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Visit to Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu 2—Visit to the Jasmine Extracting Unit

Visit to Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu: India's Jasmine Capital -- July 1998

Part 2: Visit to the Jasmine Extracting Unit

In the early part of the afternoon we reached Coimbatore and checked into the hotel that had been arranged for us by Mr. Sethuraman, the person from whom I had started procuring fine jasmine and tuberose absolutes in January. He, along with his father and mother-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Sivaramakarishna, had a well-established extraction facility north of the city and had been engaged in floral absolute production since the later part of the 1970's. Our purpose in visiting with them was to gain first-hand knowledge of this aromatic industry and to understand how they how built their business during the past twenty years. As soon as we had settled in we contacted Mr. Sethuraman and he immediately came to meet us and take us out for lunch where we could discuss how his family built there business to the place where it was today.

Mr. Sethuraman proved to be a fine host as well as a person totally dedicated to giving authentic, straight-forward information. He told us that in 1978, Mr. Sivaramakrishna, who was serving as a chartered accountant at that time, decided to become involved in the newly developing fragrance industry in the Coimbatore district. Up to this time, the major areas of production for jasmine and tuberose absolutes had been France and Egypt but due to rising labor costs, disease problems, etc. the determination had been made by French perfume houses that India had the climates and soil conditions required to grow tuberose and Jasmin grandiflorum on a commerical scale for the international flavor and fragrance industry. After surveying the country Coimbatore had been selected as one of the best sites to initiate this industry.

Several French companies provided the technology and equipment to commence absolute production and farmers were encouraged to grow these flowers in large enough quantities so that absolutes could be produced in large enough quantities for export.

Seeing the foundation for the industry being laid, Mr. Sivaramakrishna felt that he could successfully enter the market even though he had no previous experience in this field. So with limited financial resources and a desire to do something unique and innovative he purchased a small piece of land north of Coimbatore and began constructing his first extracting unit in a 10'x10' room. Since he did not have any background in this area, he had to learn by trial and error. He could not purchase European made equipment as it was to costly so had to rely on local craftsman to construct a similar unit based upon his understanding of how it should function. Through patient effort he was able to get the first extractor up and running and in this way began producing high-quality jasmine and tuberose absolutes. At that time, not only were French perfume houses major buyers of these absolutes, but so were the Russians. They contracted with India to buy huge quantities of pure jasmine concrete(5 tons per year between 1985-1990) and within a 5 or 6 years the industry began rapidly expanding. Over 10 facilities sprang up to meet the growing demand for these aromatic products. Mr. Sivaramakrishna and family added several more extracting units to keep pace with the times. Unfortunately the Russian demand for jasmine declined sharply when in the later part of the 1980's the country suffered through a period of political upheaval which resulted in the separation of the USSR into a number of independent states. Also French perfumery houses began to rely more and more on synthetic chemical substitues for real jasmine resulting in a partial collapse of the industry in India. Almost half of the producing factories had to close which had a profound impact on the farmers as well as they demand for their flowers was greatly reduced. In this period of upheavel, Mr. Sivaramakrisha was able to survive as his operation was family run and he had taken special care to make his operation of an international standard. A stable contract with a famous perfumery house and excellent relations with the farming community saw he and his family through the period of time when others could not survive.

As we quietly partook of our afternoon meal, Mr. Sethuraman elaborated on how his family had taken great pains to keep a positive relationship with the farmers. This part of his explanation was of great interest to me as from 1971-1976 I lived and farmed near Bangalore and have always felt a special kinship with the agricultural community of India. I know that these good people often do not receive the respect and gratitude they deserve so I was keen to hear what he had to say on this matter. He told us that from the beginning, his father-in-law worked closely with the farmers to create a feeling of equality and trust. He arranged meetings with the farmers where they could discuss the various cultivation, fertilization, and harvest issues surrounding jasmine and tuberose. He developed a prompt and accurate system of payments to all farmers growing the flowers for him as well as advancing them money for fertilizer and other crop necessities prior to the commencement of the harvest system. Not content to stop there, he developed a program where farmers would receive funds for medical treatment if they fell ill, sent gifts to his growers during festival seasons, and gave special monetary incentives to everyone at the end of the harvest season.

