The time-tested art of essential oil extraction
Perfume is fascinating. The more I learn about its rich fragrant history, the more inquisitive I become. I know I will never know it all but I continue to seek the answers. What I have noticed however, in our world of instant gratification is that many of the ancient techniques used to extract the delicate oils from flowers have sadly been abandoned for faster, less labour-intensive procedures.
One such example is enfleurage—the oldest and most delicate technique used to extract the sensual oils from fragile flowers. The method was invented by the French perfumer Piver in 1750. Enfleurage exploited the natural phenomenon of fat absorbing odour to remove the scent from flowers and can only be used with certain blooms like tuberose and jasmine that continue to manufacture and release essential oils for many hours after they have been picked (otherwise the amount of oil collected would be negligible.).
The Essence of Perfume
"Enfleurage 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, and leaving a waxy-fatty residual odour behind," explains UK-based perfumer Roja Dove.
In his beautiful coffee-table tome The Essence Of Perfume , Dove explains how the technique works: 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 are picked by hand and 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 only needs 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, with the wax left over being discarded. The mixture is then heated to become an oil known as an absolue de pommade.
After up to 48 hours (more for tuberose), the spent petals are carefully removed. This process is repeated several times, until the fat is fully saturated with the floral oils and this enfleurage pommade has a magnificently intense fragrance. The pomade is then sufficiently warmed to melt and repeatedly extracted with alcohol. Finally, after gentle distillation the alcohol separates, leaving a residue of absolute, known simply as enfleurage. Clearly a just hugely demanding and intensive process.
These oils are absolutes, as are those obtained by solvent extraction, which is the method that largely superseded enfleurage. Dove affirms that although the resulting absolutes obtained by each method smell essentially the same, the reason that it is still worth producing absolutes using enfleurage, (such as for tuberose), is that it optimises the amount of oil you can extract from the raw material.
"Enfleurage is an incredibly expensive process due to the amount of handwork it entails, so it is only reserved for the very finest fragrances," he adds. As there are only a handful of people left in the world with the skill and experience to employ this technique. Dove fears that it may not be long before it fades into history.
Now that would be a real shame...
(Main image ©Robertet)