Their Role in Natural Perfumery
by Christopher McMahon
Introduction to Nature's Aromatic Gifts
The world of aromatic plants provides the raw material for distilling/ extracting a wide range of sublime essences in the form of absolutes, essential oils, attars, CO2 extracts and hydrosols. Each technique of distillation/extraction is capable of removing some dimension of the plants complex aroma. Up to this time no technique has been devised which can fully capture the total fragrant bouquet lying at the heart of each aromatic spice, balsamic resin, precious wood, exotic flower,
fresh grass, earthy root, etc.
Nature always keeps some of her precious secrets intact so that we may maintain our respect, appreciation and reverence for the mysterious delight of aromas which lend an appreciable degree of happiness to our everyday life.
There can be no doubt that the full richness of an aroma is most perfectly captured in the living plant itself. When one enters an environment where the air is vibrating with the fragrant symphony of invisible molecules charged with the life impulse of a delicate flower or herb, it often influences the heart and mind in a deep and penetrating way. It can awaken memories of precious moments in the life journey or can unlock doors of perception which give one a glimpse of a sublime life that is filled with wonder and hope. For thousands of years those intrigued by the mysteries of aroma, have sought ways and means of capturing those essences so that the powerful emotions and feelings evoked by fragrance in its natural state can be recreated even in the midst of the routine of everyday life.
Today many of us, living in the crowded conditions of cities and towns are seeking for means of reconnecting to a natural world. In many cases essences derived from botanical resources help us establish a rainbow bridge into times, places and environments that speak to us of a rich inner life that is based upon a refined outlook on existence rather than the frantic accumulation of material goods. It may be that these sublime aromas speak to us of the wisdom and knowledge to be gained from "listening" to the trees, shrubs, vines, and flowers that have been our friends and companions for thousands of years. But no matter how we wish to explain the impact these aromas
have on us, we can certainly say that it "exists", and that with a little interest on our part we can directly participate in exploring this world by entering into the domain of natural perfumery, or some other branch of the aromatic arts, crafts or sciences. With this in mind, I shall move onto a subject of natural perfumery with specific reference to aromatic absolutes.
Natural Perfumery Using Absolutes
Natural perfumery is an aesthetic pursuit which holds many hours, days, months and years of delight for a person who wishes to explore it.
Aromatic absolutes, which form an important part of the creative perfumer’s palette, are natural wonders with unique personalities that require careful study to appreciate. Later, I will discuss how an absolute is made but at this juncture it is important to realize that a pure absolute is a highly concentrated product requiring hundreds and in many cases thousands of pounds of botanical material to make one kilo of the final product. In its pure state it is far too dense to truly analyze from an olfactory standpoint. In order to evaluate the essence properly it is wiser to dilute it in a carrier oil like jojoba, a fixative or perfumer's dilulent like an undenatured 190% pure grain
alcohol. Of the three above mentioned materials an odorless grain alcohol seems to me the most ideal because none of the subtle nuances is muted as may happen with jojoba or changed as may happen with sandalwood. The alcohol totally dissolves the absolute into itself and transforms it into a highly mobile liquid (some absolutes are solid, semi solid or very viscous materials at room temperature). In Steffen Arctander's classic work, Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin, he writes:
Importance of Studying Absolutes in Diluted Form
"Incidentally, very few flower oils will, undiluted and in a pure state, smell like the flower from which they are extracted. Dilutions down to 0.1% or even less will usually develop the true-tonature odor."
Admittedly Arctander was a person with a highly developed sense of smell and his study of absolutes and essential oils had reached a very advanced stage. Also his statement refers to the study of the oil with a view to understand its total bouquet and not necessarily implies that this is the percentage to be used in a final product. Most people applying a perfume to their body, using it in a diffuser or embedding it in a piece of aromatic jewelry require a somewhat stronger aromatic impact than can be supplied at the percentage mentioned in the above quotation so one may wish to study the oil in a dilution of 6%-12% and when the final product is being designed may wish to increase the total presence of absolutes from 12-25% percent depending on the qualities of the essence itself and also the effect one wishes to create. If one follows this advice they will notice very dramatic positive changes in the aromatic aura radiating from the oil.
