Perfumery – Methods of Extraction

Throughout history humankind has tried to capture the ephemeral odours which fill its world. Many are still elusive, but many have been harnessed through the development and perfection of various processes. It is difficult for us to imagine in todays high-tech, scientific world that many methods still in use seemingly owe more to the alchemist than the chemist (take orris, for example, the iris rhizome has to have its roots, leaves, and flowers removed, before being dried for a minimum of three years which results in a hard, fossilised looking ‘stone’. It is now known as orris and has no real odour. Any sane person coming across it would have thrown it out, but someone in history decided to place it in alcohol and leave it there for two years. The orris dissolves into the alcohol, becomes yellowish in colour and looks like butter which has been left too near a hot stove. It is now known as orris butter, or beurre d’orris, and smells fatty, and in a vague way slightly violet-like—this is the first real glimpse of the beauty hiding within. The orris butter undergoes a final treatment to extract the oil which again does not truly reveal its hidden secret; it is only when it combines with other materials that its inherent soft, luxurious, powdery magic reveals itself. Today, the way orris is processed has not really changed, and because of this it is one of the most costly ingredients.
Compare this to one of the more recent techniques, such as ‘head space’, where man continues to try to capture the smells of nature. However, as many ingredients will not yield oil, head space technology is often deployed which records the emanations from a flower, etc., in the form of a gas chromatograph. This is then taken to a laboratory where scientists try to replicate the odour. One of the first scents to use these newly replicated odours was Red, by Giorgio Beverly Hills, in 1989. This discovery, along with other advances in the generation of synthetic materials, is used extensively in mass-market perfumery and commonplace in the so called ‘fine perfumery’.
There are various methods which are used throughout the industry to remove scented oils from raw materials. Each of the manufacturing houses will use these methods, but each will vary, leading to the specialities which are synonymous with each company. The method used for a particular ingredient is determined fundamentally by the characteristics of the raw material and, in some cases, by the effect desired by the perfumer.
OPPOSITE: A composition laboratory in Grasse, 1930. Courtesy of Alpes-Maritimes departmental archives.

Steam distillation has been known about for millennia, but it was the Arabic doctor and philosopher, Avicenna, who perfected it in the tenth century. The structure of the material being processed has to be taken into account to ensure the oils can be removed easily during the process: for example, mosses are generally softened by spraying them with water, woods are often finely grated, seeds crushed, whereas leaves and flowers need no pre-preparation as the cells containing the oils are thin walled and the oils can be removed very easily.
The raw material is placed on a grille suspended inside the still, water is put into the bottom, which is brought to the boil and turns to steam; as heat rises, the steam makes its way towards the top of the still, passing through the raw material en-route. The steam opens up the oil ‘cells’ and the oil becomes suspended in the steam as it passes out of the still via the ‘swans neck’ towards a condenser. As oil and water do not mix, the steam turns back to liquid and the oil and water separate. The resulting oil is known as an essential oil, whilst the water, which retains a small trace of scent, is known as floral water—the two most famous are rose water and orange flower water.
Scientists had tried using solvents to remove scented oils as far back as the eighteenth century, however, their attempts were often literally explosive. It was not until advances in organic chemistry led to the discovery of benzene and hexane that solvent extraction became feasible. The advantage of these two solvents was their ability to dissolve the fragrant oils, whilst at the same time being easy to ‘evaporate off’. The advantage of this method is that the oils are true to the smell of the plant, which was not always the case with steam distillation, and once perfected it meant that enormous quantities of material could be treated at one time.
The vessels used for solvent extraction are usually made from stainless steel and can contain between 3,000-4,000 litres. The raw material being treated is placed on one of many trays which have holes over their surface, allowing the solvent to pass through the material. The advantage of the trays is that they stop the material compressing and allow for huge quantities of material to be placed inside the container. The solvent is then mixed with the raw material; the length of time it remains in contact with it varies from one material to another. The oils will mix with the solvent and the remaining raw material once spent is discarded. The resulting mixture is decanted to remove moisture and generally undergoes a partial distillation under reduced pressure leaving behind a thick, waxen paste which has to be processed to remove its valuable oils. The name of this paste will vary depending on the type of material treated.
If a dry material, such as a wood, has been treated the resulting paste is known as a resinoid whereas, if the material was fresh (such as a flower) the paste is known as a concrete. The concretes have to undergo further treatment to remove their precious oils as they contain waxes which are insoluble in alcohol. Depending on the material which has been treated the mixture is cooled to somewhere between minus ten and minus 15 degrees Celsius so that it becomes solid. The concrete then undergoes repeated ‘washings’ with alcohol, during each of them the fragrant oils mix with the alcohol leaving the waxes behind. The waxes are discarded leaving a mixture of alcohol and oil which is heated at reduced pressure to ensure that the oil is not damaged, the alcohol evaporates, leaving behind a substance known as an absolute. Absolutes are generally full bodied and sensual.

Expression is used solely to treat citrus fruit; the resulting oils are often known as hesperidic oils and, when blended, as a hesperidic accord. The name is derived from Greek mythology and the ‘Garden of Hesperidia’. One of the ‘ 12 Labours of Hercules’ was to steal from the garden the ‘apples of immortality’ which were protected by the 1OO-headed dragon, Ladon. When this was completed he found that the golden apples where in fact the citrus fruit, orange.
The oil cells are contained within the skin and are easily opened by applying pressure to them. Citrus oils used to be obtained by squeezing the pre-softened rind by hand, which had been soaked in warm water to facilitate the process. The oil was collected on natural sea sponges as they completely absorbed the oil and ensued that literally not one drop was wasted. In Calabria, the traditional home of bergamot, the oil was also extracted by hand but by using special gloves made from leather with a surface made from pumice stone.
Today the rinds are placed between mechanical crushers that literally squeeze, or ‘express’, the oil from the skin. As the oil is removed so is a portion of water, which is not wanted, and this is generally removed using a centrifuge. The resulting oils are known as essential oils and are brisk, fresh, airy and enlivening.

This method was invented by the French perfumer, Piver, in 1750, and exploited the natural phenomenon of fat absorbing odour, to remove the scent from delicate flowers such as tuberose and jasmine. It was a great improvement on an earlier, now defunct, method known as enfleurage chaud,where flowers were immersed in hot fat, ruining the odour of the flower as it cooked, whilst leaving a waxy-fatty residual odour behind.
With enfleurage, glass plates (held in a wooden frame known as a chassis) are covered with a thin layer of highly refined, odourless fat. The fat is combed so that air can circulate around each blossom. The blooms, which are picked by hand, are laid onto the fat at precise intervals, which is where they are left until they have yielded their entire odour. The time involved in this process varies depending on the material—in the case of tuberose it is generally three days, whereas jasmine requires one day.
The flowers are then removed by hand, whilst fresh flowers are being picked in the fields. The process continues until the fat becomes saturated with oil, at which stage it is known as ‘pomade’. The pomade is then washed with alcohol and mixed with the oils, with the residue wax being discarded. This mixture is then heated, leaving an oil known as an obsolue de pommade. The Grasse-based distillery house, Robertet, is really the only company left who still produce oils by this method. It is an incredibly expensive process—due to the amount of handwork it entails—and so is only reserved for the very finest fragrances. There are only a handful of people left in the world with the skill and experience to employ this technique and, with the lack of demand due to high prices, the resulting absolutes command it won’t be long before it fades into history.These oils are absolutes, as are those obtained by solvent extraction, which was the method that largely superseded this labour intensive one.
A tincture is where a raw material is placed in alcohol and left to macerate. It was the process used for the animal notes and is still used for materials like vanilla. All that is needed is alcohol, the raw material and patience, as the oils contained in the raw material will eventually seep into the alcohol and scent it.
Naturally occurring excretions from trees—known as gum resins, such as myrrh, benzoin, or frankincense—were traditionally treated by placing them in alcohol to form tinctures but, today, they are often treated with solvents.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Birth of Modern Perfumery

