Solid Perfume

Pomander from the 1500s.

Gold and silver pomander from the 16th-century.

Easily applied and alcohol-free, solid perfume has been right under our noses for quite some time. An emerging trend among a throng of chi-chi designers, it is in fact one of the oldest forms of perfume known to man. This tidy, balm-like alternative to the drench-prone atomizer, is an art with a degree of practicality matched only by the extravagance of its reliquary. 4,500 years ago, Egyptian women were known to wear large, fragrant cones of sculpted tallow and myrrh on their heads. As the heat of the day melted the animal fat, it would trickle down over the face and body. A few millenniums later, your average Roman might be found lazing in an unguentarium, smeared in hogs’ lard laced with the musky glands of a slaughtered civet. Sadly, this sort of recreation has given way to a more practical and portable means of perfumery.

Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby, 1968.

On the scent in Rosemary’s Baby, 1968.

Buried deep beneath the pendant flacons and perfume glaces of the osphretic collector lies a whole history of scent cases and aromatic jewelry designed specifically for solid perfumes, the crown jewel of which is the pomander. Consisting of an elaborate filigreed gold or silver ball on a chain, pomanders were often filled with solid perfume made from ambergris – which was a coveted perfume staple, despite being derived from whale vomit and/or feces. Some pomanders were sectioned like apple slices, with a different perfume in each section.

Throughout history, precious, solid-state aromatics have been placed in small “unguent boxes” carried by men and women and sniffed to ward off unwholesome smells. These small charms have taken any number of shapes and forms, including the headpiece of a doctor’s walking stick filled with solid perfume and used when visiting rancid plague victims and mortuaries.

Ambergris sourced from whale feces. (Image by Nathan Aleksander Szpakowicz)

Ambergris, found in whale feces. (Image by Nathan Aleksander Szpakowicz)

The process of isolating aromatics quite naturally lends itself to a thicker, more salve-like consistency. Solvent extraction of fresh flowers yields a waxy semi-solid with a soft aroma known as a “concrete”. It is only the application of hexane and ethanol that produces a liquid absolute. The same is true of tree resins like frankincense and myrrh, as well as sappy balsams with their sweet, cinnamon-vanilla aroma.

Solid perfumes and ornamental jewelry are a naturally intuitiveĀ combination. Occasionally, advancements can actually come in the form of a simple revival. ThisĀ is very much the case with the current swell of solids coming from perfumers and fashion houses. They are merely imitating the natural law. Indeed, even Neanderthals from 100,000 years ago were known to adorn themselves with their own type of aromatic jewelry. They were called “flowers”.

Antique pomander

Detail of a gold and silver pomander

FURTHER READING

Chandler Burr. “Everyone’s a Critic”, The New York Times. April 17, 2008.

Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez. Perfumes: The Guide. Viking, 2008.

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