Making perfume is an art form that was first developed by the ancient Egyptians, and later refined by the Romans, Persians and Arabs. However, it is in the Islamic cultures that we owe much of the contributions to the development of perfumery, or the art of making perfume. They can be credited to perfecting the steam distillation method of extracting fragrances as well as the use of then-unconventional raw materials.
Especially on ancient civilisations wherein water was a scarcity and bathing was a luxury, masking smells became a necessity. Perfumery became so ingrained into their lives that it crossed beyond its basic use of providing fragrance to other places in their culture. Early Egyptians anointed their dead with perfume, and offered deities their own specific fragrance.
Since early times, perfume has been a mark of extravagance – a status symbol – that separates the wealthy from the poor. They were kept in extravagant perfume bottles, and were considered as gifts worthy of a king..
Initially, perfume was made using only natural ingredients and resources. Oil was extracted from plants, flowers, spices, roots, resin, and even animal by-products, and then mixed with resources like petrochemicals, alcohol, coal or tar.
Nowadays, chemicals can recreate the fragrances of these natural ingredients, and we have modern technology to thank that for. It has helped evolve perfumery by having the ability to recreate fragrances of non-oily substances.
There are five ways of extracting oils from plant substances to create perfume. These ways are solvent extraction, enfleurage, steam distillation, expression, and maceration.
In solvent extraction, oils from plant materials are extracted by placing in large rotating containers while benzene or petroleum ether are poured over them. The chemicals dissolve biodegradable parts and then leave a layer of wax in the container. This wax contain the oil of the material used, and is then dissolved in ethyl alcohol. After it rises, it is subjected to heat to evaporate the alcohol, which leaves a more concentrated fragrance oil in the container.
Enfleurage, meanwhile, is done by covering the plant material, usually flowers, with grease, then spread on sheet made of glass. These sheets are then placed in tiers, between wooden frames. The material is changed regularly until its fragrance has been fully absorbed by the grease.
With steam distillation, oils from flowers are extracted by steaming them. In some cases, they are boiled. However, it is usually the former when using this method. The plant material is first contained in a still until the essential oils evaporate into gas, then the gas is distilled. This is when gas goes through varying stages of being cooled until turned back into liquid.
The method extracting fragrance through expression is the least complicated, and perhaps the oldest. Expression simply means squeezing the fruit or plant manually, or mechanically, until all the oil is extracted. Nowadays, this method is mostly being used to extract oils from citrus rinds.
Lastly, maceration is done by warming fats then soaking up the fragrance, just like in enfleurage. Then, similar to solvent extraction, the fats are dissolved for the essential oils to be extracted..
Once all fragrance oils have been extracted from the plant materials, they go through a process of blending. This is done by a master perfumer, interestingly called as the “nose.” Much skill and expertise is needed to be able to develop a formula for a winning scent, and it could take several years, as well as hundreds of different ingredients. Imagine all the trouble that has been given into extracting these essential oils, only to be discarded if a formula is less than perfect.
After the “nose” has created the scent, it is then mixed with alcohol and left to age. Both the amount of alcohol and time spent on aging the perfume vary greatly, it would depend on the quality and scent the “nose” is aiming to achieve. It could take several months to years on the amount of time spent on aging a perfume.
Once it has been aged, the “nose” would then test the perfume. In testing, he would check if each note, or stages of fragrance, manifest correctly. There are three notes in a perfume: the top note, central or heart notes, and the base notes.
Top notes are often tangy, and citrus oils are used to deliver this. The heart notes provide the body of the perfume, and is the heaviest scent among the three. Often times, fragrant flowers such as roses and jasmine are used to provide body. The base note, or the lingering scent, which are often “woody”, is the most enduring scent of the three.