The history of fragrances is as old as mankind itself. The Ancients sacrificed man, then beast, then precious fragrance. Even before people began to decorate themselves and their surroundings, they were attracting each other and their gods through the use of fragrances. In the beginning, they simply used flowers, herbs and resins, but soon discovered that resins and balms gave off fragrance with a special intensity under the influence of heat. The ancient Egyptians used perfumed resins which they often burnt as offerings to their gods and as a physical pathway connecting heaven to earth: this phenomenon was to give us the name perfume from the Latin per fumum—through smoke.
The raw materials were so rare, so precious they were reserved solely for kings and gods. To make your gods merciful, you sacrificed the most precious things you had—gum resins such as frankincense and myrrh—a practice that continued throughout the centuries. En-route, for example, certain discoveries such as that of alcohol and solvent extraction (which produced oils that were both pure and stable), and the development of synthetic chemistry, were to facilitate the advent of modern perfumery which started at the end of the nineteenth century, blossomed in the twentieth century, and is bourgeoning in the twenty-first century.
The ancient Egyptians associated perfume with immortality; their Pharaohs were wrapped in bandages impregnated with aromatic oils such as pine, spices, myrrh, and cedarwood. Perfume was to become a way of life and the spices and resins entering Europe from the Middle East became more precious than gold.
Egypt was one of the first countries where fragrant oils were used to smooth and perfume the skin; Egyptian women even wore cooling cones of perfumed wax on their heads. It contained a wick which was lit; the wax would gradually melt and trickle down their faces and bodies, enveloping them in fragrance. Egyptian enthusiasm for perfume reached its zenith during the reign of Cleopatra, who was probably one of the most avid fragrance worshippers of all time. She used so much scent on the sails of her barges it was said that her approach could be detected miles downstream—which begs the question did men really fall at her feet because of her beauty or were they intoxicated and beguiled by the amount of scent she wore? This is a theme which re-appears in Greek mythology when sirens used scent to lure unsuspecting sailors to their death.
Fragrance was so prized in ancient Egyptian culture that Pharaohs were buried with scent to take with them on their journey to the after-life. One of the most important fragrances of the period was known as Kypi or Kyphi. This fragrance was used in association with worship of the god Ra and was burnt at sunset. Its formula was found written in the hieroglyphs in the tomb of Tutankhamen along with small vessels containing the scent which was still fragrant after thousands of years. Kypi is the oldest known documented fragrance formula and, in a way, is the perfumery equivalent to the Rosetta Stone. It is interesting that Egyptian alchemists truly understood not only the subtlety but also the inherent power that fragrance has to produce a desired effect. (As the University of Japan researched and recreated this fragrance, they found that it had the ability to induce a soporific state—one has to ask was this something that the Egyptians somehow knew or was it discovered just by chance?)
During their enslavement the Hebrews learnt the art of perfume-making from the Egyptian priests who they often assisted in the manufacture of fragrance. This knowledge travelled with them in their exodus as they fled their captors. Many of the aromatic oils the Hebrews used are recorded in the Old Testament and some of them, such as rose, jasmine, and ambergris are still used by perfumers today.
The Greeks adored perfume too and many of their legends and poems refer to the Greek gods’ love of scent. Their poets often talk about the uses of fragrance—Homer extolled its use in bathing and massage—its healing properties, as well as other aspects of what we would call aromatherapy today. Many of their thoughts and practices still influence us: as it was Apollinius who said “perfumes are sweetest when the scent comes from the wrist”, and who is not familiar with that habit today?
This love of perfume continued with the Romans who were greatly influenced by the Greeks. Essential oils were used in abundance. The Romans scented everything—their wives, their slaves, their horses and saddles, even their houses were made with mortar that contained scent so that when the sun shone on them the very fabric of the building itself exuded aromas. It was an olfactory orgy—they even founded a separate woman’s senate whose role was to decide both the quality and style of perfumes, thus setting the idea of ‘fashionable’ scent and etiquette for its use.
In the Middle East, the paradise of Mohammed was said to be filled with perfumes and mosques which were typically buildings of great beauty were often made even more perfect by the addition of a small quantity of musk added to the mortar. Rose oil and rosewater date from the period when the famous Persian physician and philosopher, Avicenna perfected the process for distillation of oils and discovered alcohol-the universally usuable miracle. A byproduct of this process is scented floral water and, hence, the common use of rosewater, both in edible delicacies and finger bowls in this region today.
Meanwhile, the ancient Britons’ toilette was far from sophisticated and consisted mainly of protecting the body from harsh weather by body painting—distinguishing a freeman from a slave as well as an allegiance to a particular tribe or ruler. Eventually freemen transferred these designs, or arms, from their bodies to their shields, becoming the origin of a family’s coat of arms.
However, the Roman conquest of Britain was to change the country beyond recognition as they brought with them civilisation, scents, cosmetics, and luxurious baths. The Romans introduced many fragrant plants, as little grew naturally. Bay, which takes its name from the Anglo-Saxon word for “crown”, was one of the few to grow and was made into crowns for returning generals, as perfume itself was either too scarce or too expensive. They also put bay leaves into their baths to not only perfume them but soothe tired limbs and muscles. This is where the expression “keeping at bay” derived as it was believed that the plant could ward off the plague. Whilst the Romans were the first to bring perfume to Britain, the luxury and extravagance of its use was relatively short-lived. As the Romans left Britain so the general use of perfumes and the many toiletries which the Romans had brought with them ceased.
Whilst incense was already being used in the English Christian Church as early as the consecration of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey on 28 December 1065, perfume was to go out of fashion during the Dark Ages and interest in it was not really stimulated until the Crusaders brought exotic essences back with them from the Middle East during the fourteenth century.
In Hungary, during this epoch, a ‘potion’ was created that became legendary throughout Europe, as it was thought to have almost magical properties. It was made for Queen Elisabeth of Hungary (Elisabeth of Kujavia, 1305-1380, Queen consort of Hungary and Regent of Poland) by her apothecary. This scent was first known as “The Queen of Hungary’s Water”, and later just as Hungary Water; it was a perfume based on rosemary and was the first known alcohol-based fragrance. It is the precursor to eau de cologne and was still being made until the turn of the twenty-first century. The Queen used it to refresh her skin, and also drank it—it was believed to keep her forever young; a myth perpetuated until she died at the age of 75—an impressive lifespan for the time.
The little town of Grasse, with its perfect microclimate, nestling as it does in the area of the Alpes-Maritimes, has a longstanding association with the use and production of aromatic oils. Grasse was to shape what has become a multi-billion pound industry. Traditionally, it was where some of the worlds finest leather gloves were made, however, as the skins were soaked in urine as a means to softening the leather they needed to be scented. Local glove-makers looked to the perfumed oils which were readily available in the region and used them to further soften the skins whilst affording them a somewhat more pleasant scent!
When Catherine de Medici married King Henri II of France in 1547 she brought with her, her own perfumer, Rene le Florentin. He found an abundance of beautiful materials in Grasse and used them to create scented leather for the gloves being made for King Henri II. Upon receipt of the scented gloves Henri ordered more: the Kings court followed suit so that the new rage, the must have accessory, were scented gloves—scent and fashion literally did start ‘hand in glove’.
This union of gontier-parfumeur, glove-maker cum perfumer, continued and, by the nineteenth century—as Paris became one of the worlds great cultural centres—the demand for perfume and perfume materials out-weighed the demand for leather products from Grasse. Inevitably leather-makers either closed down or transferred their manufacture to scent.
In Britain, King Henry V had commissioned a golden ball filled with scented materials including musk and ambergris. In 1422, he carried his gold ‘pomander’ at Agincourt believing it to have protective properties against plague (this is most likely to also be the inspiration of the clove-covered orange. However, scent really came into general use in Britain during the fourteenth or fifteenth year of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign: whilst they were used directly on the skin for enjoyment, it was precious scented leathers that were all the rage. Charles Piesse wrote in his book, The Art of Perfumery, 1880, that the Earl of Oxford gave Elizabeth a suede jerkin, which complemented the shoes she favoured made from scented Spanish leather, or peau d’Espange (which he states was sold in Bond Street at one shilling per square inch). So whilst scenting the body was accepted by the wealthy, washing was viewed with scepticism by the masses, a fact that was compounded in 1630 when Charles I introduced an excise duty on soap, making the stench from the unwashed so strong that fashionable gentlemen fround that civet was the only smell which would mask it, and thus the civet cat became the sign of the perfumers shop in London.
