Posted: July 1, 2019
Most perfumes now use man-made oils and ingredients. But perfume used to be made entirely from natural sources.
COLLECT: Gather flowers, grasses, spices, fruit, wood, roots, plant sap, oil, and gum. It can take thousands of flowers to make a pound of essential oil for perfume. Of about 250,000 kinds of flowering plants, only about 2,000 contain oils that can be used for perfume. Collect animal secretions like musk from male deer found in China, fatty gland oils from civet cats bred in Ethiopia, castor from beavers in Canada and Russia, or ambergris (a lump of fatty bile a sperm whale throws up—worth more than its weight in gold!). Get alcohol, chemicals from oil, coal, or tar.
EXTRACT: Distill essential oils. Heat turns plant oils into vapor. The steam cools in a tube, turning back into liquid and dripping into a container. Dissolve plants in solvents, bringing out the essential oils. Enfleurage is the process of putting plants in grease until the fat has soaked up the smell. Then the fats are dissolved in alcohol to extract the absolutes—the concentrated scent oil. Squeeze plants in a press.
BLEND: A master blender is called a “nose.” It is the nose’s job to combine oils to develop a new scent. A formula can include hundreds of different oils and take years to get right. Perfumers talk about scents as notes. Top notes are tangy, citrus-like smells. Middle notes like rose or jasmine do most of the work. Base notes like woody fragrances hang around longer.
DILUTE: Pure perfume oil is too strong to use alone . . . and way too expensive! Oil is blended with alcohol and water.
AGE: The best perfumes age like wine or cheese. The nose decides when the scent is ready. It may be months or years.