May 04, 2008
Perfume Politics: The Oppressive Perfumer's Guild
Guilds are perhaps the precursors of modern trade unions, and also, paradoxically, of some aspects of the modern corporation. Guilds are actually small business associations and have little in common with trade unions. They are more like cartels in that they assume exclusive privilege to produce certain goods or services or dictate standards of a profession. Guilds can establish restrictive guidelines or a rigid system and can exclude those who do not abide. Guilds emerged with a similar spirit and character to the original patent systems and are not generally conducive to a democratic free flow of development and interaction.
In the modern democracy, we have created nonprofit organizations or NGO's intended to benefit a group by collective efforts and by providing public education or services that benefit society. Legal nonprofit corporations receive tax relief, but are required to provide public reporting and transparency. Such nonprofit endeavors are usually governed democratically and operated by officials periodically elected from within the membership. This creates a structure that will evolve the endeavor into the future separate from and not dependent on or owned by any one member.
The French Perfumer's Guild of antiquity was perhaps the worst example of the power a Guild over its members. Established by an edict of King Philippe-Auguste in 1190 (reconfirmed by patent letters by King Jean in 1357, again by King Henri III in 1582, and again by Louis XIV in 1658, the "confrerie des Maitres Gantiers et Parfumeurs") that primarily gave glovemakers of the extended medieval period the exclusive right (i.e., monopoly) to manufacture and sell cosmetics of all types. Why glovemakers, you ask? Gloves were made from leather tanned using urine and other toxic and putrid substances and needed to be scented before they could be respectably worn. The glovemakers were wealthy manufacturing businesses and they were quite adept at organized efforts to lobby each respective monarchy, reminding of the importance of their role in medieval society and thereby acquiring the sanction necessary to maintain their monopoly. And, one can also suspect that favors were extended. Today, we might call them bribes. As you can see, this monopoly continued for a long time and was grounded in the necessity for perfuming what would otherwise be unusable products - leather gloves. The corporation or guild, headed up primarily by master glovemakers, established the sole credentials of those who could sell gloves as well as perfumed goods and dictated the kinds of products they could manufacture . . . a long list including sachets with perfumed powders, compositions used in burners for environmental scent, pomades for the hair, soap, cosmetic creams, scented gloves and even tobacco. A quaint novelty to us today, but in common use then, was the "oyselets de Chypre." These were cloth birds in bright colors, decorated with feathers and stuffed with aromatic powders, then placed in ornate cages and hung from ceilings or walls to add fragrance to a room.
By 1750, there were 250 master perfumers, members of the corporation who had served 4 years as an apprentice and an additional 3 years as "compagnons" before reaching the status of master. For all intents and purposes, they were slaves, not free (until the Revolution that is) to work outside the confines of the guild or to develop their own trade and commerce. Only rarely were there exceptions, a notable one being René Le Florentin, Catherine de Medicis's personal and favorite perfumer. Le Florentin had a reputation for talent in creating scents and fabricating poisons! And, obviously Catherine was well positioned to demand for him premature status.
Everything changes. Along came the French Revolution, rendering perfume and other objects considered frivolous luxury symbols of excesses of the aristocracy out of favor. With the exception of popular scents like, "parfum á la Guillotine". Under the Terror, choice of scent indicated political affiliation, a kind of odorous password. Politically correct scents could literally save one from execution. Napoleon's return from conquering (so he claimed) Egypt, along with his renowned heroic status gave him the power to re-establish the importance of French manufacturing to the glory of the nation. His fondness for cologne bode well for the lagging perfume industry, establishing imperial commissions as well as scientific and technological research in organic chemistry . . . a science that would revolutionize the perfume industry in the latter half of the 1700's. Thus, the adjective "French" is aligned with the noun "civilization" and under a new empire, cosmetic luxury products had a more general and populist allure.
One would hope that we are beyond the oppressive restrictions imposed on the medieval creative perfume artists of the day and that individuality and inventiveness are the modern dictates for his or her endeavors and acceptance. And, that perfume guilds are fashioned after the democratic principles of modern non-profits and NGO's.
Stamelman, Richard, "Perfume: A Cultural History of Fragrance from 1750 to the Present", 2006, Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.
Classen, Constance, Howes, David, Synnott, Anthony, "Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell", 1994, Routledge Press
Newman, Cathy, "Perfume: The Art and Science of Scent", 1998 National Geographic Press