Researchers recreate 17th century perfume by Constantijn Huygens


A jar with the ingredients of the perfume. Credit: University of Leiden

A team of researchers from the Young Academy and the Huygens ING/NL Lab have brought to life a three-century-old perfume based on a recipe by Constantijn Huygens. Scent makes the past more tangible and can help people experience history differently.

The perfume recipe is one of 150 recipes collected in a recipe book by Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687). Scholars also found references to perfume in correspondence not previously reviewed by Huygens. The letters reveal a very personal facet of the one who is known as the secretary of the Princes of Orange, a poet, a musician and a scholar. The recipe book and correspondence show that Huygens was also an amateur perfumer who bartered recipes with men and women. A group of academics decided to recreate one of his perfumes.


They chose Huygens’ recipe “Rieckend water van mijn moeder” [“Ode de parfum: To my mother”]. “We think this scent was to keep the memory of her mother alive after her death,” says Hanneke Hulst, professor of neuropsychology in health and disease. “The regions of the brain involved in the processing of emotions and our memory coexist in our brain. When a smell is linked to a strong emotion, positive or negative, it creates a deep memory. It’s very special to be able to smell a perfume that was most likely of great emotional value to Huygens.

Floral and spicy

The cologne that reminded Huygens of his mother is floral but also spicy, with ingredients like rose, lavender, thyme, marjoram, cloves and cinnamon. It is a different fragrance from today’s fragrances. It has a little more punch. “It’s a nice scent,” says Nadine Akkerman, an English literature reader who studies correspondence networks and knowledge exchange for the project. Eau de cologne is meant to be sprayed around the house rather than used as a perfume.


According to Akkerman, Huygens used perfumes in different ways. “When he exchanged recipes with men, it was more on the scientific side, on the distillation process, for example. This is the beginning of chemical science. With women he flirted. Akkerman paraphrases what Huygens wrote to singer Utricia Ogle: “We have composed the most beautiful music together. Now we are separated. If you place this sachet between your sheets and I do the same, we will always be together. This gives us a completely different image of this man. We learn more about his personal relationships.

To broaden

The researchers hope the project will allow people to experience history differently. They also want to draw more attention to the link between emotion and memory. Hulst: “I rarely deal with the past. My daily job is to look at how we can improve things for patients in the future. This project and smelling the perfume suddenly made the past more tangible for me. Huygens becomes much more a man of flesh and blood. It is an invitation to broaden my perspective.

Video: The historical adventure of Cassini-Huygens

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Leiden University

Researchers recreate a 17th century perfume by Constantijn Huygens (2022, April 8)
retrieved 8 April 2022

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