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Ancient Perfumery in Pompei


Indigo Perfumery welcomes the Mini Museum of Perfume History’s traveling exhibit, Unguent, Unguentarium and U, on Thursday, August 13th.


While preparing for this fun and educational exhibit, we decided to explore the history of perfume. This journey led us to Pompei and the story its frescoes revealed. The Pompei friezes are a bit younger than the perfume bottles in our exhibit, but give us insight into the importance of perfume in ancient times.

Who would have guessed that after the production of woolen clothing, perfume production was the second most important industry in Pompei?

Early 20th century postcard by G. Sommer, no.124, showing painting of cupids from the east wall. Photo courtesy of Rick Bauer

Early 20th century postcard by G. Sommer, no.124, showing painting of cupids from the east wall.
Photo courtesy of Rick Bauer

Perfumes have been used since the dawn of civilization. The first recorded perfumer was Tapputi, often referred to as the world’s first chemist living four thousand years ago in Mesopotamia. She reportedly used a still to distill natural materials such as balsam and myrrh.

The Egyptians famously used perfumes to anoint and cleanse, even including them in burials tombs for the after-life. In India, the creation of attars has been known for thousands of years. Cypress was the home of the oldest known perfumery, also 4,000 years ago.

Natural materials were exclusively utilized, placed in an oil (usually olive oil) base. Myrrh, cinnamon, frankincense, balsam, galbanum, labdanum, saffron and cassia were some of the ingredients used.

In Pompei, the perfume industry’s key component was the strongly scented flower of the region, the rose. Its precious oil was obtained by distilling the petals in horseshoe-shaped furnaces. (Roses and other local flowers in the Campania region were also used for creating garlands.) Other materials were often costly, having to be brought in from far places.

Red roses P2


Perfumes were usually reserved for the wealthy due to their high costs of production. Through excavations and testing, it has been discovered that their personal gardens were large, well organized and well tended. The gardens contained the botanicals used in making perfumes, unguents, and flower garlands.

The famous House of Vetti’s triclinium (dining room) contains detailed friezes of cherubs compromising nine masterpieces, depicting among other things, picking flowers and making garlands, baking bread and harvesting grapes.

Pictured below are the three scenes from the perfume related frieze in which the cherubs are manufacturing and purchasing perfumes.


Crushing flowers and working with the press to extract their oils

Crushing flowers and working with the press to extract their oils




Mixing the oil in vats

Mixing the oil in vats



Selling perfumes to a young woman

Selling perfumes to a young woman

The bottles used to hold the perfumes (unguents) and ointments are called unguentariums. They were created out of blown glass and are often found encrusted with sediment.

The exhibit at Indigo will feature three Roman perfume bottles from the first century A.D.,

typically used to contain ointments (unguents), cosmetics, perfume, balsam, and fragrant oils.

Behind the Scenes

Fragonard: A Bit of Beauty in Grasse

Not able to make it to Grasse this spring?

We couldn’t either, so we decided to make a digital visit instead. Why wait?

Fragonard, founded by Eugene Fuchs in 1926, was named after the famous painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard. It was housed in a perfume-making building dating back to 1782. Today, the building is considered to be the historic perfume factory, along with the Fragonard Perfume museum which is housed on its first floor.

Fragonard’s perfumes, cosmetics and home products are now created in their factory built in 1986 just outside of Grasse, where they combine their traditional “craft methods with the most modern production techniques.” Named the Fabrique des Fleurs, it is surrounded by gardens of fabulous flowers that are used in the creation of perfume.

Many of the photos below were captured by Martin Morrell for the Vogue Living‘s “Making Scents” story Conversation Piece, a story on Fragonard’s perfume museum curated by Carolyn Quartermaine.

The Museum of Perfumes
au 1er Etage de l’Usine Historique
20 bd Fragonard
06130 Grasse
Tél: +33 (0) 4 93 36 44 65
Fax: +33 (0) 4 93 36 57 32



Fragonard 1

A fresco forms the backdrop in a former photographer’s studio in the Perfume Museum.


A few pieces of family history, antique fragrance labels and perfume bottles from the Fragonard family:


Fragonard 5







Fragonard 6



Fragonard Museum

Antique perfume still



New Fragonard

Modern Fragonard perfume making