Making perfumes according to ancient French methods: Production process

How a perfume is born…. according to traditional methods?

Now we are going to look at the process from production to packaging of a perfume in the traditional way of master blenders from the House of Grasse… In this section, I will describe the traditional processes of production… 

Perfumes existed long before the Grasse glovemakers corporation decided to use them as a way to reduce the stench from the tanning factories. Among the pioneers, were the Arabs who made popular a distillation system to extract oils from plants called the ‘ALEMBIC’ usually made of copper- According to history however, the first users of  ‘alembic’ were the Hellenic Egyptians. The word actually comes from the Greek ‘ambix‘ meaning ‘vase‘.

The Grasse corporation of glovemakers was the first to use the alembic on a commercial-scale to distill flowers and today it is still the most widely used method of extraction.

The first step of the production : STEAM DISTILLATION

Through distillation, we extract the essence of a flower. This must be done quite soon after the picking up of the flowers when they are still fresh. Here is a drawing of how distillation with an alembic works:

Along with essential oils extraction, alembic also allows the recuperation of distilled water.  Only distilled rose water and orange flowers are used. It takes a huge quantity of flowers to obtain a tiny amount of oil:

– 600 kg lavender for 1 mere kilo of lavender oil!
– 4000 kg of rose for 1 kg of rose oil!
– 7 kg of dried clove buds for 1 kg of clove oil…

Other production methods 

ENFLEURAGE (COLD AND WARM)

 This is a very expensive process used for fragile flowers such as jasmine, tuberose or daffodil. Due to its high cost, it has been replaced by another technique called ‘solvent extraction’. Nowadays, only artisan perfumers endeavour to keep this traditional process but with a low yield and a lengthy duration, it is not commercially viable.

COLD ENFLEURAGE’ consists of using refined lard, spread on both sides of the glass of a frame (chassis) on which petals of flowers are placed and left for anything between 48 hours and 1 week. The scent of the petals discharges into the lard and they are regularly replaced by fresh ones. The process can last for several weeks and is very delicate. 1 kg of lard can absorb about 3 kg of flowers scent. Once the scent has impregnated, the lard is collected with a spoon and slowly melted then decanted in ethyl alcohol.  The lard is introduced in a centrifuge with alcohol, dissolving the odor molecules.  The blend is then cooled down to get rid of the scented lard through filtration. This costly technique has been abandoned in Grasse in the 1930’s.

WARM ENFLEURAGE’ is a very ancient Egyptian method where lard was being melted in a big pan through the ‘bain-marie’ process (double boiler) in which fresh flowers were added. This was blended for 2 hours. The next day, the old flowers were removed with a flat sieve and replaced with fresh flowers. This process was repeated at least 10 times. When the lard could not absorb the scent of the flowers any longer, filtration was done to separate the lard from the flowers. The result was a scented paste called ‘‘POMMADE” which was then processed in the same way as cold enfleurage.  Flowers such as Rose Centifolia, violet, orange flowers and cassia were dealt with in this way.

COLD EXPRESSION

This process is used for citrus fruit such as lemon, bergamot, mandarin and consists of pressing the fruit peel to obtain the essential oil. Traditionally, the peel was pressed to burst out the layers containing the essential oil through scraping them on metallic picks. Later on, a new process called ‘through sponge’ was developed whereas the peel was pressed several times on a set of natural sponges attached to a clay pan. The expression was done through a rotating movement of the hand. The expressed blend was collected by squeezing the sponges and then decanted to separate the essential oil from the aqueous phase which also contained wastes from the laceration of the layers of the peel.

New techniques such as CO2 extraction and headspace are now used for so-called ‘mute flowers’ such as lilac and lily of the valley which cannot be distilled and do not release their scent through the traditional processes.

In part III to come soon, you will learn about the CREATION PROCESS of a perfume…

Pictures Fragonard Museum, Aroma Sante
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Categories: HISTORY AND SCENTS | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Making perfumes according to ancient French methods: Production process

  1. Dear Isabelle, I’m from a Research Institute of Sanremo ( Italy) , a producer of Mimosas asked me to get informations about the possibility to make extraction of essential oils by enflorage of mimosas flowers. they are now in blooming. Please contact me if you are interested or eventually to give me other contacts for this purpose.
    thank you, best regards, B. Ruffoni

  2. hilal

    Please conact me i need more information on Making perfumes

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