Plants breathe but flowers exhale. Their fragrances may be light and airy or strong and spicy but they are all distinctive and beautiful, these flowers that exhale. Plants breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen – not with lungs but with leaves, stems and sometimes roots. For most of their growing period they use carbon dioxide and minerals from the soil to build leaves, stems, twigs, blades, roots, tendrils, and fronds. Then they create the flowers. Some plants form flowers that are scented, a few of those have lovely diffusive scents. An even smaller number of flowers will continue to exhale their fragrance after they are removed from the plant. From those, a precious few produce scents that are wondrous and magical, perfect for making perfumes. For these few and fragile flowers, capturing their scent may be best achieved through enfleurage. A list of these flowers includes jasmine, tuberose, violet, jonquil, narcissus, mimosa, acacia, gardenia and hyacinth.
Enfleurage in the original French means to “impregnate with the scent of flowers.” It is also defined as “extracting perfumes by exposing inodorous oils or fats to the exhalations of flowers.” Ernest Guenther, in his 1948 book on essential oils, described the process of enfleurage in depth and referred to the natural flower oils thus produced as “representing the authentic scents as exhaled by the flowers, these flower oils are the finest and most delicate ingredients at the disposal of the modern perfumer …..” . From the early days of the industry in Grasse, France, perfumers perfected the art of enfleurage and gathered the fragrance of jasmine through this process.
The ideal material for gathering the scent is fat, called the corps, because it is highly absorptive and will readily absorb any perfume that is emitted. Preparation of the corps is very important because the fat must be neither too hard nor too soft and is traditionally made from one part highly purified tallow and two parts lard. If the fat is too hard it will not gather the maximum scent through contact with the flowers, if too soft the flowers will stick and will be difficult to remove and may take a part of the corps with them. An array of thousands of chassis – specialized wooden frames about 20x16x2 inches in size – hold glass panes that are spread on both sides with the corps.
A jasmine harvest lasts about 8 to 10 weeks during which flowers are picked fresh each day and spread on the corps. The chassis are then stacked high on top of each other to form a series of airtight compartments with fat on both the upper and lower surfaces to absorb any scent molecules released into the air. Each morning the flowers arrive fresh from harvest and are cleaned and strewn by hand on the chassis and are not used if they are wet or moist. Flowers are removed after 24 hours, before they start emitting unpleasant odors. This is done by hand and requires skilled workers using tweezers. The chassis are turned over so top becomes bottom. Several times during the process, fat in the chassis is scratched with metal combs or fingernails to create tiny furrows that increase the surface area for absorption. Imagine coming home at the ends of the day with soft, soft hands smelling of jasmine!
The finished product is called a pomade and may be named for the number of re-charges, for example Pomade No. 36 was replenished 36 times with fresh jasmine flowers. The pomade is washed with high proof alcohol in a batteause and produces an extrait. The batteause is a chamber with a number of blades that stirs the fat and alcohol for maximum extraction. To keep to the theme, if an extrait is made from Pomade No. 36, for example, the extrait will be called Extrait No. 36. The alcohol may travel through several batteaux before it is exhausted. It is then removed and may be used to make soap. The alcohol is frozen to -15 degrees to remove the last of the fat and filtered at a low temperature. The goal is to obtain one kilo of extrait per kilo of pomade. In addition, the exhausted flowers may be extracted with a solvent after they are removed from the chassis to yield absolute of enfleurage.
Source: The Essential Oils Volume One: History – Origin in Plants – Production – Analysis. By Ernest Guenther, PhD. Published in 1948 by Van Nostrand Company, Inc. New York.
Photography: jasmine flower by Elise Pearlstine; enfleurage process by VeraKL.