In 1680 Louis XIV of France was referred to as “the sweetest smelling king”, and perfume became the rage at court. In Britain it was still largely used for the purpose of hiding the somewhat unpleasant rather than pleasurable aromas. In 1643, Louis renewed the Perfumers’ Charter, which decreed that, for a perfumer to be admitted into the Company of French Master Perfumers, they had to serve an apprenticeship of four years, followed by three years as a ‘companion’ to a master perfumer.
The differences across the Channel grew as, in Britain, scenting the skin was far from being uppermost in people’s minds (during the Great Plaque of 1665, the stench was made even more unbearable by the dead and dying, so the Lord Mayor of London ordered sulphur, salt-petre, and ambergris to be burnt constantly in the streets). Today this idea of fumigation seems strange to us but, in the nineteenth century, the Pasteur Institute found that cinnamon and thyme killed yellow fever micro-organisms, while other research concluded that cinnamon killed typhoid bacillus in 45 minutes and lavender oil tuberculosis bacillus in 12 hours. After the Plague, hygiene became more of a priority, perfumed baths became fashionable and ‘sweating houses’ emerged, becoming as common as ‘gin shops’.
However Britain was not a pawn to France and, in some ways, developed perfumery as quickly and inventively as its neighbours. Britain’s approach was very different. Whereas the French had been using scent to hide the stench of urine emanating from their leather, one of the first British perfumers, Charles Lillie, started to add scent to snuff, (which was so fashionable that The Spectator announced, on 11 August 1711, that he would give two hour lessons in how to use it ‘fashionably’ in his shop situated at the corner of Beaufort Buildings in the Strand). It was said that he was the only man in Britain to have been “bred in the business of perfumery”and he remained in business for 30 years.
Other London perfumers contemporary with Lillie were Perry of Burleigh Street, and William Bayley who, perhaps, inspired by the article in The Spectator, opened a perfumery in 1711, in Long Acre. (He later moved to Lockspur Street under the sign of “Ye Olde Civet Cat”).’
As early as the seventeenth century civet paste could be purchased easily in Britain from chemists and by the eighteenth century, it was the essential ‘must have’ for any fashionable gentleman. It is interesting to think that civet, with its inherent faecal odour, was the scent of choice for the discerning gentleman. It is most likely the only material that was able to mask the rank stench of the all-pervading bestial natural emanations of London and those who inhabited it.
In 1712, a process developed that revolutionised the extraction of citrus oils. Until this date such oils had to be extracted by softening the skin in warm water before squeezing the oil out by hand: this was very labour intensive and gave small yields. The newly developed process used mechanical grinders which pushed the skin against rows of spikes forcing the oils out in greater quantity than had previously been possible. This enabled the universally popular citrus notes, which are the main component of eau de colognes, to be more readily available.
1730 saw Juan Famenias Floris set up in Jermyn Street and, in 1800, he supplied George IV, the then Prince of Wales, who gave him a Royal Warrant in 1812. The Floris Eau de Cologne was made for them by the Farina Brothers who created the original eau de cologne in Cologne during the 1730s.
Another important perfumery opened in Britain in 1770, launched by William Yardley who started macerating Norfolk lavender in bears’ grease. By 1824, the year of his death, his lavender was famous and, by the end of the nineteenth century, Yardley was the largest lavender manufacturer in the world. Over time the firm gained a worldwide reputation for lavender scented products, to such an extent that the names Yardley and lavender have become inseparable today.
In Paris in 1767, another very important house was founded when Michael Adam opened a boutique entitled La Reine des Fleurs (which, in 1774, became the House of Piver, under the name LT Piver et Cie). This firm, alongside Houbigant, which was established in 1775 was to become one of the great French perfumery houses. Jean-Frangois Houbigant opened his perfumery on the fashionable rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore; it was to become one of the most influential houses in the development of modern perfumery when, in 1882, their perfumer, Paul Parquet created the first fragrance to contain coumarin—a naturally occurring synthetic known as a natural isolate. This scent—Fougere Royale—was revolutionary, being the first to be part of what are now recognised as fragrance families. It was ground breaking and and forged the way for the birth of modern perfumery; influencing the creation of Guelain’s Jicky in 1889, which is generally recognized as the world’s first modern perfume. Both houses were established as gantiers-parfumeurs, but the French revolution was to create a new taste for more delicate scents, in the guise of 4711 Cologne, sold by a young banker named Mulhens in the 1790s. It was used as a medicine as well as a perfume and Napoleon became highly addicted to the fragrance. When the French occupied Cologne Napoleon insisted all properties should be numbered; Mulhens’ was the number 4711, which was scratched on the door and circled with a sabre—the circled number can still be found on the labels today.
These great houses were joined in 1798 by Pierre-Frangois Lubin who founded the House of Lubin with the sign “Aux Armes de France” in rue Sainte-Anne, Paris. Together with Houbigant and Piver they were to shape, and make possible, what was to become the French perfumery industry as we know it; that industry was developed by several other ‘founding fathers’, one of the most important of which was Guerlain.
Pierre-Frangois-Pascal Guerlain studied medicine and chemistry in England but returned to Paris with the hope of becoming a perfumer. He was unknown and no shop wished to sell his products. Fortunately for him, his uncle owned the fashionable Hotel Le Meurice, and allowed him to open a small boutique there in 1828. He was very successful; through his work at the boutique, he got to know his customers tastes, creating individual fragrances for them. Later he trained his son, Aime Guerlain, to become a perfumer, and this belief in his son proved worthwhile as it was Aime who created Jicky; the foundation of the great Guerlain dynasty.
As the perfumers clientele looked for greater novelty and, as the rivalry between the houses grew, a very important development was to take place that would change the face of perfumery forever. In 1832, J Mero et Boyveau formed a specialist company in Grasse to distil essential oils and were the first company to use solvent extraction (which had been invented by Joseph Robert, the founder of the influential dynasty of perfumers—Henri Robert who created Chanel No 19, and Guy Robert who gave us Caleche and Madame Rochas). This was the perfumery equivalent of the big bang as it allowed oils to be extracted in a stable and intense form from a myriad of materials, most of which had not been available before. This resulted in the expansion of the perfumers palette and, along with the discovery of synthetic materials brought about modern perfumery as we know it.
Two other important houses to open in this period were Bourjois and Molinard. In 1863, Alexandre-Napoleon founded the House of Bourjois in rue Meslay in Paris. It specialised in theatrical cosmetics before extending into perfumery and, in 1928, it launched the perfume for which it became best known, Soir de Paris, which was made by the creator of Chanel No 5, Ernest Beaux. Bourjois was eventually to merge with the House of Chanel, whereas, at the opposite end of the country, the chemist named Molinard opened a perfumery in Grasse, at La Place du Cours-Honore-Cresp. The Parfumerie Molinard became widely known for the quality of its perfumes, particularly Habanita, 1921, which was one of the pioneering oriental scents, and their solid scents known as Concreta.
Modern perfume still had not been born when the first great houses of Houbigant, Piver, Guerlain et al emerged, and the scents of this period were mainly floral, whilst for men, anything more adventurous than civet was frowned upon as effeminate. Even the days of Bay Rum had yet to come.
As the nineteenth century drew towards its final phase the Industrial Revolution, which both facilitated and fuelled the modern industry, had changed life as it was then known. This was no more prevalent than in the world of perfumery, which in the second half of the century moved from the alchemist, the herbalist, and cottage industry, to the nebula of the industry we recognise today. As scientists unravelled the molecular structure of fragrant oils and their constituents, and latterly started synthesising them alongside other fragrant chemicals unknown in nature, combining them with further experimentation, many new irresistible components were discovered. These, when skillfully blended with a high proportion of natural materials, gave rise to true creative perfumery, such as the aforemention fragrances of Fougere Royale and Jicky, heralding the golden age, and fame and fortune for many houses. After a slow start, each olfactory discovery gave way to an unstoppable momentum.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