It has been my personal experience that some absolutes are so overpowering, sometimes show-ing some unpleasant notes when smelled in its pure form and when diluted in the above mentioned ratio, becomes an essence of most sublime beauty. I find that one of the most common mistakes made by people in the business of supplying absolutes or using them for aromatic creations is to judge the qualities of the absolute based on its pure form.
Along with proper dilution, comes the need for digestion and aging in the selected medium. On the very day the dilution is done, the absolute undergoes a positive transformation but in a few days or a few weeks time the solution becomes finer and finer. There is a period of time where the oil and alcohol are entering into a symbiotic relationship and this takes some time to become smooth. Later when a person begins blending absolutes with each other and using fixatives to extend the period of diffusion into the atmosphere, one may wish to consider several months as a minimum period of time for the perfume to mature.
Now the most interesting and incredible thing about this world of exploring single note absolutes is that it is immediately accessible to anyone with an interest in the subject. Blending of different oils can come at a more advanced stage, but the exploration of a single note absolute in proper dilution is a course of study that anyone can take up. It can become a life study in itself. So when we go to study an oil, what do we need to do? First of all one needs to have something like a non-scented perfumer’s blotter paper or clean cotton swab to dip into the aromatic solution. Only the very tip should be brought in contact with the oil. Then one should commence their study. It is
ideal to start this work early in the day before there are any distractions that will interrupt ones concentration. It is a good way to mark the swab or blotting paper so that one knows which oil they are studying.
During the first hour one should endeavor to study the oil at 15 minute intervals. It is during this
phase that one will come to know more about what is called the top notes (usually of short duration)
and heart or body notes. After one hour the solution enters its dry out phase and one will be very surprised to learn that their will be a perceptible odor (often very pleasant) on the swab for a
number of days. Sometimes those who are really keen to study the difference between the top
notes and the heart notes will dip the first swab, and then after 15-30 minutes dip a second swab
and study the two side by side.
That is one can study the freshly dipped swab with the one that has entered its heartnote phase.
Along with this one may wish to keep an index card where they make specific notations about
the changes one notices. This can be frustrating because the language of olfaction is not very
developed but there are a number of models which one can study to see which one suits ones
needs. The main thing is that one needs to begin to fix in their mind the various characteristics of
the oil so that they begin to understand its unique personality. This becomes the key to effective
blending later on.
Describing Olfactory Experience
Following is a typical olfactory analysis as given by Stephen Arctander. One can naturally develop
their own style of describing the unfolding characteristics of an oil and may even disagree with
Arctander's evaluation (for smell is a highly personal affair) but I think his description gives
some idea of the beauty and complexity of an absolute:
"Lavender Absolute from Concrete-Steffen Arctander
Lavender Absolute is prepared by alcohol extraction of the lavender concrete, chilling of the alcoholic
solution and filtration and subsequent removal of the solvent in vacuum.
Lavender absolute is a dark, green, viscous liquid of very rich, sweet-herbaceous, somewhat floral
odor; in dilution it bears a close resemblance to the odor of the flowering shrub. Its woody herbaceous
undertone and coumarin-like sweetness duplicate the odor of the botanical material far
better than does the essential oil. The absolute is sweeter but less floral than the essential oil, and
the two materials can form a very pleasant combination. However one cannot replace the other in
Lavender absolute is used in citrus colognes, chypres, fougeres, new mown hay bases, forest
notes etc. It blends well with labdanum, oak moss, vetiver, patchouli, pine needle oils."
