Perfume has always been important in the history of mankind. Used by the ancient Egyptians, Romans, Chinese and mentioned in the Bible it has been used to seduce, to mask unpleasant odors and for other industrial purposes. France has always been a world authority in the industry – the first guild of perfumers was established in the 12th century by Philippe-Augustine of France.
Initially, scents were only the privilege of the wealthy, but François Coty from Ajaccio in Corsica changed that by making perfume affordable for the masses in the 1900s. A first cousin of Napoleon de Bonaparte, he studied for a year under the expert tutelage of perfumers in Grasse before opening the 1st mass-production perfume factory on the outskirts of Paris in 1905. After the 1920s many other countries began to manufacture perfume but French perfume is still regarded as the best in the world by scent connoisseurs.
There are 3 basic processes for making perfume including: distillation, expression and extraction.
Persian alchemist (and physician) Ibn Sina – also known as Avicenna, who lived 980 – 1037 AD, was the first one to perfect steam distillation – and his process was so good that it stayed unchanged for a couple of hundred years.
Distillation converts the volatile liquid (the essential oils) into a vapor and then condenses the vapor back into a liquid – it is the most popular, and cost effective method in use today in producing essential oils.
When a mixture of flowers and water is boiled in a still it produces perfumed water through condensation.
Today we use hydro distillation, which takes place in stainless steel stills to avoid the raw material becoming colored. The still is tall with a head and a well-insulated swan’s neck preceded by a mechanism to prevent fumes and impurities passing through. The still is filled with fresh or dried plants, gum or roots, to which is added a minimum of five times their weight in water. The process takes place at a very high temperature and five or six atms of pressure so the steam can act.
The steam traps the essential oils of the product being distilled; these then pass through a worm immersed in cold water, which condenses them into essence.
The condensed mixture of essential oil and water flows out of the worm into an essence bottle, or Florentine flask, where the two liquids separate out because of their different densities.
The downside of distillation is the fact that heat is used in this extraction method, which makes it totally unacceptable for use on very fragile material, or where the oils are extracted with great difficulty.
When this method of extraction is applied, great care has to be taken with the temperature and length of exposure of the heat to prevent damage to the oils.
Expression is a cold pressed method of extraction. No heat is involved. This method is mostly used in the extraction of citrus essential oils. Most nut and seed oils are also extracted using a “cold pressed” method but here oil is forced from the material under high mechanical pressure.
With this method, solvents are used to coax the essential oils out of the botanical material. During this extraction, non-volatile components of the botanical material – such as waxes and pigments are also extracted and in some cases this is then removed during another process.
The most known solvent extraction method is “Enfleurage”
Enfleurage is one of the oldest methods used to extract essential oils from plants. This process originally used a chassis of hot fat in which flower petals would steep with more petals added continuously until the fat was saturated with precious essential oil. The saturated fat solidifies as it cools which makes it very easy to separate the essential oil. After an alcohol wash the alcohol is removed by means of a vacuum. The enfleurage process yields what is called an absolute, a very deep, rich and beautiful oil. Enfleurage is almost never used anymore and has been replaced by more efficient solvent extraction methods.
Once the “essential oils” are extracted ……. blending will then occur to create different perfumes.