Redolent of the Orient … “the most valuable perfume in the world”

Headquaters: Seeb, Muskat, Sultanate of Oman
Current perfumes: Amouage, Ubar

If you want one of the real perfumes of Arabia, this is it. It was launched by a young Omani businessman, Sayyid Badr al Hamood, who wanted to revive Arabia’s ancient association with luxurious fragrances. He enlisted the help of one of France’s leading perfumers, Guy Robert, the “nose” for classics such as Madame Rochas, Dioressence, and Gucci No. 1, and asked for a perfume of Western style but redolent of the Orient, including sensuous Arabian ingredients like frankincense and myrrh.
The spectacular result was Amouage (pronounced “amwaaj”), which in Arabic signifies ‘‘waves of emotion.” Called “the most valuable perfume in the world,” it has over 120 natural ingredients and is contained in a range of expensive flacons of Islamic design, some in gilded silver and crystal. Since 1984 it has been selling widely in duty-free and the more prestigious stores. In 1995 the company followed up its success with a high-quality chypre perfume called Ubar, the name of a legendary Arabian city.

CREATOR Guy Robert
CATEGORY floral oriental
FLACON Brosse and others

TOP jasmine, rose, tuberose, orris, peach
MIDDLE patchouli, labdanum, myrrh,frankincense, sandalwood, ylang-ylang
LOWER musk, civet, ambergris


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Choosing and Using Perfume

Perfume, in its strictest sense, is a blend of fragrant oils diluted in a high-grade alcohol in a concentration containing about 15—20 percent oil, the alcohol being about 90—95 percent pure. This is a parfum, also known as an extrait or extract. Any mixture with a lower proportion of oil to alcohol is an eau (water).
There are different strengths of eau, principally eau de parfum, with 15-18 percent of oil mixed in a slightly weaker alcohol, eau de toilette (4-8 percent of oil in an even weaker alcohol); and eau de cologne (3-5 percent of oil in a still weaker oil/alcohol mix). Recently eau fraiche has come into use, which is a cologne with a purer alcohol. Sometimes the mixtures go outside of these percentages.
Most perfumes come in a line which contains a parfum or eau de parfum (or both) as well as an eau de toilette,but sometimes the highest available concentration is only at eau de toilette strength. The line may also contain body lotions, soaps, bath foams, and so on, but these are just toilet preparations to which a small dash of the fragrance has been added.
The question sometimes arises of where best to purchase a perfume. It is difficult to give advice on this, as everybody’s circumstances are so different. You will not find a fully comprehensive range of perfumes anywhere, as there are so many on the market that retailers themselves have to be selective. If you have decided exactly what you want, then you might as well get it from the cheapest source you can find, always bearing in mind that if you buy on the sidewalk it will probably be a fake which ceases to exude fragrance after about ten minutes!
The connoisseur who likes to make a careful choice would do well to go somewhere that offers both a good range of products and good advice. In subtle ways different perfumes suit different people, so selecting what to buy is a matter of personal preference and taste, but there are trained consultants behind the counters of the larger department stores and the specialist perfumeries who can be very helpful and may save you a lot of time.
For a real experience, however, try the store of a perfumer selling his or her own creations. Buy a small bottle, to reduce the chance of its going stale before you’ve finished it.
Always try a fragrance on your own skin, but preferably not if you have just been eating strongly flavored food, or vigorously exercising, or if you have not quite recovered from an illness, feel out of sorts, or have just been smoking. All of these can affect the fragrance or your appreciation of it. Test an eau de toilette version of the perfume rather than any stronger concentration. Take a very small sample and don’t rub it into the skin. The best point to apply it is on the wrist; you can then put a different perfume on the other wrist and, if needed, two more on either upper arm. Try to wait at least 20 minutes, preferably an hour, before deciding, so that the notes unfold.
Some perfumeries now provide blotting-paper wands on which to apply the fragrance; these may be useful as a first stage, since you can test several different fragrances with them, but they are no substitute for your skin in the final selection.
Perfume lasts longest when applied to the pulse points, so your wrists, navel, collarbone area, or even behind the knees, are good places when you come to wear it—not behind the ears though, as the alcohol dries too quickly there. Some people find it lasts longer if sprayed on after a shower or bath, when the skin is still slightly damp.
There are also people who like to layer fragrances, especially for evening wear—use the soap and bath foam of the fragrance line at first, then the body lotion, finally apply the perfume itself; this may be expensively luxurious, but you will end up gorgeously fragrant.
Perfume is affected by air, heat, and light, so try to keep your bottle closed in a cool, dark place. Unopened, it may last 20 years, but once you have let air get in it will start to deteriorate and become acidic, the top notes going first. The more air, the worse the effect, so once opened it is really best to use it all within a year or two – and that, of course, will give you every excuse to choose a replacement without delay!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment


Balsam A resinous exudation from certain trees and shrubs, also called balm. In modern perfumery the principal ones used are balsam of Peru, of tolu, of Copaiba, and also storax.They all have a vanilla-like odor.

Bergamot An orange-scented oil expressed from the fruit peel of the bergamot orange tree. Used in about 33 percent of women’s perfumes.

Bitter orange The oil of this name is obtained by expression from the fruit peel, the tree also being called Bigarade orange. The tree produces neroli, orange-flower oil, and petitgrain oil.

Frankincense (also Olibanum) A gum resin from small trees growing in South Arabia and Somalia. Very important since ancient times as an incense, for which it is still used. The Romans imported vast quantities of it. It is used as a main ingredient in about 13 percent of modern perfumes.

Galbanum A gum resin from a giant fennel found in Iran. It has a spicy-green, leaflike, musky odor.

Jasmine After rose this is the most important plant used in perfumery, appearing as a main ingredient in more than 80 percent of modern perfumes. Of several species, the Spanish or royal jasmine has been the most used in Europe since the sixteenth century. An acre of jasmine yields about 500 pounds of jasmine blossom, but the yield of absolute from that (at about 0.1 percent) is tiny, making jasmine one of the most expensive perfume materials available.

Labdanum (also called Ledanon). A sweet-scented oleo resin obtained in droplets from under the leaves of Cistus plants in the Middle East. Of great importance in perfumery, its fragrance resembles ambergris (it is often called amber) and it is a valuable fixative. Appears in about 33 percent of modern perfumes.

Lavender A major perfume material since Greek and Roman times. At one time France grew nearly 5,000 tons of flowers a year. In England production is now confined to Norfolk in the east. One acre produces about 15 pounds of oil.

Lemon Lemon oil, vital in flavorings as well as in perfumes, yields about a pound of oil to 1,000 lemons. The oil is expressed from the rinds and is used in many quality perfumes, giving top notes a fresh sparkle.

Lily of the Valley In early days this scent could be obtained only by infusing the flowers in sweet oils. Nowadays it is extracted as a concrete or absolute and no essential oil is distilled. A synthetic is then added and this produces the most exquisite lily fragrance known, called muguet (this name is also used as an alternative to lily of the valley). It is found in about 14 percent of all modern quality perfumes.

Myrrh A gum resin from myrrh trees, found in Arabia, Somalia, and Ethiopia. Its use has been of great importance since earliest times in medicine and embalming as well as in perfumery, where it provides a balsamic note and is an excellent fixative. It is found among the main ingredients of about 7 percent of modern fine fragrances.

Neroli Steam-distilled from the flowers of the bitter orange tree (brought to Europe by the Arabs in the twelfth century), this is named after a sixteenth-century Italian prince whose wife scented her bath and gloves with it.The odor combines spiciness with sweet and flowery notes. A main ingredient in about 12 percent of all modern perfumes.

Oak moss A lichen taken from oak, spruce, and other trees in mountain areas of Europe and North Africa. The fragrance develops when it is stored and is earthy, woody, and musky. Blending well and a good fixative, it appears in a third of present-day fine fragrances.

Orris A butter-colored oil with a violet-like fragrance extracted from the rhizomes of certain species of iris after they have been stored for two years. It has the unusual property of strengthening other fragrances.Appears in many top perfumes.

Patchouli Most powerful of all plant materials. A Far-Eastern mintlike herb with leaves which are dried and fermented before being distilled. The unique odor of spice and cedar in this oil, which can be used only in minute quantities because of its strength, actually improves with age. It
is one of the finest fixatives known. It first came to European notice in the nineteenth century, when Indian traders exported shawls scented with it, which became highly fashionable. Appears in a third of all top perfumes.

Rose The most important plant in perfumery since the earliest days of history. The Greek poet Sappho called it “the queen of the flowers.,’ The cabbage rose, or painter’s rose, known also as May rose, was the rose grown for perfume in France, but now many others are cultivated, while the Kazanlak district of Bulgaria produces huge quantities of the damask rose, and there is much cultivation in Egypt, Morocco, and elsewhere. Some
17 different rose a scents have been identified. Nearly 1,000 pounds of roses are needed to distill just one pound of rose oil (attar or otto), and the yield of absolute from this is only around 0.03 percent. At least 75 percent of all quality perfumes contain rose oil.