In my own way, I have also attempted to describe absolutes from time to time. It is based upon environmental and cultural influences as experienced through my travels in India. Here is one which I
did on comparing Jasmin sambac and Jasmin grandiflorum absolutes:
"Perhaps the most widely used of all the exotic flowers was Jasmin sambac and without realizing
it, I began to imbibe a wonderful dimension of Indian culture simply by inhaling the aroma of this
simple yet elegant flower whose floral bouquet consists of many 'themes' all distinct yet interconnected. In giving an account of this essence I know my words will fall short but some attempt
must be made which can be supplemented at a later time by people more adept at this type of
description. The opening notes of Jasmin sambac impress me as being heavy and sweet with a richness and depth that immediately draw one into the realm of profound mystery. The first impression of Jasmin grandiflorum absolute is by my estimation, much more soft and sweet, in a sense more ethereal and light. As the essence of Jasmin sambac absolute unfolds it reveals sultry exotic warmth as if it was a vessel in which the rays of the tropical full moon were condensed and these rays were in turn transmuted into invisible fragrant exudations. The buds, in fact, open around 11 PM and the fullness of the odor permeates the atmosphere in darkest hours of the night. The warmth and sweetness of Jasmin grandiflorum on the other hand, is the gentle warmth of a fresh morning with buds softly opening to greet the beauty of the new day. They seem to be a crucible opening their elegant petals from which soft gentle aromatic light rays flow. The time of their unfolding is just before dawn and their ethereal perfume is at its peak just as the sun rises. As the aromatic theme of Jasmin sambac develops, one can detect very pronounced fruity notes intermingling with ones shared with the orange flower complex. It is truly the 'Queen of the Night'.
As Jasmin grandiflorum resides into her base notes, one can pick up refined herbaceous, fruity notes which sometimes remind one of aromatic tea. I would call Jasmin grandiflorum, "Queen of the Dawn".
Fragrance can act as a superb means of cultural transmission if that particular flower is a part of the inner heritage of the country where it is found growing. In this regard, I do think that the essences of flowers coming from different localities in the world can produce a "connection" with other times and places if we allow them to "act" upon us without to much interference from our rational mind. (Easier said than done!!!).
Recently I put together a Fragrance Diary which may prove of some use to those engaged in olfactory analysis.
What part of aromatic plant is the essence from?
Root__ Bark__ Leaf__ Flower__
What classification is the fragrance under?
Animalic__ Balsamic__ Campheraceous__Citrus__ Coniferous__
Earthy__ Floral__ Fruity__ Green/Leafy__ Herbaceous__ Medicinal__
Minty__ Resinous__ Spicy__ Woody__
Volatility and Tenacity
Top Note(very volatile, lacks tenacity)__
Heart note(intermediate volatility and tenacity)__
Base note(low volatility and high tenacity)__
What element is the fragrance associated with?
Earth__ Water__ Fire__
To what gender does the fragrance belong?
Feminine/Yin__ Masculine/Yang___ Neutral__
Which vehicle of human consciousness does this fragrance relate. too?
Mood evoked by this fragrance?
Vivacity__ Passion__ Mystery__ Euphoria__ Fantasy__ Serenity__ Clarity__
Qualities of the fragrance?
Stimulant__ Erogenic__ Sultry__ Narcotic__ Soothing__ Antierogenic__ Fresh__ Exhalting__
Season with which fragrance is associated?
Spring__ Summer__ Fall__ Winter__
Ayurvedic qualities of the fragrance?
Hot__ Cold__ Moist__ Dry__
Chakra with which this fragrance is associated?
Root__ Sexual__ Solar Plexus__ Heart__ Throat__ Third Eye__ Crown
Color evoked by the fragrance?
Images that come to mind while smelling this essence?
The real joy and beauty of this exercise is that one becomes knowledgeable about a realm of exquisite natural essences that are, in most cases, perfumes in themselves. Working from this foundation of practical knowledge and adding to it a bit of understanding about fixatives, one is ready to create single note perfumes that are of a beauty and richness that can, in many cases rival the most exotic complex perfume creations at a fraction of the cost. It is definitely true that some people love the intricate complexities of perfumes containing many ingredients and there is a place for that, but it is equally true that if a person personally studies individual aromatic essences, that they may find their own signature fragrance which expresses more clearly who they are than anything purchased in a store.
Enhancing Olfactory Experience by Worlds Related with the Absolute
Along with this one can further develop their sensitivity to a particular essence by studying everything about the plant from which it is extracted, the place where it grows, the people who harvest it, the traditions surrounding it, etc. This type of endeavor allows a persons creative imagination to awaken at a deeper level and when engaged in such studies, accompanied by the aroma wafting from the perfumers testing strip, it becomes possible to enter into a deeper level of appreciation and understanding with regards to the whole process of bringing the aromatic essence of a plant from some distant land into the form of a precious oil.
When our attention becomes suffused with this type of information, the enthusiasm and happiness that arises in the heart also communicates itself to others. It adds an invisible dimension of energy to the the physical materials that pass through our hands and while this may not be measured by any scientific instrumentation it may be detectable by those who love to think of the caring attitude that goes into creating any beautiful thing.
