Pomander from the 1500s.

Gold and silver pomander from the 16th-century.

Easily applied and alcohol-free, solid perfume has been right under our noses for quite some time. An emerging trend among a throng of chi-chi designers, it is in fact one of the oldest forms of perfume known to man. This tidy, balm-like alternative to the drench-prone atomizer, is an art with a degree of practicality matched only by the extravagance of its reliquary.

4,500 years ago, Egyptian women were known to wear large, fragrant cones of sculpted tallow and myrrh on their heads. As the heat of the day melted the animal fat, it would trickle down over the face and body. A few millenniums later, your average Roman might be found lazing in an unguentarium, smeared in hogs’ lard laced with the musky glands of a slaughtered civet. Sadly, this sort of recreation has given way to a more practical and portable means of perfumery.

Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby, 1968.

On the scent in Rosemary’s Baby, 1968.

Buried deep beneath the pendant flacons and perfume glaces of the osphretic collector lies a whole history of scent cases and aromatic jewelry designed specifically for solid perfumes, the crown jewel of which is the pomander. Consisting of an elaborate filigreed gold or silver ball on a chain, pomanders were often filled with solid perfume made from ambergris – which was a coveted perfume staple, despite being derived from whale vomit and/or feces. Some pomanders were sectioned like apple slices, with a different perfume in each section.

Throughout history, precious, solid-state aromatics have been placed in small “unguent boxes” carried by men and women and sniffed to ward off unwholesome smells. These small charms have taken any number of shapes and forms, including the headpiece of a doctor’s walking stick filled with solid perfume and used when visiting rancid plague victims and mortuaries.

Ambergris sourced from whale feces. (Image by Nathan Aleksander Szpakowicz)

Ambergris, found in whale feces. (Image by Nathan Aleksander Szpakowicz)

The process of isolating aromatics quite naturally lends itself to a thicker, more salve-like consistency. Solvent extraction of fresh flowers yields a waxy semi-solid with a soft aroma known as a “concrete”. It is only the application of hexane and ethanol that produces a liquid absolute. The same is true of tree resins like frankincense and myrrh, as well as sappy balsams with their sweet, cinnamon-vanilla aroma.

Solid perfumes and ornamental jewelry are a naturally intuitive combination. Occasionally, advancements can actually come in the form of a simple revival. This is very much the case with the current swell of solids coming from perfumers and fashion houses. They are merely imitating the natural law. Indeed, even Neanderthals from 100,000 years ago were known to adorn themselves with their own type of aromatic jewelry. They were called “flowers”.

Antique pomander

Detail of a gold and silver pomander


Chandler Burr. “Everyone’s a Critic”, The New York Times. April 17, 2008.

Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez. Perfumes: The Guide. Viking, 2008.

and tagged , , , , ,


  1. aba
    Posted March 10, 2010 at 12:27 PM | Permalink

    awesome. i am sculpting an amber and lavender scented tallow cone for my head right now!

  2. Anonymous
    Posted March 10, 2010 at 1:28 PM | Permalink

    this is another fascinating topic – thanks matt poitras and kaufmann mercantile… where else can one explore Olivetti typewriters, mother of pearl gun handles and the history of solid perfumes in one sitting? great stuff folks – keep on keeping on!

  3. Nins
    Posted March 11, 2010 at 8:11 AM | Permalink

    I agree! and thanks!

  4. a.r.h.
    Posted March 12, 2010 at 8:03 AM | Permalink

    this line from moby dick says it all:

    "Who would think, then, that such fine ladies and gentlemen should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale! Yet so it is."

  5. JM
    Posted March 12, 2010 at 12:11 PM | Permalink

    apparently, ambergris does not smell so nice when it is, uh, ejected from the sperm whale. it takes months (years?) of floating around and being exposed to sunlight, oxygen, and marine water to get its wonderouly nautical, animalic smell.

  6. Posted July 24, 2011 at 6:33 PM | Permalink

    had required a necklace that was my grandmothers & that is apparently mad from ambergris (whale vomit) hav found they did make jewelry out of it but no discription of what it might look like,could u please help me

  7. Posted May 6, 2015 at 11:02 PM | Permalink

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared.

Click here to subscribe (via RSS) to the comments of this post.