We inhabit a magical world of intoxicating fragrance fuelled with scensational seductions. At any time of the day we are enveloped in a fragrant cloud, stimulating feelings, long lost memories, arousing passion and changing the way we react.
Our modern deodorized life is separated from the ancient world by an olfactory gulf. Our nostrils are no longer assailed by the stench of rotting rubbish on the streets, the sharp odour of a leaking public latrine or nauseating foul odours from the tanneries, and because of this we have become a little blasé about the powerful primeval hold that our olfactory system has on the rest of our body – but rest assured we are being controlled as much now as we were then – it’s just a little more under the radar these days.
Historically fragrance was a powerful seductress used to stimulate intimacy and heal a relationship. Our sense of smell is intimately linked to our innermost desires and emotions, pure love and unbridled lust. Most modern perfumes are delivered in an alcohol based spray and thus designed to create a fragrant trail in our wake. In ancient times the oils would be delivered via a massage oil of some description. This, by its very nature, would mean that much closer contact would be required to take in the seductive, beguiling aroma. The use of rich musky base notes such as sandalwood and ambergris smeared onto the skin and hair would ensure a long-lasting, mesmerizing effect of anything between 5 and 7 days.
Sandalwood’s name is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Chandana’, and is known to be one of the oldest materials used for aromatic and perfumery uses – it has been in use for at least 4000 years.
Unfortunately, overharvesting and deforestation have led to a serious threat of extinction. The tree needs to mature for between 15-25 years in order for the core heartwood to mature and yield its precious oil. The outer section, known as the sapwood, isn’t as fragrant and is usually used for incense. Due to demand, younger trees are now being harvested, and this means that more than 1000 trees are now needed to produce 1 ton of the inner heartwood, as opposed to the 1970s when just 10 mature trees would produce the same amount. Widely considered to be the most aromatic of all natural fragrances, it is likely to be replaced by Isobornyl Cyclohexanol these days, a cheaper, synthetic version of this precious oil.
Sandalwood is known to have aphrodisiac properties, and a small drop is said to be enough to initiate a romantic encounter. Ancient Hindu texts describe it as the perfect scent to massage your lover’s body with, before sex in order to obtain orgasmic pleasure. In India, a tantric sexual ritual called the ‘The Rite of the Five Essentials’ uses scent to arouse women – she is anointed with 5 different essential oils, each on a separate area of the body, to lift her spirits, and to enable her to manifest as a Goddess Jasmine is applied to her hands and Patchouli to her neck and cheeks. Amber or Musk is applied to the breasts, Spikenard to her hair and Sandalwood caresses her thighs.
Ambergris, also known as floating gold, is an ancient perfume ingredient that was often ingested as a pudding by the ladies at the court of Charles I, due to its reputed aphrodisiac qualities. In the 18th century, ambergris was used to cure ‘romantic’ problems, and a poultice of ambergris cream was found in many a doctor’s little black bag. Indeed it was rumoured that Louis XV was seduced by Madame du Barry after she slathered her body in ambergris. Not long after she was installed as his official mistress.
The natural rarity of Ambergris has rendered it almost mythical. There is still some confusion as to whether it is a vomited Sperm whale secretion or faecal matter, as it has never been witnessed being produced. It is found as a grey floating mass in the South Atlantic Ocean, or washed up on the surrounding coastlines and depending on how many years it has been at sea, imparts an aroma that is described as faecal, musky, sweet, earthy, marine, animalic, radiant, woody or tobacco-like.
All fragrant secretions that originate from animals contain natural pheromones which act as an olfactory communication system for rapport with the opposite sex. Natural Ambergris acts as a fixative to perfume and has the power to transform a fragrance into a complex, sparkling 3D version of itself. As a musk, it imparts a subtle velvetiness that cannot quite be recreated by its synthetic counterparts, Ambrox or Ambroxan.
You can still buy Ambergris on the internet as the general harvest involves no harm to its animal source, and currently, a 40g grey mass is available for the princely sum of just under £1000 from a seller in Singapore, if you have a few pounds to spare. Other than that, why not treat yourself to the seductive scent of Distinctive Wash and recreate your own scent-sual adventures.