What is an Absolute?
When we receive a precious absolute in its undiluted form what does it consist of? It consists of a viscous liquid or semi-solid mass containing alcohol soluble waxes, pigments and the volatile oil of the plant material extracted. This is a very important thing to realize for many people have the misconception that an absolute is a pure volatile oil. This is not the case as the percent of actual volatile oil in the absolute can range from 10-55% depending on source material. Actually the presence of the waxes serves a very beneficial purpose in most cases as it acts as a natural preservative and fixative for the volatile oil. Some perfumers consider the presence of pigments to be a nuisance as it highly colors the final product, but for many people involved in natural perfumery the luminous colors of the absolutes may be a positive asset.
One may wish to know what an advantage does an absolute present over those oils produced by either steam or hydro distillation. In the case of many plant materials that have very delicate ethereal components, the only way to capture and preserve them is by using a solvent at close to room temperature. If they are subjected to intense heat of any kind these precious molecules are destroyed.
In past times when labor was cheap, a method called enfleurage was used which involved placing flowers on trays containing a purified fat, stacking them one on top of the other and after 12-24 hours removing the fresh flowers and replacing them with fresh ones. This process was repeated day after day until the fact became thoroughly permeated with the plants natural essence. The resulting product was called pomade. This pomade was then washed with
alcohol to remove the volatile oil, pigments etc. to to create the 'pomade absolutes'. This method has been described in numerous works most notably in Ernest Guenther's Essential Oils Volume 1. I would highly recommend reading his account of this traditional extraction process. But as our concern is with modern methods of production discussions of concrete (the modern version of pomade) production takes precedence. In some cases a flower is capable of being both distilled and extracted. Ylang ylang, neroli/orange blossom, lavender, rose and several others fit into this category. But it proves beneficial for the distillers/extractors of natural aromatics to use both processes on the same plant material because the ranges of aromatic molecules produced by the different methods are quite distinct. It broadens the natural perfumer’s palette and often some radiant perfume essences can be created simply by combining the steam/hydro distilled oil with the absolute produced from the same botanical.
So let us look at the production of a typical absolute. Since Jasmin absolute production is very familiar to me, having been in South India several times during the season of extraction, I will use this flower as an example of how the essence is produced. Following is a selection of extracts from my journals kept during visits to South India in the past as well as current observations.
Production of Jasmin Concrete
"Inside the factory we were shown the basic set of extracting units. Three were kept for the extraction of Jasmin grandiflorum and three for Jasmin sambac. The unit for J. grandiflorum had a capacity of 150 kilos of fresh flowers and the unit for J. sambac a capacity of 100 kilos. In a previous visit to India in 1995 I had seen units for Jasmin extraction of a much larger size so I was curious as to why they had opted for the smaller ones. Mr. Sethuraman explained within these small units a much more thorough washing of the flowers with highly purified hexane could be done thus preserving the greatest amount of the highly volatile aromatic molecules in the concrete. They then showed us how the flowers were loaded into the units. Circular perforated trays slide over a central column within the extractors. Each tray holds 15 kilos of flowers that are spread in thin layers so the hexane can access all parts of the flower. One tray is stacked upon another with a special vertebrae-shaped piece of metal in between which prevents the tray above from squashing the one below. It is important that the flowers remain unbruised so that no “off” note appears in the final product. Once the extractor is fully loaded it is sealed and the process of washing with hexane begins. Two washes are done of one hour each for each batch. The solvent dissolves all extractable matter from the plant which includes nonaromatic waxes, pigments and highly volatile aromatic molecules. The solution containing both solvent and dissolvable plant material is filtered and the filtrate subjected to low pressure distillation to recover the solvent for further use. The remaining waxy mass is what is called the concrete and it contains in the case of J. grandiflorum as much as 55% of the volatile oil."