Sandalwood This oil is distilled from the sawdust and chippings of the sandalwood tree of India and Indonesia, the very best coming from Mysore.
The tree is parasitic, attaching suckers to other trees. One of the most valuable and expensive raw materials used in perfumery, very long-lasting and used in the base notes of about half of all quality perfumes.

Tonka Comes from angostura and para beans, produced by two species of a South American tree. These are cured in rum, when they become covered in
crystals of coumarin, which smells of new-mown hay. The absolute extracted from this is used in about 10 percent of all fine fragrances.

Tree moss In the USA tree moss and oak moss are the same. In European perfumery “tree moss” designates a lichen found on certain spruce and fir trees from which a resin with a powerfully tarlike odor is extracted. It is used especially in fougere and chypre perfumes and is a good fixative.

Tuberose With a fragrance described as that of a well-stocked flower garden in the evening, this oil, taken from the flower, appears in about 20 percent of quality perfumes. The yield of absolute is so small, however (about seven ounces for every 2,600 pounds or so of flowers) that it costs more than its weight in gold.

Vanilla Vanilla forms in crystals on the fruit pods of the vanilla orchid vine, native to Mexico and tropical America, which are picked and fermented. With a sweet spicy aroma, it became highly popular in perfumery after Coty introduced it in L’Aimant and now appears in a quarter of
all fine perfumes.

Vetiver An oil distilled from the rhizomes of a tropical Asian grass called khus-khus. Has an earthy odor with underlying violet and orris-like sweetness. Long-lasting and a very good fixative. Appears in the base notes of 36 percent of quality perfumes.

Violet In perfumery two varieties of this plant are used, the Victoria, which has the better perfume, and the Parma, which is more easily grown. Oil is produced from the flowers and from the leaves of this plant, but it is so costly that most violet perfumes produced are now made synthetically.

Ylang-ylang This fragrance is used in some 40 percent of all quality perfumes. This oil is distilled from the leaves of the ylang-ylang tree of South East Asia. The powerful jasmine-like fragrance does not appear in the flowers until two weeks after they have opened, when they must be picked and distilled at once, so distillation is usually on site. One tree provides about 22 pounds of flowers a year and almost 900 pounds are needed for just two pounds of oil.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Perfume – Development of an Industry

We can say with conviction that perfume is as old as humanity, for there were surely herbs and flowers with beautiful scents long before human beings arrived on the worldly scene. But our knowledge of the earliest history of the use of perfume is vague and and has recently become even more so.

Perfume historians, working through time, felt they had reached firm ground with the series of murals in Queen Hatshepsut’s temple in Thebes, which show an Egyptian fleet sailing off to fetch myrrh and other exotic aromatics from the Land of Punt 3,500 years ago. Myrrh and frankincense, staples of ancient perfume, grew only in south Arabia and Somalia, so somewhere there, after sailing down the Red Sea, lay Punt. Or so it always seemed.
Now it has been convincingly shown that the Egyptian ships journeyed up the River Nile, going further than ever previously believed possible and finding the land of Punt on the shores of Lake Albert, in Uganda. But frankincense and myrrh do not grow in that region, so we are back into uncertainty. Perhaps it is just as well. Perfume has always thrived on a little mystery and mystique.
In those very early days incense was as important as fragrant oils. Our very word perfume is Latin for “through smoke.” Incense wafted prayers to the gods in heaven as much as it pleased the olfactory nerves and concealed bad drains. The famous kyphi incense, a heavy concoction, was burned in the temples at every sunset as well as in the homes at night.

The Greeks and Romans
The Egyptians made perfumes and unguents too, steeping fragrant plants in oil and wringing out the liquid through a cloth, or soaking flower petals into fat which absorbed and preserved their fragrance. The ancient Greeks, whose perfumers were women, enlarged and improved their Egyptian inheritance, and by Roman times vast quantities of myrrh and frankincense imported from Arabia were being supplemented with magical new ingredients collected by sea from India. The richer Romans indulged to excess. Floors and walls were sprinkled with perfume, pet horses and dogs rubbed with it, the standards of victorious armies sprayed with it. Rose petals were scattered in abundance. But the Empire, like the perfumes, did not

The Arabs and Europe
A major step in the history of perfume occurred in the early Middle Ages, when the Arabs developed a technique for the large-scale distillation of plants. Huge areas of Persia were put to growing roses for rose oil and Baghdad of the Arabian Nights tales became a city of fragrances. Powerful new scent materials were found, too, like musk, which was even mixed into the mortar used to build new mosques and palaces to make them scented.
For centuries perfumery was an Arab art, almost forgotten in northern Europe. Then Crusaders began to return from the Levant with wonderfully fragrant concoctions in their luggage – gifts for wives and girlfriends – and a new demand was stimulated.
The first stage of European perfumery really began in the sixteenth century when Catherine de Medici, coming from Italy to marry the future king, made perfume the fashionable thing in Paris. Suddenly everybody wanted gloves of perfumed leather. The best place to get them from was Grasse, which was to thrive on this trade and develop its fragrance industry so effectively that it was soon the perfume capital of the world.
Right into Victorian times the basis of perfumery had changed little from the days of Queen Elizabeth I of England. Techniques were improved, of course, and the “juice,” as perfumers now name their product, became more sophisticated, better lasting, finer scented. But then the industrial age arrived and the middle classes, suddenly much richer, found perfume being produced on an industrial scale which they too could now afford. The change was made possible by the development of synthetics. With them splendid fragrances could be produced on a large scale. But perfumers had to learn a lot more about chemistry in order to do this.

Fragrance and Fashion
Once clothes began to be mass-produced, fashion gave perfumery another huge fillip. As the couturier Paul Poiret was the first to understand, a well-dressed woman was a fragrant one, perfume adding to her glamour. Jean Patou echoed this; to him perfume was “one of the most important accessories of a woman’s dress.” At first couturiers such as Worth would give their clients little bottles of perfume as gifts; then, like Lanvin, they began to sell them within the store. Soon they found they could make more money from the perfumes than from the dresses.
Nowadays, a dress designer will add glamour to his or her reputation by issuing a profitable signature perfume, while the couture of famous firms like Dior, Givenchy, or Yves St Laurent may be completely subsidized by their revenues from successful fragrances.
Perfume does not, of course, sell itself, and a huge industry has built up around the processes of marketing it. First and foremost it must have an attractive bottle. But the packaging too can greatly influence sales and there are now large companies that specialize in providing this.
Advertising has always been important, as the high artistry of early advertisements reveals. The press and television are now used lavishly and in a major launch several million “scent strips” with samples of the fragrance may be placed in magazines. Extra glamour is often introduced by using a famous model or film star as the face to be associated with the perfume——like Kate Moss with Obsession or Elizabeth Hurley with Estee Lauder Pleasures.
Launching one perfume into the worldwide market nowadays can cost several million dollars. But the rewards of success make that well worthwhile. If it is a real success it may become a classic, an overused word these days which ought really to be reserved as an accolade for a perfume that has defied fashion changes and lasted on the market for at least a generation. If you can still buy the perfume your mother used when she was a girl, you can be assured that it will be a very good perfume indeed.

Ingredients and Processes
Until late in the nineteenth century the preparation of liquid scents was almost entirely a matter of blending fragrant oils extracted from plants, although a few ingredients of animal origin were used as well. Sometimes this extraction was an easy operation, sometimes prolonged and the yield very small. Occasionally it was impossible, so the perfumer’s skill would instead be directed toward mixing other fragrances together to provide a passing imitation of the original.
Most people will think of plant fragrances as the scent of flowers, but it is surprising how many different parts of a plant can produce fragrance. Essential oil, also called essence, is obtained from flowers, buds, leaves, stems, wood, fruit, seeds, bark, gum, and rhizomes. In some cases the whole of a plant contains fragrance; in other cases different essences can be conjured out of different parts of the same plant. The bitter (or Seville) orange tree, for example, provides both neroli and, by another process, orange-flower oil from its flowers, together with oil of bigarade from the fruit peel and oil of petitgrain from the leaves, twigs, and small, unripe fruits; all of these oils have a different fragrance and are used in perfumery.
Among flowers, those with the thickest petals contain the most oil and, with the exception of the rose, white flowers generally tend to be the most fragrant.

