osmothèque keeps a lot of perfumes, some of them very precious or lost.

I could attend a conference there this week-end. Patricia de Nicolaï talked about the history of perfumes for 2h30 and it was amazing! We had the opportunity to smell some recreated historical perfumes, and the experience was as moving as visiting a museum. Indeed, as little as perfumes are studied or known, they are an important aspect of our human heritage.

Here are some of the historical, moving, “royal” – Versailles oblige! – perfumes I could discover thanks to the Osmothèque:

The Royal Perfume of Parthian Kings, Antiquity

Glazed pottery unguentarium.
Parthian Unguentarium , between 1st- 3rd century, British Museum

The first perfume Patricia de Nicolaï had us smell was the Royal Perfume of Parthian Kings, which was remade thanks to a description by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, 77:

The perfume was so strong we couldn’t get the scented paper closer than 10 cm to our noses… The paper I’ve kept is still smelling now… This spicy scent, with cinnamon, myrrh, cardamom, is the olfactory equivalent of looking at the sun…

I think this perfume can only be smelt at the Osmothèque.

The Queen of Hungary’s Water, ~1370

While during the Antiquity – especially in Ancient Egypt – perfume acquires health and beauty uses on top of the old religious one, at the end of the period and at the beginning of the Middle Ages the use of scents is strictly restricted to churches: incense, myrrh. At the same time, the Arab world discovers alcohol and uses it to preserve scents. Thanks to the rising commercial exchanges with Asia, Europe rediscovers perfumes.

In the 14th century, a rosemary perfume is created for Elizabeth of Poland, Queen of Hungary. She was said to have kept her beauty until very late thanks to this perfume, and that the very young Prince of Poland asked her to be his wife when she was 72. This is untrue, but the perfume stayed and is now sold by Fragonard.

File:Simone Martini 046.jpg
Elizabeth of Poland, Simone Martini, 1322-1326

Napoléon’s Eau de Cologne at Saint Helena, 1820

Several centuries later, a very famous perfume is born: the Eau de Cologne by Jean-Marie Farina, 1708. This perfumes becomes Napoleon Bonaparte’s favourite perfume.


When Emperor Napoleon 1st is exiled to Saint-Helena in 1815, he takes his precious cologne with him, which he poured in his bath, rubbed himself with, or even ate on dunked sugars… When the bottle is empty, he cannot get a new one easily, so he asks his Mamluk Ali – whose real name is Louis-Étienne Saint-Denis, from Versailles – to create a new cologne out of what he can find on the island. The formula of this perfume will be found later in some of Ali’s papers, and then sent to the Osmothèque.

A version of this cologne – that I liked better than the original cologne – can now be purchased thanks to this online shop:

If you happen to be in Ile-de-France, and if you like perfumes or are moved by a time travel, I strongly recommend the Osmothèque.


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