As his grasp both of growing of the plants and extraction of their essence evolved, he became convinced that the best flowers could only be produced through organic growing techniques. He began to convince the farmers to fertilize their fields with goat and cow manure as well as green manure crops. He taught them to use foliar neem sprays and neem meal to control a variety of diseases affecting the crops. This innovation was a dramatic departure from the accepted methods of chemical fertilization and plant disease control which had been imported from the West and only because of the bond of trust that he had established with the farmers were they willing to try his approach. Today, one can see exquisite jasmine fields prospering under this organic care regime(A detailed description of this will appear a little later in this article).

Along with learning to build his own equipment, developing organic gardening techniques, establishing a bond of trust with the farmers, etc. Mr. Sivaramkrishna had to learn to effectively deal with other factors in the industry which effected quality output of tuberose and jasmine absolutes. For the extraction of the essence a high quality hexane solvent is required for which special licenses are necessary.(In India there seem to be licenses and paperwork, mounds of it, for everything). Hexane in the quanitity required for their operation was only available from Madras, a full day's journey from their factory. Occasionally supplies of the solvent were in short supply and the solvent would arrive at the factory diluted with ditch water. To overcome this problem they took to sending one of their trusted workers to Madras and personally accompanying the hexane-filled truck back to their factory where it was pumped into their holding tank. Even then, the hexane had to purified twice more in-house to get it to the stage of refinement where it could be used for producing the concrete from which the absolute is made.

Then when it came time for shipping their absolutes or concretes to overseas buyers, they learned that they had to personally go to the shipping agency and the customs officials because if they were not there the containers containing the precious oils would be opened and tested with rusty iron rods or the officials would be blowing cigarette smoke over the delicate material. So either Mr. Sivaramakrishna or Mr. Sethuraman had to personally go there and bring there own glass rods for testing and also to request the officials not to smoke while opening the containers. As he continued to recite the stories of all the factors that go into to producing the absolutes or concretes that we are able to enjoy without any problem I felt that I should try to explain to all my clients this unseen part of the story. It is very easy to get lulled into a feeling that the aromatic products we are enjoying come to us in a easy uncomplicated manner, but nothing could be further from the truth. I think that if we become aware of the chain of events that occur from the growing and harvesting of the flower, its preparation as an absolute, and even the shipping of the goods to overseas buyers, we will definitely develop a deeper appreciation of how to use the oils as we our eyes will be opened to the fragile chain of events that lead to the small vials of absolute we hold in our hands. In fact, we will sense that the true worth of the oil is many times over what we actually pay for it and so we will use it with great reverence and respect.

In this regard it might help to mention that it takes over 8 million blossoms of delicate jasmin flowers to produce 1 kilo of Jasmin grandiflorum absolute. Each blossom must be carefully harvested by hand so as not to bruise the flower when plucking it. Bruised flowers will produce unpleasant off notes in the absolute and no good extractor will permit such material to be used in the preparation of the concrete. Since 1 kilo of oil consists of 1000 grams, it means that it requires 8000 individual blossoms to produce one gram of absolute. Now suppose a kilo of superb quality Jasmin grandiflorum absolute costs from $1,250-$1,750(this is roughly the range which one sees for this product) it means that 1 gram of absolute costs $1.25-$1.75. Breaking it down further we can find 1 gram of absolute contains about 25 drops which means that the per drop cost is 5-7 cents per drop. When we consider this price we must also remember that the actual harvesting of the flowers is only one step in the care of the plant. There is the pruning, cultivation of the soil, fertilizing, spraying, watering, etc. Many months of hard work go into caring for the plant before it can produce its blooms, during which time all sorts of natural calamaties can occur like disease, drought, flood, excessive heat or cold, etc. We need, as consumers, to remind ourselves again and again that it is a true miracle that such wonderful essences are still available and that we need to do our part to support the people and places where such work is still going on. Actually when I have stopped to really think this thing through, it seems impossible that such a precious and wonderful oil could be offered at such a reasonable price. It is only because the Indian farmers lead such simple lives that it becomes possible for us to enjoy and use in creative wholistic ways these exquisite products of nature.

