Perfume making, or perfumery, is an old, old art that started in the 2nd millennium BC and has gone on to develop and continue to evolve even today. During those times, all that perfumers had were a few vials and everything was mixed, grinded and stirred by hand, making perfumery as complex and tedious as you can imagine. This tedious process of perfume making is present until now. And this is probably the reason why perfume production has remained to be an exclusive creation of the elite and was not always available to all.
Today, with all the modern machinery and efficient scientific processes, perfumery may be a little bit more democratised but it arguably remains to be the sole province of the privileged few. Let’s take a look at how perfumes are made and see how exquisite scented elixirs can come to life.
Getting the ingredients will always be the first step in perfume making. Before, noses would only use natural ingredients like flowers, grasses, spices, woods, real animal musk and other animal secretions. Modern perfumery has since evolved and now uses synthetic ingredients in place of those materials that have come to be extinct or seasonal in nature.
Ingredients like flowers are similar to wine vintage. Each harvest gives a different yield. There are a lot of factors that go into the quality of a yield like soil, climate and method of harvesting. Roses, for example, must be picked early enough in the morning yet late enough that the roses have opened. It must be hand-picked and stored delicately, making sure that they are not crowded in storage in order to retain their oils. Hundreds of other ingredients sourced from plant varieties are harvested and stored in the same tedious manner, if not more.
This is the reason why younger perfumers are comfortable working with the synthetic ingredients that are more affordable and convenient to work with. Still, the most exclusive designer brand perfumes would prefer to work with natural ingredients as the market believes that rare is always most beautiful. It comes as no surprise then that Grasse, a region south of France and producer of many flowering plant varieties, is the perfume world’s top supplier.
In order to make these ingredients work, their oils are extracted. Extraction may be by steam distillation, solvent extraction, effleurage, maceration and expression. Solvent extraction, for example, is done by placing the dissolving the ingredient in solvent for hours at a certain temperature. Hexane gas is the typical choice for solvents. The solvent will then be separated from the essences and fatty oils. The fatty oils are later separated through an ethanol rinse. The end product is what they call an absolute.
The absolute provides the essence of the perfumes. The natural ones come at a hefty price. For example, it takes 600 roses to make an ounce of perfume. The tedious process of extraction is another reason why most perfumers tend to work with synthetics, aside from the obvious cost that some deem far outweighs its end products.
It is these oils that are mixed and blended by a perfume master called a “nose”. This is another tiresome step of the production. Before the privilege of blending, a nose would take about 2 to 3 years of training and identifying the different scents. Among perfume houses, there are many noses that formulate their respective blends. Today, it has also become a practice for some brands, especially those that do not only sell perfume, to commission independent noses and pick among their creations the best one that could be added to the brand’s line.
Blending would take any number of combinations among more than the regular 800 perfume ingredients, both natural and synthetic in origin. These days, most perfume factories prefer to use ready-made perfume bases from international brands and mix these with order base oils. This results in a mass production of fragrances. Whether that’s a good thing or not is an entirely different matter.
Perfume making is serious business. It is a labour of love from harvesting to extraction to blending all the way to the product launch. So next time you reach for your favourite bottle, think of all the love exhausted in order to produce it. Thousands of acres of flowers and years of research and blending were spent on it. Savour it.