Make scents of history at the First South African Perfume Museum

Tales about bottles, essential oils and the history of perfume are all delivered with a cheeky sense of humour at this museum in Franschhoek

08 August 2021 - 00:00 By ilse zietsman
A display in the museum pays tribute to Bulgarian roses, which are said to produce the world's most expensive rose oil.
A display in the museum pays tribute to Bulgarian roses, which are said to produce the world's most expensive rose oil.
Image: Ilse Zietsman

Elizabeth Taylor famously declared, "I never face the day without perfume."

Coco Chanel opined, "No elegance is possible without perfume. It is the unseen, unforgettable ultimate accessory."

Daniela Kumanov, co-owner with husband Dimo of the First South African Perfume Museum, would undoubtedly agree. She is a fountain of knowledge on fragrances, perfume bottle designs, essential oils and the history of perfume, delivered with a cheeky sense of humour.

The museum - also a first in Africa - was established in 2012 in Cape Town by the Kumanov family. They are originally from Bulgaria, which lays claim to the world's most expensive rose oil, mostly derived from the Rosa Damascena (Damask rose). Over 1,000 petals are needed to produce just 1g of oil.

Back in the 1700s, traders in rose oil often accepted perfume bottles and secret recipes as payment in lieu of money. Coming from a long line of rose-oil-traders, the Kumanovs first visited SA 32 years ago on honeymoon and soon thereafter settled here.

In 2018, the museum moved to Franschhoek as part of the Huguenot Memorial Museum. France is renowned for its perfume industry and, as the French Huguenots settled in Franschhoek, it seemed a logical place for their museum with its priceless collection of perfume bottles, Daniela explains.

You may be surprised to learn, however, that it was the Italians who introduced perfume to France. The word perfume derives from the Latin perfumare, meaning "to smoke through" and its art stretches back to ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and possibly Ancient China. In medieval times, Venice was the centre of European perfumery thanks to its role as a major trading place for spices and incense, and members of the royal family had their own personal perfumers.

The First South African Perfume Museum is part of the Huguenot Memorial Museum in Franschhoek,
The First South African Perfume Museum is part of the Huguenot Memorial Museum in Franschhoek,
Image: Supplied

In 1533 Catherine de Medici of Florence married the man who would become King Henry II of France in 1547) and took her personal perfumer with her when she moved to France. Thus Catherine de Medici and her perfumer, Renato Bianco (later known as Renè le Florentin), introduced the French court to the secrets of perfume making.

By the 1700s, King Louis XV's court was known as la cour parfumée (the perfumed court); he insisted on a different fragrance for his apartment every day. It is said that Napoleon ordered two quarts of violet cologne every week and that he used 60 bottles of jasmine extract every month.


The museum's collection of perfume bottles and accessories is one of the biggest in the world. There are Egyptian and Roman bottles more than 2,000 years old; the biggest KWV perfume-bottle collection in one place (in its early days, the winemaker commissioned perfume to be given away with its wines and spirits), and the Lalique crystal bottles and stoppers are truly magnificent.

The museum also offers workshops, through which you craft your own scent while sipping on champagne. And why not create your own as opposed to sticking stoically to a signature scent?

As Daniela points out, "We live in such exciting times today. In the perfume world the sky is the limit. New molecules are developed all the time. This makes it difficult - if not foolish - to stick to the same thing."

As for applying perfume, she offers the following tips: dab a drop behind your hair and ears and on your wrists - the "warm places" of your body. Never do a "beauty spray" where you spray in the air and walk through- "It doesn't work and it only looks good on TV!"


Some of the rare perfume bottles you can see in the museum include:

• A perfume vessel discovered in modern Bulgaria but made by the Thracians in 1300 BC.

• A Roman Empire vessel circa 100AD. At the time of the Roman Empire, perfume was initially only used during religious ceremonies and at the funerals of prominent people. But its use became "frenzied", says Daniela Kumanov, during the reign of Nero (from 54AD). Perfume was sprayed on floors and walls and the Romans even put it on their horses and dogs. Perfume fountains also became de rigueur. 

• An old Dutch bottle: In the 15th century, the Netherlands had the fastest-developing perfume technology due to its involvement in international trade, including the spice trade. The Dutch used a lot of mixed spices as well as flowers, herbs, musk and amber to make perfumes.

A vintage bottle of Shalimar perfume.
A vintage bottle of Shalimar perfume.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

• A vintage bottle of Shalimar. The flagship of French perfume house Guerlain, Shalimar was created in 1921 as a nod to Indian Emperor Shah Jahan's wife Mumtaz Mahal, for whom he built the Taj Mahal in Agra and the Shalimar Gardens in Lahore. The bottle, by Raymond Guerlain, was inspired by Eastern gardens and Mongolian stupa art and manufactured by Baccarat Crystal. 

• KWV Cologne bottles from the 1930s. The Koöperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika (KWV) was founded in 1918 as a winemaking co-operative by South African farmers. In 1930, it started producing alternatives to wine for export, including grape juice and a KWV eau de cologne, which was crafted by the master distiller as a marketing tool.

The museum is open Monday to Sunday, 9am-5pm. Adults pay R100, children R50.
There are three perfume workshops on offer, priced from R520 to R750. By appointment only. E-mail and see