After absorbing as much I could of the information he wished to impart we continued to their factory on the outskirts of Coimbatore. Turning off the main road heading toward Ooty, we entered the countryside and traveling down a countryroad we reached the entrance to their farmhouse-cum-factory. There we were graciously greeted his mother-in-law and beautiful wreaths of tuberose, rose and jasmine were placed around our necks as honored guests. We were then invited into the house for refreshments and to talk of their current operations at the factory. The gentle gesture of hospitality deeply touched my heart and it reminded me that in this ancient land, the elements of high culture still remain intact in spite of outside influences which place business as the primary god of communication. In the ancient times, the reverse was true; people were first made to feel welcomed and refreshed, time was spent in establishing a sincere basis for communication and only then was business attended too. The quiet humility which they displaced in this first meeting is something which I have encountered hundreds of times on my journeys through India and with each renewed encounter gains a deeper hold on my heart and mind as being something work incorporating into my own life. It is one of the deepest dimensions of Indian culture and can be experienced in the homes of the simplest farmer to the most modern industrialist.

Mrs. Sivaramakrishna and Mr. Sethuraman acted as our guides around the factory as Mr. Sivaramakrishna was away from Coimbatore on business. As it was late afternoon, the extraction of J. grandiflorum was completed for the day. Our arrival coincided with the very beginning of the harvest season so the factory had not yet entered its full scale production program as will happen in the months of August, September and October. At that time extraction of both J. sambac and J. grandiflorum will continue around the clock. They explained to us that every member of the family was fully conversant with each and every operation involved in concrete/absolute production. A staff of local people, coming from poor families, was also kept to help with the basic procedures so that the work load could be equitably distributed. They were provided room and board on the property as well as a salary so there lot in life was greatly improved by there work there. The clean, immaculately kept exterior and interior of the factory was a testament to a business being well run.

Inside the factory we were shown the basic set of extracting units. Three were kept for the extraction of Jasmin grandiflorum and three for J. sambac. The ones of J. grandiflorum had a capacity of 150 kilos of fresh flowers and the ones 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 they had opted for the smaller ones. Mr. Sethuraman explained in 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 the flowers were loaded into the units. Circular perforated trays slide over a 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 sqaushing 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 whch includes non-aromatic waxes, pigments and highly volatile aromatic molecules. The solution containing both solvent and dissolvable plant material is filtered and the filterate 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.

In this section of the factory they explained that careful records were kept on each unit as to how it was being maintained, its filters cleaned, the condition of its parts, etc. They had developed an in-house system of monitoring each part of the operation so that they could quickly track down any problem should a problem occur. Extreme care was taken with every system pertaining to the piping of solvent into the extractors, its recovery and storage as it was a highly flammable material and also if mishandled could injure those in contact with it. Mr. Sivaramakrishna was so keen on their operation being of an international level that he opted to have it ISO certified which meant that he voluntarily drew up a list of industry standards that his company agreed to adhere too, which is monitored by outside professionals a couple of times a year to assure that those standards were being met or exceeded. As part and parcel of that certification, they were regularly asking how they could improve their operation even further so that they could always abreast of positive innovations within the industrial world. This certification was and added expense for them as it must be paid for out of their operating expenses but he and his family felt that they should cut no corners in trying to produce the finest absolutes in the world.

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 perservative 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 115-155 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 precipates out. As a final precaution the purified solution is cold filtered leaving only the wax-free material.

The alcohol is recovered from the dewaxed extract by gentle distillation under reduced pressure. Much care has to be exercised at this stage so that the more volatile componets 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 is the right moment to perform each procedure.

It was through the great kindness of our hosts that we were able to see all the equipment and to gain a better understanding of the processes through which the jasmine flowers must pass to reach the final "absolute" extract. This experience helped me gain a deeper appreciation of the delicate art and science which they practice and to realize that a true absolute is a joint effort between people and nature and that one can only achieve the highest results by a refined sensitivity to the plants, the environment, the farmers, and the equipment used for extraction. I think that from the consumers standpoint, we must work hard to educate ourselves about the process so that we have in our creative mind's eye a vivid picture of all the steps involved in this alchemical process. If we bring the process alive for ourselves, we can use these extraordinary products with reverence and respect which in turn will have create the same feeling in those procuring them from us or in wholistic treatments that require the essences. Following our tour of the factory, arrangements were made to meet us at the hotel on the next morning at 5:00 AM so that we could make a visit to the farms where jasmine was being cultivated and harvested,