The preparation of the concrete is the least technical part of the process but still requires great skill and understanding of the plant material. Each extractor has his own methods which he/she has found suitable for that particular botanical. Many extractors tend to specialize in just one or two absolutes so their methods become very fine tuned. They develop a "feel" for the material which is as important as any of the technical considerations. The extractor must also have a good knowledge of the solvent they are using. Each type of solvent has its own qualities. In India hexane is the solvent of choice. Hexane or any solvent used in the preparation of the concrete has to be a highly purified material as any impurities may produce off notes in the final product. Most extractors have to do further purification of the hexane which they receive from the commercial suppliers of this material. The solvent must also have the quality of dissolving only the pigments, waxes and volatile oil contained within the plant. It is very important that they do not dissolve the water content (which is very high) as it will quickly dilute the solvent and render it ineffective in extracting the required parts of the raw material to which it is being applied. So this is why a material like alcohol cannot be used in this initial phase. The solvent must also be a highly volatile material so that when the time comes to distill it off, it easily comes out of the solution. The whole idea is that the delicate aromatic constituents of the plant should not be disturbed in this process. Very slight changes in temperature can adversely affect the aroma of the concrete.
Once the concrete is prepared it is kept in cool place until the time comes to prepare the absolute. Absolutes are seldom prepared ahead of time as the concrete with it high concentration of waxes acts as a natural preservative and under proper conditions can be kept for a number of years. Once a firm order for the absolute comes, then the extractor proceeds to make the conversion from the concrete.
Production of Floral Absolutes
"Another part of our tour took us to the area where the absolutes are prepared. Here, in a much smaller area, the concentrated concretes are processed further to remove the waxy materials which dilute the pure essential oil. They also are poorly soluble in alcohol and other aromatic materials so their removable is, in most cases, a necessity. (One interesting exception is for the use of the concrete in the preparation of solid perfumes which has become popular in the last couple of years.) Often though the concrete is left as is until a firm order comes for a customer for the absolute as the waxes act as a good preservative for the essential oil. To prepare the absolute from the jasmine concrete, the waxy substance is warmed and stirred with pure sugar cane alcohol. In India this is the only pure alcohol available to distillers/extractors. In other Western countries pure ethanol is used. The temperature to which this solution is heated is from 115-125 F. During the heating and stirring process the concrete breaks up into minute globules greatly increasing the surface area of the original mass. Since the aromatic molecules are more soluble in alcohol than is the wax an efficient separation of the two takes place. But along with the aromatic molecules a certain amount of wax also becomes dissolved and this can only be removed by agitating and freezing the solution at very low temperatures(around -30 degrees F). In this way most of the wax precitates out. As a final precaution the purified solution is cold filtered leaving only the wax-free material.
The alcohol is recovered from the de-waxed extract by gentle distillation under reduced pressure. Much care has to be exercised at this stage so that the more volatile components of the extract remain intact. This process of alcohol
removal from the extract is done in several stages until the final removal is done under vacuum. In fact, the whole process of preparing the absolute is as much an art as it is a science. The person doing it must have a 'feel' for the material so that they can sense what the right moment to perform each procedure is."
Many absolutes can be used as is because when they are dissolved in alcohol, the waxes act as a natural fixative, allowing them to radiate their fragrance for a long period of time. Further slowing of evaporation can be produced by adding certain fixative essential oils like sandalwood, vetiver, balsam tolu, balsam peru, frankincense, myrrh, etc. Sometimes these fixatives produce an effect on the composition which changes it from its original form. That is, it creates a totally new aromatic profile which differs from that of a pure absolute. Until one has gained much experience in using fixatives, they should be very cautious in how much they add to the perfume creation they are engaged in making. The safest of all fixatives to use, even in high proportions is sandalwood. Its soft precious woods bouquet recedes into the background even when used in amounts of 90% to 10% of the absolute. Other fixatives exert a very noticeable effect at 1% to 99% absolute so this clearly shows how important the choice of fixative becomes. It can be extremely exciting to use the more potent fixatives because they can create a whole new essence using the simplest of combinations but it is wise to start with a 1% addition of the fixative selected and add it to the absolute in .25% increments from day to day until one is satisfied with the composition. (I will devote a paper to fixatives at a later date).