Synthetic Fragrances
Over time more and more plants yielding essential oils have been discovered, so that the perfumer, primarily a chemist, must also be a botanist, with some 500 to 600 different usable plant fragrances at his or her disposal. But this quantity of perfume ingredients is nothing compared with the huge range of synthetic fragrances, with complicated chemical names, which the perfumer can now use. Here the number available is several thousand. They are not often mentioned by name when writing about perfumery – hexahydro hexamethyl cyclopentabenzopyran doesn’t sound very romantic in a perfume context, but it has been widely used to synthesize the fragrance of musk. In Worth’s Je Reviens it is indeed a chemical, amyl salicylate, that provides the key floral element in the fragrance.
Nowadays, chemical ingredients will usually form the majority of a perfume’s constituent parts, providing not only fragrance but also the means of improving other fragrances, making them more compatible with each other or inducing them to last longer. Such chemicals are referred to as fixatives. While we needn’t say much about the chemicals (or synthetics) because the matter is a highly technical subject, one group has to be mentioned, and that is what are known as aldehydes. They’re derived from alcohol and some natural plant materials, and were discovered at the end of the nineteenth century. They were first brought into perfumery by Ernest Beaux when he created Chanel No.5. They have various uses: anisic aldehyde, for example, provides the scent of hawthorn; decylic aldehyde helps to reproduce the smell of violets; and they can give a fragrance a distinctive odor of its own and a new richness and strength.They must also be used extremely carefully and only in minute quantity——one drop of the raw material spilled accidentally on your clothing can make you smell unpleasant!

Animal Ingredients
The ability to make a perfume last is a key element in a perfumer’s skill. These days older women often comment how the great classic perfumes seem to fade much more quickly than when they were young. One of the reasons for this is that modern perfumes are mostly made on a large commercial scale in a factory and no longer contain the rare animal ingredients which, besides being so powerful, were so long-lasting and such excellent fixatives.
The principal animal ingredients that were once staples of the top perfumers were:
Ambergris For centuries nobody knew its source; it is a substance excreted by a sperm whale after eating cuttle fish and found in lumps of varying size floating in tropical seas or washed ashore. It must be weathered for at least three years before use.
Musk Grains (or seeds) from a walnut-sized pod removed (harmlessly) from the male musk deer of the Himalayas. The strongest fragrance of all. A drop left on a handkerchief can last for 40 years.
Civet A butter-like secretion taken from a pouch under the tail of the civet cat, found in Ethiopia, Burma, and Thailand.
Castoreum (castor) A creamy, reddish-brown secretion taken from sacs on the beaver; used – at first by Arab perfumers – since the ninth century AD.
In their original state these ingredients are so powerful that they are quite nauseous – they must be enormously diluted before they become fragrant. But, in any event, on top of animal-rights objections, the available supply is far too inadequate for them to have any place in modern commercial perfume manufacture. Their use is confined to the specialist perfumer using older methods, and perfumes containing them will be extremely expensive. Nowadays, in the mainstream of commercial practice they are all synthesized.
We’ve already touched on the processes for extracting essential oils, but these need clearer definition. They are:
Distillation When plant material is placed in boiling water the essential oil containing the fragrance evaporates with the steam; the steam is then condensed back into water, where the oil floats on top and can be collected.The process may be repeated to obtain an even purer oil. Late in the nineteenth century the process was much improved with steam distillation, under which the steam was condensed in narrow pipes passing through cold water.
Extraction by volatile solvents Fragrant material is placed on a perforated metal plate in an “extractor” and a volatile solvent, such as ether, is passed over it and led into a still, where it condenses into a semisolid mass called “concrete.” Concrete consists of essential oil plus a waxy substance known as stearoptene. The two can be separated by another technique using alcohol, leaving the oil in the purest and most concentrated form possible, termed as the “absolute.” It is an extremely expensive product. Tuberose absolute, for example, now costs more than its weight in gold.
Enfleurage This is a technique used by the ancient Egyptians and continued right through to the twentieth century. By laying flower heads on oil or fat, which absorb fragrance, perfumers could take advantage of the fact that some flowers continue to produce essential oil for a while even after they have been picked. In France this was done commercially from the seventeenth century, particularly with jasmine, using sheets of glass coated with treated fat, which was then dissolved with alcohol to recover the oil. The method was extremely labor-intensive and is no longer used.
Expression This is the method usually used to obtain fragrant oil from the rinds of citrus fruits. The rinds are crushed between rollers and the oil is then separated by centrifugal force (in other words, spinning so that the oil is thrown out from the pulp).
There is one other way of making fragrant material for use in perfumery that has only recently been developed. It is a system called “head space technology,” or “living-flower technology,” and enables the fragrance of, in theory, virtually anything to be reproduced – a flower scent or, should you so want, the smell of old boots.
In effect, a fragrant object, say a flower head, is placed inside a special container and a vacuum is induced. For a while the flower will exude its scent inside the vacuum. After, say, half an hour the exudation is drawn off into a gas chromatograph machine, which exactly analyzes and measures the constituent elements of the fragrance exuded.
By assembling the same chemicals in the same proportions on a much larger scale, the fragrance can then be reproduced in much greater quantity. The technique is new, sometimes impossibly expensive, and presents many complications, but it has given perfumers an entirely new approach to perfume creation and many recent commercial perfumes now include fragrances made in this way.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


Marco Polo, in 1294, was the first Western chronicler to realize that ambergris came from the sperm whale, Physeter macrocephalus、which he saw hunted on Socotra.

They have a great deal of ambergris. [It] … comes from the stomach of the whale and it is a great object of trade. The people contrive to take the whales with barbed iron darts which, once they are fixed on the [whale’s] body, cannot come out again. A long cord is attached …to [a]buoy, which floats on the surface, so that when the whale dies they know where to find it.

Ambergris is a very strange substance indeed. It is found in the bellies of sickly whales, or washed up on the beach, but it is extremely difficult to track down. Its natural rarity has rendered it almost mythical and it still remains the most mysterious substance in perfumery. It is not often used by itself,as a solid perfume, but it is the finest fixative because it binds together the numerous raw materials that perfumes contain; it even works in the cheaper synthetic perfumes. But because it is so rare, and therefore so expensive, only a few private perfumers still use it. Some say it smells like a mixture of truffles, BO and good cigars, and certainly ambergris’ unique smell does not always appeal on its own. When its aroma is blended with other more fleeting scents, however, its particular properties fix those fugitive odours and makes them last far longer than they would without it.

At first ambergris has a pungent smell, but the weathering of months, even years, at sea matures it. When it reaches the perfumer’s laboratory, it is macerated in alcohol for several months and gradually develops a velvety, complex and powerful odour with remarkable tenacity. It can retain its scent for as long as three hundred years. It clings to materials even after they have been washed several times and the longer it lingers the sweeter the odour becomes. One single drop of ambergris tincture applied to paper and placed in a book will stay fragrant for forty years.

Trade in ambergris has been banned for years by treaty and by various national maritime protection acts but, except since 1973 in the United States, it is not illegal to gather ambergris that is washed up on beaches. Ambergris, or Physeter catodon, is derived from the sperm whale’s favourite diet of squid and the common cuttlefish and consists of 80 per cent ambrein, a cholesterol derivative. Jacques Cousteau discovered that sperm whales swallow squid in one gulp because the squid have soft flesh that does not require mastication. There is only one hard part to a squid: the beak. Ambrein may be either an indigestible component of the squid, or a secretion from the whale’s gut in response to the constant irritation caused by the squid’s sharp beak. Chemists believe that ambergris also contains benzoic ester, which is a compound of alcohol and acid radicals. (Aspirin is an ester.)

In addition to ambergris, sperm whales offer another treasure from their bodies: spermaceti – a milky-white substance found in the head of the whale and originally mistaken for sperm. Spermaceti forms – among other things – an exceptionally pure wax from which in 1748 Jacob Rodriguez Rivera invented the smokeless candle.

