Perfume has had a glorious and sweet-smelling past that dates back to the dawn of recorded history. The word itself is Latin and derives from per meaning through and fumun or smoke. Perfumes were originally meant to emulate nature’s pleasant aromas. Natural oils were extracted from plants and became the main components of the perfumes of the ancient world. The oils were extracted, pressed, steamed and then burned in order to scent the surrounding air.
Now, years after the first whiff of a crafted scent wafted past the nose of a human, the art of perfume manufacturing has become a global multi-billion dollar industry, and the scientific process of making perfume has not only evolved, but it’s been refined and improved as much as any other industry and practice. This article delves into the rich history of perfume creation and provides the ultimate industry guide to mastering the art of perfume manufacturing, from the process of extraction, aging and all the ins and outs of developing a marketable, timeless scent.
Perfume in the ancient world
Perfumes are mentioned in the Bible referring to Three Wise Men carrying gifts of myrrh and frankincense to bestow upon the baby Jesus. The ancient Egyptian culture is rife with references to the use of scented oils and perfumes as evidenced in hieroglyphics and written papyrus records. It had many diverse uses. For religious rituals, they burned an incense called kypi, which was comprised of henna, myrrh, cinnamon and juniper. They also made aromatic body lotions from the liquid resulting from soaking aromatic wood, gum and resin in water and oil. Fragrance was an integral aspect of the embalming process. Singular deities became associated with specific scents and the word they used to mean perfume is translated as “fragrance of the gods.”
The use of perfume spreads to the ancient Greeks, Romans and early Europeans
The art of making perfume spread from ancient Greece, to Rome and then to the Orient and Far East. It reached Europe via the Crusaders during the 13th century when they returned from Palestine bearing gifts of perfume samples, which they dispersed throughout England, Italy and France. Europeans first used fragrance for what they believed were its healing properties. Seventeenth-century physicians treated plague victims by covering up their mouths and noses with leather pouches containing pungent cloves, cinnamon, and other spices. They believed this action would protect them from further contagion.
France’s King Louis XIV used so much perfume that those close to him dubbed him “the perfume king.” He not only used it on his person, it was present everywhere in both his court where there was always a floral pavilion and throughout his royal palace where decorative bowls filled with dried flowers and fragrances freshened the air.
Guests visiting the French royal palace bathed in rose petals and goat’s milk. Perfume permeated clothing, furniture, walls and even cutlery. The Grasse region in southern France became a leading producer of perfume, as it was an area where many flowering plant varieties flourished. Scents in England were often concealed within jewelry, particularly lockets and the hollow heads of canes for private ‘sniff’ moments.
19th century marketing and production of perfume
The mass marketing of perfume began in the mid 1800s and coincided with the introduction of synthetic chemicals. The very first synthetic perfume was made from nitric acid and benzene and called, not surprisingly, nitrobenzene. This mixture had aromatic top notes of almond and was often used in the popular scented soaps of the day. In 1868, an Englishman named William Perkin created a fragrance that smelled like freshly mown hay by synthesizing coumarin, which is derived from the South American tonka bean.
Other advances included synthetic violet and vanilla developed by Ferdinand Tiemann at the University of Berlin and an alcohol called citronellol, which was created by American, Francis Despard Dodge. This synthetic compound was made from citronella oil and contained aromatic notes of sweet pea, lily of the valley, narcissus, and hyacinth.
How are oils extracted from plants?
It is the oils derived from nature’s plant and flower material that are used to make perfume. There are six methods by which oils are extracted from plants. These include: steam distillation, boiling, solvent extraction, enfleurage, maceration and expression. In the first method, steam passing through the plant material turns the essential oil into gas, which is then passed through tubes, cooled and liquefied. In the boiling process, oils can be extracted by boiling flower petals in water.
In the case of solvent extraction, flowers are placed in large rotating tanks and benzene or petroleum ether is poured over them, which extracts the essential oils. This causes the parts of the flower to dissolve and leave in their wake a waxy material, which contains the oil, which is then placed in ethyl alcohol. The oil rises after it dissolves in alcohol, and heat is then applied to evaporate the alcohol. This leaves a high concentration of perfume oil on the bottom of the tanks.
The enfleurage method of extracting essential oils is both costly and labor-intensive. It entails spreading flowers out on grease-coated glass sheets and then carefully placing them in tiers between wooden frames. The glass sheets are covered with highly purified and odorless vegetable or animal fat. The petals of the flowers that are being extracted are spread all across the plates of glass and pressed in. The petals can remain within the greasy mixture for as long as a few weeks, at which point they are then removed by hand and replaced with fresh petals. This process is usually repeated several times before complete saturation of the essence can occur.
