During the Renaissance, as European cities became open sewers for human filth, jewelry-makers invented clever ways for wealthy residents to carry small containers holding various fragrances. The purpose of these devices wasn't only to ward off offending odors—at the time, diseases like the plague were thought to spread through infected air, so perfumes were believed to offer protection from contagion. Scent-filled containers like pomanders and vinaigrettes offered relief from putrid smells, and their aromas lasted much longer than perfume applied to the body.
Named after the French phrase “pomme d’ambre” (meaning “apple of amber”), the pomander was a small round charm that could be filled with a variety of popular scents, like musk, ambergris, lavender, and rose. These pendants were modeled after the original pomanders, which were citrus fruits studded with aromatic herbs like cloves. Worn on chains from the neck or wrist, or around the waist dangling from a chatelaine, pomanders were typically made from precious metals, and the most elaborate were decorated with engraving, enameling, and gemstones.
In the late 16th century, containers known as pouncet boxes, smelling boxes, or essence boxes were popularized among the British royal court. These flat, circular devices held sponges or pieces of fabric soaked in vinegar, whose smell escaped through the box’s perforated lid. Eventually, as chemists developed more powerful vinegars and concentrated essential oils, the size of these boxes was reduced and they became widely known as “vinaigrettes” by the 1780s. Like pomanders before them, these containers were often worn on a chain, with some resembling tiny perfume bottles and others designed more like metal matchsafes.