In the gut of the whale ambergris is a black, semi-viscous and foul-smelling liquid. However, on exposure to sunlight and air it quickly oxidizes and hardens into an aromatic, marbled, waxy pellucid substance in which the squid beaks are still imbedded. It is a greyish colour, hence its name, amber gris – French for grey – which distinguishes ambergris from amber, a resin that comes from the common rock-rose and from bee-balm. (Amber, also known as labdanum, is often substituted for ambergris. Compounds made from clary sage, oak moss and various fungi can be converted into ambergris-like odorants and ambreic smells can also be synthesized from chemicals, although with great difficulty because of the complex odour of ambergris.)

While the waxy quality of ambergris has given rise to the belief that it originated from gelatinous honeycombs that floated on the surface of the sea, ambergris is, literally, the vomit of the sperm whale. Once the ambergris, a paste-like secretion, has been regurgitated, or released during decomposition after the whale’s natural death, it refines itself naturally as it floats on the ocean currents until it is washed up on the beaches.

Sometimes, however, ambergris is taken straight from the whale when it has been harpooned. This is vividly described in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick:

He thrust both hands in, and drew out handfuls of something that looked like ripe Windsor soup or rich mottled old cheese; very unctuous and savoury withal. You might easily dent it with your thumb; it is of a hue between yellow and ash colour…the motion of a sperm whale’s flukes above water dispenses a perfume as when a musk-scented lady rustles her skirt in a warm parlour.

Ambergris was unknown in the Western world until one of Alexander the Great’s admirals collected it from the coasts of Oman (the conqueror was particularly fond of perfumes). The ancient Greeks believed that ambergris came from springs in or near the sea. They discovered that it enhanced the effects of alcohol if smelt while drinking wine, and no doubt many a bacchanal was enlivened by a pinch of ambergris. Pliny wrote that the Romans used pounded molluscs and cuttlefish in perfumery: these products of the sea are, of course, part of the sperm whale’s diet.

The ancient Chinese referred to ambergris as Lung sien hiang, which means dragons’ spittle perfume, because it was said to come from the drooling dormant dragons that lolled on the rocks by the sea. To the Chinese mandarins it was an elixir for the libido and in the Orient it is still widely used as an aphrodisiac. The Japanese are equally keen on what they call Kunsurano fuu, or whale droppings, as an aphrodisiac.

The Arabs call ambergris anbar, or amber, and they used it medicinally for the heart and brain. It is still administered to growing children in the way that the British used to give cod liver oil to make children healthy and strong. The Arabs, like the Greeks, also believed that raw ambergris emanated from springs near the sea and they trained camels to sniff it out.

Ali Ibn al-Mas’udi, a tenth-century historian and traveller, maintained that the best ambergris came from the Sea of Zing off the coast of eastern Africa; that it was pale blue; and that a lump was as big as an ostrich egg. He wrote that ‘When the sea is much agitated it casts up fragments of amber almost like lumps of rock and the fish swallowing these are choked thereby, and [it] floats on the surface. The men of Zing then come in their canoes and fall on the creature with harpoons, draw it ashore, cut it up and extract the ambergris.’

To the earliest Western chroniclers, ambergris was variously thought to come from the sperm of fishes or whales, from the droppings of mythical birds (probably because of the confusion over the squids’ beaks that were still buried in the stuff) or, due to its waxy appearance and mellifluous smell, from a hive of bees living by the sea. For centuries there was great confusion over the origins of ambergris.

In Pomet’s Compleat History of Drugs’ written in the seventeenth century, ambergris is classified as ‘the dearest and most valuable commodity in France’. Pomet poetically writes, ‘It is brought to us from Lisbon and is nothing else but a mass of honeycombs that fall from the rocks into the sea. These honeycombs being in the sea, whether by a property of the sea water or by the virtue of sunbeams, are rendered liquid and floating upon the water.’

It is mentioned in The Howard Household Books (1481-3), as ‘Imber-gres,,for its medicinal properties. Some authors have referred to it as ‘ambergrease,and considered it to be a vegetable of some kind, or a deep-sea mushroom torn up by tempestuous seas, because of its mushroom aroma. Dr Johnson, in his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, like Pomet, considered ambergris to be one of the noblest substances in perfume, describing it as, ‘A fragrant drug that melts almost like wax,. But he too struggled to define its origins.

In 1783 the botanist Joseph Banks gave a paper at the Royal Society by Dr Franz Xavier Schwediawer, a German physician living in London, which ended the confusion and showed that this mysterious wax-like substance the colour of ash was in fact a secretion found in the intestines of the sperm whale. In 1820 two French chemists, Pierre-Joseph Pelletier and Joseph-Bienaime Caventou, isolated, characterized and named ambrein as the principal active fragrant ingredient of ambergris.

Casanova liked to add small amounts of ambergris to chocolate mousses to aid his amorous adventures. Queen Elizabeth I was enamoured of ambergris and other scents from the East, especially scented gauntlets. She was reputed to have had the wood panelling in a dining room at Hampton Court doused with ambergris, where, apparently, the smell still lingers. Ibn Battuta, the great fourteenth-century Islamic traveller and writer, was
astonished to find men gobbling down hashish cakes laced with ambergris in Baghdad. Today it is sold in the souks of the Middle East, where men still eat it to stimulate their libido. In Morocco they drink an ambergris tisane and there was a time when ambergris was burnt as incense.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Incense Stories

The ancient kingdom of Saba cast a spell over the Greeks and Romans. Cut off by the sun-scorched deserts of central Arabia,these remote southern regions with their exotic exports of incense and spices were considered mysterious and fantastic by the early classical writers. And the Sabeans played up the mystery. They guarded their myrrh and frankincense groves fiercely, deliberately spreading rumours that the groves were watched over not only by them, but also by winged quadrupeds and serpents. Fabulous tales and mythologies sprang up about Arabian perfumes and Indian spices: cinnamon was said to be gathered from the nests of phoenixes, and bats were rumoured to snatch out the eyes of anyone who went cassia picking. Stories like these kept the prices high and the trespassers away, which was exactly what was intended.

As early as 2000 BC incense was considered essential for eternal life; it was thought to be the gateway to the spirit world and, by 450 BC, Herodotus was recording that Arabia ‘was the only place producing frankincense,myrrh .. . and cinnamon,, The privilege of tending the trees and gathering the incense was the preserve of three thousand families who cloaked the whole process in religion and mystery, which also helped maintain its high price. Herodotus wrote that ‘The [men]…of these families are called sacred and are not allowed to …[meet] a woman or [to attend] funeral processions when they are engaged in making incisions in the trees in order to obtain the frankincense.’

Incense was used not only as a spiritual cleanser but also as an early form of hygiene. Strabo mentions the Assyrian post-coital custom of burning incense for purification, while in other parts of the classical world incense was burnt to arouse passions before sex. Writers such as Sappho and Ovid emphasize the erotic properties of incense, and it is said that Egyptian women used to fumigate their vaginas with myrrh smoke. Yemeni women today still stand with their skirts over incense burners.

The Scythians, the trans-asiatic nomads of the Steppes, were addicted to perfume. Herodotus wrote that ‘The Scythian women bruise under a stone wood of the cypress and cedar, with frankincense; upon this they pour water until it becomes of a certain consistency. This imparts an agreeable odour and gives the skin a soft and beautiful appearance.’ They invented a novel vapour-bath too by throwing this paste and some hemp seed on to hot stones beside the bath. It is said that the Scythians enjoyed these scents so much that they squealed with pleasure.

The Greeks attributed a fabulous origin to the resin of myrrh, telling that it came from the tears of Myrrha, daughter of the King of Cyprus, who had been metamorphosed into a shrub after she fell in love with her father and tricked him into sleeping with her for twelve nights.

Myrrh was also believed to have magical effects; its elusive fragrance was thought to have supernatural powers and the ability to banish bad luck, and incense burners filled with juniper and myrrh were placed on thresholds to protect the household from evil spirits.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


Eight-five percent of the sandalwood grown for perfume comes from the province of Mysore. Sandalwood trees are parasitic and scraggy. They absorb the roots of neighbouring trees and plants, such as guava and bamboo, and suck the life out of them. But once sandalwood trees are mature they are felled, and it is the oldest trees, those between thirty and fifty years old, that yield the best-quality oil. Sandalwood is a heart note in perfume: it has both a cool and yet an aphrodisiac odour and it is also an excellent fixative.

