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Scent through the centuries in Lausanne

Perfume originated in Ancient Egypt.

(Claude Verdan foundation)

Fragrance is not a word normally associated with museums, but there's no mustiness about an exhibition in Lausanne which traces the history of perfume.

As soon as they enter, visitors are met with the olfactory delights of scents through the centuries. Subtle rather than overpowering, the general aroma is a combination of all the perfumes waiting to be individually sniffed at in the exhibition's interactive section.

The origins of perfume go back to Ancient Egypt, when aromatic powders were mixed with burning wood as part of a ritual to communicate with the gods. The word "perfume" is derived from the Latin word for a smell generated by smoke.

Aid to seduction

Later, the Egyptians started using perfume as an aid to seduction, but over the centuries it was to have other functions too - even medicinal ones.

"In the 14th century, Elizabeth, Queen of Hungary sprinkled herself regularly with an alcohol-based concoction," says Carolina Liebling, assistant curator of the Claude Verdan Foundation, also known as the Museum of the Hand.

"It's believed this was so good for her health that she was 70 when she died, and that was a ripe old age in those days."

"Queen of Hungary Water" is one of over a thousand fragrances - some 300 of them no longer available commercially - awaiting visitors' noses in Lausanne.

As the exhibition shows, perfume was also enjoyed by the Romans, who were the first to keep it in the glass bottles which are nowadays as distinctive as the scents they contain.

Protection from infection

Western Europe was relatively slow to get a whiff of the potential of perfume.

During the plagues of the Middle Ages, it was used as protection from infection and later - as protection of a different kind - applied to clothing by fastidious aristocrats offended by the indifferent standards of personal hygiene all around them.

The exhibition details how the first great perfume "maisons" were founded at the end of the 18th century, when Jean Marie Farina also developed the formula for eau de Cologne.

About 100 years later, chemical processes began to be applied to the making of perfumes, and a lucrative industry was born.

"These days it would be too expensive to make perfume with the traditional techniques," Liebling told swissinfo.

"Flowers in large quantities are too costly, and the old manufacturing process would take too long. Although there will always be natural smells, strangely enough there are some smells you can't extract from a flower. So perfumes are chemically created to imitate nature."

The exhibition runs until September 29.

by Richard Dawson

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