Our story begins in the Middle East as a quest to find the secret of life, therefore immortality. Scholars reasoned that all living material begins with this spark of life. Isn't it amazing that thousands of years ago they weren't that far from the truth? If living material were distilled down to the final essence, all that would be left is that spark, which could then be utilized to bestow immortality--hence, the term, essential oil. That was the idea, and when men discovered simple distillation by boiling plant material in a closed pot, the search began. Everything was subject to distillation. The results yielded oils with not only healing properties, but pleasing fragrance.
Egyptian records from 3,500 BC describe massage with aromatic oils to relieve many ills. An extraordinary Egyptian named Imhotep, probably the first recorded genius in history, and a physician, was credited with this practice. He was also a scribe, an architect, mathematician, astronomer, and the engineer who designed the first pyramid in Saqqara, Egypt. Thus the practice of Aromatherapy began and with it the desire to include fragrance as part of everyday life. The Egyptians and Romans were crazy about roses. Cleopatra loved incense and cornered the world market in myrrh at one time. The problem was that essential oils would not mix with anything but another oil and the technique for distilling alcohol from wine had not been discovered yet.
Our story moves to a Benedictine abbey in Italy where an Arabian monk by the name of Avicenna was experimenting with distillation. He discovered alcohol could be separated from wine by cooling the distilling apparatus rapidly. The first recorded cologne in history was made there in the 1500s using lavender oil and alcohol so, although the French have received much credit for the development of perfume, it was actually the Arabians who deserve the credit.
The next chapter in our story will deal with the beginnings of the perfume industry.