The trunks and roots of sandalwood trees are pulverized and the dust is distilled. The best oil comes from the heartwood, and from the roots. In the first distillation process the oil is siphoned off in a funnel, then it is redistilled. The steam distillation method is used,without chemicals, and the whole process takes four days. After distillation the oil is boiled in great cylindrical drums, then separated from the water by siphoning and decanted into flasks. When sandalwood is being distilled there is a lovely, balmy, oily aroma from the steaming copper cauldrons, which has a wonderfully calming effect.

About 1,000 kg of sandalwood dust yield 55 litres of oil. In its purest form, sandalwood oil looks like liquid red gold. Sandalwood is usually associated with incense and soap, but a sublime,voluptuous perfume is also made from the warm, expansive essential oil.

Sandalwood has been highly prized for centuries. Its oil is mentioned in Indian texts from as early as 500 BC: the sandalwood trade was established between India and the Mediterranean in ancient times. Indian courtesans rubbed their breasts with sandalwood paste – it contains a steroid similar to testosterone – and sandalwood paste was also used for fumigation, religious purification and for embalming royal corpses. It was so lavishly used that Confucius recorded that the great sandalwood forests of the East were in danger of depletion. There is a shortage today, too. Supplies of sandalwood have dried up because the trees have been culled but not replanted. Sandalwood trees are now listed as a protected species to prevent excessive culling; each piece of Mysorian sandalwood is registered and stamped to ensure its authenticity and there is now a five-year waiting list for sandalwood oil.

Sandalwood retains its sweet, penetrating scent for years and Indian cabinetmakers and craftsmen still carve ornaments and chests from it because of its scent. In Kashmir a statue of Buddha was carved entirely from sandalwood, and after the Queen of Sheba visited Solomon and presented him with many scented gifts, he commissioned pillars for his temple, and harps and lyres to be carved from sandalwood.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Scent: Sacred and Secular

According to the Vedic texts, some of the world’s most ancient documents, in ancient India fragrant woods were lit and fed with consecrated perfumed ointment and offered to the Hindu gods. In Hindu mythology there are five heavens and they all abound in perfume. The Jupiter of the Hindus, Indra,is always portrayed with his breast tinged with sandalwood, while Kama, the god of love, had a bow and arrow tipped with flower blossoms. The god Brahma was born from a lotus flower which grew from Vishnu’s navel, and the principal ornament of Brahma’s heaven is the blue champak flower, which, on earth, is white and belongs to the Magnoliaceae family. It has a lovely, overpowering scent and is still cultivated for perfumery.

In the first millennium BC the priests were the perfumers, and the skill of grinding up pastes to make incense and unguents, using hundreds of ingredients, was considered a mysterious and esteemed art. High priests kept the sacred fires burning by sprinkling incense on charcoal in censers at the altars. At Heliopolis the sun worshippers burnt gum resins at dawn, myrrh at noon and kaphi (more commonly spelled ‘kyphi,),a mixture of aromatics,at sunset.

In Europe, in the Middle Ages, gardening was restricted – because of the constant threat of invasion – to protected places. Aromatic and medicinal plants were cultivated in the cloistered herb gardens of the monasteries, where the monks and nuns manufactured scent for its medicinal properties. Their knowledge of alchemy and their recognition of the curative powers of scent helped them in their development of new recipes for perfume and medicine. Monks had their own distilling equipment and various orders like the Dominicans, the Carthusians and the Franciscans vied with each other to make the best scents and herbal extracts. When they began to distribute them, their perfume preparations made their monasteries famous throughout Europe.

Perfume has been made by the Dominican monks at the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica at Santa Maria Novella, in Florence, since the 1220s. It is the oldest pharmacy in the world and was founded when the friars began to distil herbs and flowers to make essences, fragrant waters and elixirs. The perfumery and pharmacy still exist, and as you walk into the Officina Profumo the aroma of the herbs, leaves and flowers of the Tuscan countryside, its woodsmoke,lilacs and pine, the twiggy smell of rosemary in summer, the herbal mimosa-like smell of the yellow broom and the wild woody smell of the cypress haunt the vaulted chapel.

The preparations made in the monastery became celebrated not only in Italy but throughout Europe, and medicines were ordered from as far afield as China. Over the years each new abbot set out to devise a new recipe to add to the fame of the Order. In the middle of the nineteenth century the Officina was handed over to the Italian state, but all the original recipes – which the friars invented and perfected over the years – are still kept there. In the fifteenth century Fra Angelo Paladini made an almond paste, a lily water and a cosmetic vinegar, which were very popular with the Tuscan courtiers. In 1707, another abbot, Fra Ludovico Berlingacci,discovered and made his famous ‘Life Elixir’, which included viper flesh.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the scents were bottled and put into small boxes or cases shaped like books, whose covers were embossed with ornamental devices in gold or coloured pigments, and in Pepys’ Letters it is recorded that his nephew John Jackson, who was making a grand tour of Italy, sent his uncle ‘one small book of Florence essences’.

Curative potions made by the monastery, such as ‘Vinegar of the Seven Thieves’,which restored those prone to fainting, and an anti-hysteric water, are all still made, as are all kinds of scented and antique pharmaceutical preparations – from pomegranate soaps to rose elixirs – made from every ingredient you can imagine. There is an iris toothpaste, a myrrh mouthwash and colognes made from Aqua sicilia, mimosa, honeysuckle, tobacco and Spanish leather. A medieval pot-pourri was also made which was left to mature for months and lasted for years.

The Greeks and Romans were known to have anointed different parts of the body with appropriate scents: mint for the arms, palm oil for the breasts, marjoram for the hair, ground ivy for the knees, perfume extracted from vine leaves kept the mind clear and white violets were used to help digestion. St Hildegarde, in her twelfth-century book Le Jardin de Sante (The Garden of Health), wrote about the therapeutic properties of sage, aniseed, thyme, rosemary and, above all, lavender. Plants and animalic substances were researched for their uses to combat plagues and, in the fourteenth century, Olivier de la Haye recommended spreading aromatic plants and sprinkling vinegar and wild roses on floors, as well as burning incense pans of rosemary and juniper berries to disinfect houses. People with maladies disinfected their mouths and hands with an aromatic wine flavoured with pepper, cinnamon, ginger, musk, cloves and mace. Then in 1370 a remedy for many illnesses appeared. It was called a boule de senteur – literally a ball of scent – and was made from aromatic vegetals and animal extracts which people inhaled. These boules de senteur later developed into the more sophisticated pomanders.

Directions for making holy oil can be found in Exodus 30:23-4: ‘Take thou also … three principal spices. Of pure myrrh, 500 shekels, and of sweet cinnamon half so much, even 250,and of sweet calamus 250 shekels. And of cassia, 500 shekels, and of olive oil a hin.,A shekel is an ounce and a hin is a gallon, so this is a huge quantity. Incense was made from pulverized spices – especially cinnamon and perfumed cyprinum, the odoriferous leaves of henna – into psagdi (pastilles of incense), which were tinted green with extracts of henna flowers, Cinnamon also infused holy anointing oil.

In the Middle Ages, perfume was also, naturally, used in the churches of the orders who made it. At Mass, resinous incense billowed from censers and vases of scented water were used at baptisms. But perfume also came into general use. Maisons de bain, or bath houses, were built and filled with aromatic herbs and perfumes. A sybaritic scene from a medieval miniature of one of these public bathhouses depicts couples immersed in huge wooden tubs of water, while servants dispense flacons of wine to the bathers. Beside the bathers another couple lie resting in a four-poster bed.

Banqueting rooms were filled with chaplets of roses on feast days and by the fourteenth century violet, orange and lavender waters were used by ladies of noble birth. In 1365 Charles V of France planted a garden of sage, hyssop, lavender, roses and violets. Musk, amber and civet, and oriental cinnamon, benzoin and sandalwood were also much in vogue. Agnes Sorel, the mistress of Charles VII of France, was so enamoured of ambergris that she had her cloaks soaked in the stuff. One of the most popular scents of the time was made from a melange of chypre, Damask rose, sandalwood, aloes, musk, ambergris and civet. Iris roots were also ground into a powder that gave off a soft violet scent, which responded well to the smell of skin and was thought to be aphrodisiac.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment