In ancient Egyptian times, the first perfume known to mankind was called "kyphi," incense made from myrrh, wine and honey. With a recipe that dates back to 1500 B.C., it was used for sacred rituals and healings, thrown over hot coals so the scent would rise with smoke.
Kyphi has now been carefully brought back to life by a group of contemporary perfumers at the new Grand Musée du Parfum in Paris, so anyone can be taken back in time with one ancient whiff.
Showcasing over 60 different scents, the museum traces the evolution of perfume to its present day with odors in smelling bowls and artificial flowers which spray mystery scents.
"The museum is a tribute to fragrance, our sense of smell and how perfume is a symbol of French artistry," said the museum's CEO, Sandra Armstrong, whose favorite scent in the museum is kyphi, which she notes as "both spicy and sweet at the same time."
Set inside an 18th century mansion, formerly Christian Lacroix's maison de couture, the museum opens with "Perfume Stories and Histories." It shows couples who changed the game in perfume history, like the love story between Cleopatra and Marc-Antony alongside business partnerships, like Catherine de' Medici and her personal perfumer who introduced perfuming to France.
"Perfume wasn't always used for the art of seduction, nor was it always in a glass bottle."
Perfume wasn't always used for the art of seduction, nor was it always in a glass bottle. With a collection of pomander and potpourris, the museum shows how scents evolved in ancient Rome, where people used perfume in bath rituals, to the Middle Ages, where many carried scented sponges in small boxes.
It was Italian perfumer Jean-Marie Farina who drenched the French court in eau du cologne, which he invented in 1695, and here the museum has recreated his famed scent: the Tonkin musk.
The museum has an Alice in Wonderland-style "Garden of Scents" with artificial flowers, each of which spray obscure scents. "The fire of a chimney, fresh raspberries, basil herb or the sea landscape, it's about the overlooked scents of everyday life," said Armstrong.
There's also a section which pulls back the mysterious veil of the perfumer's process. "The Art of the Perfumer" traces the artist's craftsmanship from raw materials to final product, including a historic perfume lab recreated from 1775, which is modeled after Marie-Antoinette's perfumer Houbigant, who made the queen's favorite perfume, a mix of orange blossom, iris and cedar.
It isn't all dusty artifacts, either. The installation entitled "Scent Constellation" takes a traditional "perfumer's organ" (their cabinet of scents) and makes it into an electronic music symphony.
"Perfumers are both artists and scientists," said Armstrong. "We've connected fragrances to their ability to unravel the mystery of their composition."
Some might also find their favorite modern perfumes lined up in the museum's hall of fame, where over 50 perfumes are celebrated. Fragrances like Calvin Klein's CK One is featured for bringing unisex perfume to the mainstream in the 1990s. "It was a milestone in fragrance because it paid tribute to social culture," said Armstrong. "Perfume has no gender."
This privately-funded museum, which cost $7 million to create, seems to have been built purely on the passion of the olfactory sense. "It's about the sensation and enjoyment from our noses," said Armstrong. "The sense of smell is the core of the museum experience."