Perfume through the ages

The first European, alcohol-based perfume became prevalent at the beginning of the 14th century. It is unclear where exactly it came from, who it was made by, and who it was made for, but it became known (and still is known) as Eau De Hongrie, or simply ‘Hungary Water’. Today, its notes comprise of bergamot, jasmine, amber, and cistus; but, in the 14th century, Eau De Hongrie could have consisted of a vast range of herbal, citrus, and floral ingredients.

Perfume quickly became a luxury used exclusively by aristocrats and royalty to mask the offensive odours resulting from lack of hygiene. By the time perfume became a popular product in England (during the reign of Henry VIII, 1509-1547), production was already booming in France and Italy. The French region of Grasse in Provence was undoubtedly the centre of the world of European perfume, partly because of its ideal conditions for the production of jasmine, a flower that was used as a major ingredient in many perfumes. Individual perfumers worked under the patronage of European monarchs to create unique fragrances; their formulae were kept absolutely secret, and perfume became a medium through which aristocracy and royalty could compete on an international scale.

Interestingly, though, Eau de Hongrie was almost certainly not produced as a fashion statement. Instead, legend has it that this fragrance was formulated at the command of an unnamed Queen of Hungary, probably as a herbal remedy for the Black Death, which swept across Europe between 1346 and 1350. This was because the product was not purely aesthetic, but could also be used to wash with, and even drink. The alcoholic content probably did have some sort of cleansing effect against disease; if not, then the pleasant fragrance would help mask the symptoms of the plague, some of which were truly foul.

Eau De Hongrie was probably first recognised for its aesthetic value when Charles V of France, renowned for his love of fragrance, acquired it in 1370. Since that time, it trickled down the feudal system until it became a popular household product for its flexibility as both medicine and perfume. This was until it was outdone by the appearance of Eau de Cologne in the 18th century, which was produced solely as a perfume – this is where we get our generic word ‘cologne’ from.

Eau De Hongrie is still for sale today. It is produced and sold by one of the classic perfume houses of the French Riviera, Fragonard. This fragrance is for customers who want to experience the history behind perfume, stripped of its contemporary glamour and sparkle. It comes in a tall, metallic, and unassuming bottle, and symbolizes the humble beginnings of European fragrance. Its classicising composition and legendary history make it a crucial addition to the collection of the connoisseur, and certainly a talking point for any casual owner.