Maceration extracts essential oils in a process that is very similar to enfleurage except that warmed fats are used to soak up the flower fragrance. The essential oils are derived from the grease and fats that are dissolved in alcohol. The easiest and oldest method of oil extraction is expression. This process for collecting essential oils is the most economically feasible and it is achieved by pressing, squeezing or compressing peels of citrus fruits such as lemons and oranges. Due to the large amount of oil contained within citrus peels and the fact that they can be grown and harvested rather cheaply, fruit oils cost less than other essential oils.
Developing a scent
The laborious process of perfume creation has barely begun after the essential oils are extracted and collected. They are then masterfully blended according to a specific formula. It can take years to develop a unique recipe and as many as 800 diverse ingredients. After the scent is finally created, it is then mixed with varying amounts of alcohol. The majority of perfumes are comprised of 10 to 20% perfume oils that are dissolved in alcohol and tiny amounts of water. The amount of alcohol is the determining factor as to whether the blended liquid will be a cologne, perfume, or eau de toilette. Perfume, which has the strongest scent contains up to 40% essential oils; eau de toilette up to 15% and cologne, some 10% oil content.
The aging process of perfume
Maturing a fragrance occurs immediately after the perfume concentrate has completely diluted in alcohol, a process that may take up to a month. Aging occurs afterwards for a period of several months to one year. It is a time in which the perfume is kept undisturbed in a cool, dark area. This allows for the permanent bonding of the alcohol and the essential oils. At the end of the allotted time, an expert is called in to test the scent, which will pass if it is now stronger than it was before the aging process began. It is at this point that adjustments, such as additional blending, can be made. The end result for a fine perfume must be a scent that contains three distinct notes; a top note; central or heart note and a base note.
An aged perfume mixture is usually cooled and filtered before it is filled into flacons. By not exposing the perfume to oxygen and keeping it in the dark at low temperatures, the damaging effects of time are greatly reduced. Today, chemists add antioxidants to every fragrance, most commonly, Butylated hydroxytoluene, which aids in the scent’s longevity.
The gathering, collection and transportation of the initial ingredients to the manufacturing center is the first step in the manufacturing process. Plant substances are often hand-picked for their particular aroma. Animal products are fatty substances that must be extracted directly from the animal. Aromatic chemicals used in synthetic perfumes are created in the laboratory by perfume chemists.
Only about 2,000 of the 250,000 known flowering plant species in the world contain the essential oils needed for the manufacture of perfume. Natural ingredients such as flowers, grasses, spices, fruit, wood, roots, resins, balsams, leaves, gums, and animal secretions, like musk and ambergis, in addition to resources like: alcohol, petrochemicals, coal, and coal tars are often employed in the manufacture of perfumes. Due to the fact that many plants, such as the lily-of-the-valley, do not produce oils naturally, synthetic chemicals recreate natural scents and also create original fragrances not found in nature.
The reason animal substances such as castor from beavers; musk from male deer and ambergris from the sperm whale are often used in the making of perfumes is because they serve as a sort of glue that enables the fragrance, whatever it is, to evaporate slowly and emit its aroma for a longer period of time. Other such substances include: mosses, resins, coal tar and synthetic chemicals.
The risky nature of perfumery
Thousands of flowers are needed to obtain just one pound of essential oils, and the annual yield is totally dependent on plentiful harvests. If the season’s crop is destroyed by disease, it can affect perfume production. There are also problems associated with collecting natural animal oils. Animals once killed for the value of their oils are now endangered, such as the sperm whale. In addition, animal oils are both costly and difficult to extract.
More and more, perfume manufacturers are favoring synthetic chemicals over natural oils, even though natural ingredients are still more desirable in the very finest perfumes. Tastes too have changed, and the modern consumer seems to prefer less concentrated forms of perfume. Both of these factors have brought the price of perfume down and encouraged more frequent use of scents in daily life.
Perfume appreciation and the modern consumer
There are a myriad of reasons why people wear perfume. For some, it boosts their sense of self-esteem and makes one feel more desirable; for others, it is considered a badge of individuality that sets them apart from others. Perfume can alter moods and evoke pleasant memories. It can only be hoped that for whatever reason, anyone who understands how perfume is made may come to appreciate that special something that fills the air and alters everything you spray it on.
We have decades of experience curating and manufacturing the perfect aromas for companies and entrepreneurs, specializing in fine fragrances, perfumes, private labels and more. Reach out to our chief perfumers to hear more about our extensive experience, or even just to catch a whiff of our endless array of marketable fragrances.
Final thoughts about perfume:
A woman’s perfume tells more about her than her handwriting. ~ Christian Dior