Before closing this introduction to absolutes I would like to include a bit about the creation of these precious aromatic gems that often is forgotten. This concerns the growing, cultivation and harvest of the plants used in preparing them (the absolutes). It is often taken for granted that thousands of pounds of material are readily available for the extractor to do their work. Nothing could be further from the truth. It comes to the extractor only through months of hard work by the farmer and his family. The aromatic crops used in absolutes are frequently ones that we would call,"labor intensive" ones. Many have to be hand harvested which is just the final stage in their seasonal life cycle. Up to that point the plants have been tended by proper pruning, fertilizing, weeding, etc. Nature also has her own say as to the success and failure of a particular crop because slight changes in weather, like to much or to little rain, excess heat, insect infestations, etc may play a factor in the quality of the final crop. It is just as much an art and craft to manage the crops in the field as it is to properly extract them at the factory. It is a work of extreme sensitivity and refinement.
Recently I took a group of fragrance enthusiasts, aromatherapists and essential oil company owners to South India to experience the many dimensions of the countries aromatic traditions, including meeting with the farmers. One fine morning in September we visited a Jasmin farm where we were able to, in our own small way, to participate in the Jasmin harvest. I think it truly gave everyone a better idea of what it means when it is said that it requires 8,000,000 hand picked blossoms to produce one kilo (35 ounces) of absolute.
"As we proceeded toward the Nilgri Hills and entered into the countryside proper the scenery became more and more beautiful. This region of India is again another unique type of environment different than any we had yet encountered. It is a bit drier, less humid than the coastal region we had passed through on our journey to Tanjore and Madurai and totally different than the high mountain regions of Kodikannal. India is a land with an incredible diversity of micro climates, soil types, and topographies and on this short tour we can only explore a few of them.
Our bus came to a halt under some tall shade trees where a dirt road diverged from the paved country lane upon which we were traveling. Guided by our hosts, we walked up into another world which could just have well existed centuries ago. The sun had been up for a short time when we entered the grounds of the immaculately kept Jasmin grandiflorum plantation owned by our hosts. I think we were all stunned by this scene of eternal beauty. The angelic petals of the delicate Jasmin grandiflorum buds had quietly opened in the early morning hours and the perfume floating across the fields was of an etheric odor. It is true that a well made absolute can catch a little of this essence but it can never substitute for the living experience of being in the presence of the plants and the environments in which they grow.
All nature seemed to welcome us with gladness and as we roamed through the fields we not only inhaled the intoxicating beauty of this etheric essence but our eyes feasted on hummingbirds, butterflies, coconut palms, hillocks, and many other scenes of exquisite beauty. Soon we had our baskets in hand and were participating in the morning harvest. Plucking each delicate blossom one by one, we were initiated into the astounding reality that it takes 8 million blossoms to produce one kilo of absolute. I do not think any of us will ever use an absolute with anything but the greatest of respect after seeing what a real jasmine harvest entails.
Here we were able to see a truly organic gardening operation. Mr. Sivaramakrishna and his family were the pioneers of organic gardening practices in their region and have achieved astounding success by using green manure crops, natural compost, neem sprays, and other neem products. Both in the field and in a more formal presentation given while we had a light breakfast in the fields, he explained to us how they had been able to successfully bring organic gardening practices into the cultivation of Jasmin grandiflorum and Jasmin sambac. I think that this work that they have done will become a model for many other farms in India as it is practical, cost effective, and draws upon locally available resources.
Each day has been one of increasing happiness and beauty for us and somehow visiting the Jasmin grandiflorum fields took that experience to another plane. It was like being a child again in the most wonderful sense of the word. If one has any doubt about the true therapeutic value of fragrance they should just stand in a jasmine field at dawn surrounded by the grand beauty of nature, absorbing the energy of an ancient land through every pore of their body and they will certainly know that there can be no more perfect window into a world of gentle peace and happiness. There can be no doubt that one has then to hold that window open through their own personal aspiration but first one's heart must be touched by this type of experience to remember that beyond all dark shadows and difficultiesis a life of true innocence, purity and delight."
In conclusion I think one can say that the creation of anything beautiful and sublime is as much a part of a person's appreciation of all the parts that make it happen as it is the actual end product. When our hearts and minds open up to the many worlds that intersect in the tiny vial of pure natural essence that rests in our hands, we can infuse our creations with gratitude and respect for the people, places, and processes that have allowed us to work with something so precious. Then the eyes are filled with wonder and delight and the simplest perfume becomes a treasure to the person who has the nose to smell the life force that has been poured into it through the union human effort and nature's bounty.