Those Costly Perfumes
By Awake! correspondent in France
THE first silent gleams of dawn give promise of a glorious summer day. The flower pickers hasten to the jasmine fields. The fragile white flowers are just waiting to be picked, and the air is fragrant with their scent.
The workers expertly begin their hard work, using both hands. In no time their large apron pockets are brimming with flowers. They work untiringly, bent over in the hot summer sun. An experienced worker can pick up to nine pounds [4 kg] (40,000 flowers) in a morning. Their harvest is then put into bins and hastened to the factory before the fragrance fades.
The town of Grasse, near Nice, in southeastern France, is famous for its perfume. For a long time, the jasmine was queen of the flowers there. However, in recent years even greater quantities of jasmine are grown in Egypt.
It takes some 1,400 to 1,700 pounds [650 to 750 kg] (about seven million jasmine flowers) to obtain two pounds [1 kg] of what is called absolute, a very concentrated perfume, costing about $9,000 per pound [$20,000 per kg] in France. But how is the absolute produced?
Processing Flowers and Plants
Volatile solvents, such as benzene, are often used to extract the essential oils and serve as a vehicle in the extraction process. Perforated metal baskets containing the flowers are lowered into the solvent. The solvent is percolated through the flowers and then distilled away. The process is repeated until the flowers have given up all their perfume oils along with insoluble waxes.
In this way a thick, concentrated product, which is called concrete, is obtained. The absolute is produced by separating the perfume oils from the waxes. The solvent method is used mainly for the more fragile varieties of flowers such as jasmine, rose, mimosa, violet, and tuberose.
Volatile solvents are also used to extract essential oils from dried plants such as vanilla and cinnamon, to dissolve resins such as myrrh and galbanum, and to process animal substances to be used as fixatives. Fixatives slow the evaporation of the essential oils and thus make the fragrance last.
Among the animal substances used for fixatives are ambergris from the sperm whale, castoreum from the beaver, musk from the male musk deer, and civet from the civet cat of Ethiopia. However, these rare and costly fixatives are tending to disappear from the market.
Another commonly used process is steam distillation. This method requires use of a still and worm, which is a coiled condensing tube, to extract the essential oils indispensable to the perfumer. Distillation is well suited to plants such as lavender and citronella that are not deteriorated by the steam.
The flowers are placed in the still, submerged in water, and slowly brought to boil. The water vapor carrying the essential oils becomes liquid again when passed through a condenser. This process yields both essential oils and flower waters, such as rose- or orange-flower water. Quality eau de cologne* contains lemon, orange, or bergamot oil. These oils are obtained by pressing the peels of the fruit.
The perfume industry still uses hundreds of such natural products. But today thousands of synthetic substitutes are also widely used.
In the last two centuries, discoveries about the chemical makeup of odorous substances have added much knowledge to the perfumery art. About 10,000 odorous chemicals have been listed to date.
The perfume of a flower is an extraordinary blend of many chemical constituents. For instance, scientists have isolated 200 ingredients that make up natural jasmine perfume. However, at the start of this 20th century, only half a dozen of those ingredients were known.
Scientists then worked to reproduce the newly isolated constituents. Sometimes they invented entirely new odorous substances that did not have equivalents in nature. Certain new substances have given birth to some of the world’s greatest perfumes.
It often requires years of research to create a synthetic chemical, and it is by no means an inexpensive procedure. In some cases these methods have reproduced the actual perfume of the unpicked flower, whereas natural oils are obtained from picked flowers that have deteriorated to a certain degree.
Mr. Jean de Lestrange, director of the Parfumerie Fragonard, in France, explained: “The perfume industry today cannot do without synthetic chemicals. All the natural essential oils in the world could never satisfy the demands of the international market.” But not all flowers have yielded their secrets. For example, no one has yet discovered a synthetic substitute for authentic lily of the valley.
A single perfume is a blend of 30, 50, or even 100 different ingredients, whether absolutes, essential oils, or synthetic substances. But the story does not end there.
Not only must the master perfumer be able to identify all the ingredients but he must also know how to blend them according to their affinities. He needs to take great care with proportions and take into consideration whether certain constituents are lasting or not. He must have extraordinary flair, enabling him to identify some 3,500 different odors that are exploited in blending an infinite variety of perfumes.
Of course, each master perfumer has to be trained. When we consider that the complex olfactory organs of humans are composed of tens of millions of nerve fibers, it is not difficult to see why. Each fiber is capable of transmitting information independently of the others. In his book Le Parfum, Edmond Roudnitska observed: “The host of possible combinations of the millions of transmitting fibers . . . can receive olfactory messages of infinite subtlety, making it possible . . . to detect the most subtle distinctions.”
The master perfumer may be compared to a musician meditating on a theme, hearing the notes in his head before writing them down on paper to be played on an instrument. In the same way, the perfumer, his “notes” in his mind, now writes down his formula, ready for experimentation in the laboratory.
Seated at the special perfumer’s “organ,” also called a palette, or keyboard, where hundreds of vials of essential oils are kept, he drops a few milligrams of the products chosen as ingredients onto narrow strips of blotting paper. As a perfume “composer,” he selects these “notes” to make a “chord” progression as though he were composing a symphony.
The constituents vary as to volatility, and when a bottle of perfume is opened, the lightest, most volatile fragrances, called top notes are released first. Attractive but fleeting, these dominant notes may be citrus fragrances, such as lemon or bigarade (sour orange). Jean de Lestrange continued his explanation: “This is the most important and the most delicate stage in the composition of a perfume. Indeed, if the top notes are not a success, the perfume will be a failure. The fragrance must have immediate appeal.”
Only later will the more persistent middle notes emerge, fragrances such as rose and jasmine. Lastly, the underlying base notes that last all day are perceived. These fix the fragrance, and although in days gone by they used to be of animal origin, they are now mostly synthetic.
Once the ingredients are chosen, hundreds of experiments must be carried out in order to obtain the best combination, carefully weighing and blending the constituents according to the proportions established by the master perfumer. The perfume extract thus obtained can also be dissolved in alcohol to produce perfume and toilet water.
After the filtering, labeling, and final packaging, the goods are ready for sale. The whole complicated procedure explains to some extent why perfume is so expensive. “To some extent,” because in many countries perfumes are highly taxed, which adds to the cost.
In the near future, a computer-assisted program concept applied to perfumery, coupled with the contributions of biotechnology, will make it possible to speed up the development of the odorous plant cells without having to wait for the flower to come to maturity. This will certainly make for changes in the perfume industry.
However, the creation of a great perfume remains a work of art in which the talent of the master perfumer is indispensable. One need only look back over a century of progress in the perfume industry to be convinced that talent alone explains why certain perfumes created over 50 years ago are still so popular today!
Perfume in Bible Times
The Bible book of Genesis relates how Joseph was sold to a caravan of Ishmaelites on their way down to Egypt with “labdanum and balsam and resinous bark,” substances used to make perfumes.—Genesis 37:25.
God later revealed to Moses the ingredients of a perfumed anointing oil that was to be used to anoint the priests and the holy utensils for worship. Moses also received God’s formula for perfumed incense to be burned morning and evening in the sanctuary.—Exodus 30:7, 8, 22-30, 34-36.
In the days of the kings of Israel, the rich used perfumes to give fragrance to their houses, garments, and couches. Perfumers in ancient times even formed trade groups. (Nehemiah 3:8; Psalm 45:8; Song of Solomon 3:6, 7) The genuine nard that Mary, sister of Lazarus, used to anoint Jesus’ feet was worth nearly a farm worker’s wages for a year. (John 12:3-5) Yes, costly perfumes have been in use since early times!
French for ‘water of Cologne,’ Germany, where the perfumed spirit was invented.
[Box on page 17]
How to Choose Your Perfume
Spray a little perfume on the back of your hand without rubbing it in.
Let the alcohol evaporate for a few seconds.
Take a sniff. In this way you can discern the top notes.
You will have to wait a little longer in order to perceive the base notes.
If you feel that this perfume does not suit you, wait a while before trying another. Never forget that a perfume is a “symphony.” Who would dream of listening to two symphonies at once?
[Pictures on page 15]
Antique still, formerly used for distillation
Master perfumer’s ‘keyboard’ of essences used to compose a variety of perfumes
Photos: Courtesy of Musée de la Parfumerie Fragonard, Paris
[Pictures on page 16]
Some flowers used in perfumery