Enfleurage : Perfume Vocabulary and Fragrance Notes

Jasmineelise

by Elise Pearlstine

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!

IMG_0945 IMG_0946

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.

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27 Comments

  • ines: Very interesting. I didn’t know that.
    Chassis look really lovely, like little art pieces. 🙂 April 13, 2011 at 4:53am Reply

  • Austenfan: I knew roughly what enfleurage was, but your article has elucidated it very much. Thanks again for sharing your knowledge with us. And I love your choice of pictures. April 13, 2011 at 6:39am Reply

  • Ann C: I didn’t know a thing about this process. Thanks for the interesting article! April 13, 2011 at 6:52am Reply

  • nstephens@beachcroft.com: A couple or so years ago I took myself off to Nice for three days with the express purpose to going to the perfume museum in Grasse. You can imagine the disappointment as I stood before the museum swathed in scaffolding bearing a typically abrupt French “Ferme” notice. However the Fragonard museum wasn’t half bad and had some old chassis on display. I am in awe at the painstaking process (including those who pick the blossoms!) and thoroughly enjoyed your account. One thing I was wondering – is tallow also animal fat? And lard is, I’m sure, so doesn’t the corps smell a bit, well, animalic to begin with? April 13, 2011 at 8:50am Reply

  • sweetlife: The painstaking process of laying out all those blossoms just so boggles the mind.

    A couple questions, V., because I got a little lost at this part: “The pomade is washed with high proof alcohol in a batteause and produces an extrait.” What does that mean, exactly, and what does the extrait look like? When Mandy Aftel describes this process in Essence and Alchemy, she makes it sound like the fat is dissolved in the alcohol and what remains is a solid, the “concrete,” which is then further distilled to produce a liquid, the “absolute.” Did I misunderstand? April 13, 2011 at 9:24am Reply

  • sweetlife: P.S. Love the idea of exhaling flowers, and Elise’s photo. April 13, 2011 at 9:25am Reply

  • Elise: Excellent question – there was actually an art to preparing the animal fat. It was done during the winter by laboriously cleaning the fat, crushing and beating it in a stream of cold water, melting, filtering and adding benzoin to preserve plus alum to remove the last impurities. This lengthy process yielded a nearly odorless fat of perfect, uniform consistency. Guenther actually experimented with vegetable fats and didn’t find anything nearly as good. April 13, 2011 at 11:28am Reply

  • Elise: Yes, long and painstaking. I do it on a small scale, not much in the way of results but nice-smelling hands and a few ounces of extrait. I use organic vegetable shortening. Mandy Aftel has a really nice section on enfleurage in Essence and Alchemy but then she transitions to solvent extraction, the more modern method. This is where concretes and absolutes come from. Glad you liked the photo! April 13, 2011 at 11:31am Reply

  • Susan Webster Adams: Is a concrete the same as a pomade?

    I love the photo too. It looks like beautiful kitchen wallpaper.

    Great blog post!! Very informative. I’ve never read such a detailed explanation of enfluerage. April 13, 2011 at 11:41am Reply

  • sweetlife: Oh, sorry Elise, didn’t see your byline! Thanks for the reply–I’ll have to take a look at that section in E+A again.

    You make me wonder what Trygve Harris’ version of this method is. She’s using palm butter, that much I know.

    And hey “a few ounces of extrait” is nothing to sneeze at! April 13, 2011 at 1:54pm Reply

  • Victoria: It is my mistake in messing up html, so hyperlink to Elise's page was not visible. Sorry for confusion!

    It actually made me wonder the same thing about Trygve's method. There are some beautiful oils in her shop, I need to explore this further. April 13, 2011 at 2:04pm Reply

  • Elise: Hi Ines – It was fun researching this piece. Yes, pretty photos of the chassis and imaging the lovely smell. April 13, 2011 at 2:08pm Reply

  • Elise: Thanks! I find it a fascinating process. April 13, 2011 at 2:09pm Reply

  • Elise: I am glad you enjoyed it Ann. There is a lot to the process. April 13, 2011 at 2:10pm Reply

  • Elise: I am also interested in Trygve Harris’ method. So glad you brought that up. We’ll see what we can find out! April 13, 2011 at 2:11pm Reply

  • Elise: Thanks sweetie! April 13, 2011 at 2:12pm Reply

  • Victoria: Have you been to her shop in NYC? It is amazing to have an interesting place in the middle of the city! April 13, 2011 at 2:13pm Reply

  • Elise: Hi Susan – A concrete is generally waxy but is obtained from solvent extraction. A pomade is the actual scented fat. So, somewhat similar but from different processes. Great question, I love the way everyone is thinking about this process. April 13, 2011 at 2:15pm Reply

  • Natalie: I actually attempted enfleurage when I was about 7 years old! My somewhat eccentric parents didn’t bat an eyelid as I smeared lard on plates and sandwiched lilac blossoms in between. My resulting scent smelled like rotten lilacs, unfortunately — I think I didn’t change the flowers often enough — but the process was memorable… April 14, 2011 at 12:12am Reply

  • Elise: What a great story Natalie – thanks for sharing! April 14, 2011 at 6:18am Reply

  • anon: I have always been told that even fewer flowers produce a concrete or essence by any method that is actually true to the flower scent. for example, gardenia and violet do not produce an essence or concrete that are true to the scent of the natural flower and have to use other essences or synthetics to mimic the flower. April 14, 2011 at 3:45pm Reply

  • rod: why can’t you use mason jars; place/pack flowers into mason jar, fill jar with warmed fat/oil so it liquid. 24 hours later gently warm fat/oil in jar until it is liquid. pour off fat/oil into cheesecloth covered colander dripped into collecting bowl/pot. squeeze out remaining fat/oil into collection bowl.

    repeat many times. February 17, 2016 at 6:31am Reply

    • Victoria: The thing is that you can’t use warm fat on jasmin. It’s a very delicate flower. And animal fats, the ones used for enfleurage, are solid at room temperature. But today different method are used, so enfleurage is a technique rarely encountered. February 17, 2016 at 7:13am Reply

  • rod: thanks. then let’s talk ghee ( clarified butter). the idea of immersing the flowers in something like ghee wild be much more practical in a larger scale operations for two reasons; totally immerse the petals instead of partial submersion by pressing, pour off the ghee quickly instead off the tedious hand picking.

    also, some ppl lightly bruise the flowers before attempting enfleurage. how would freezing the flowers work? freezing would expand/bust the cell walls which theoretically release more volatile oils and also as a second benefit enable the fresh flowers to be available for a longer period of time.

    thanks victoria for your reply.

    rod February 17, 2016 at 8:09am Reply

    • Victoria: Ghee turns rancid very quickly, and for a large scale operation it’s too expensive. If you bruise, or heaven forbid freeze flowers, you will end up with something that smells musty and dank.
      But as I said, today enfleurage is hardly ever used commercially, and nobody would dream of using fats for extracting jasmine essence. There are other better, more sophisticated methods available. February 17, 2016 at 12:13pm Reply

  • rod: thanks again for your patience. i read a few articles and viewed a couple pf dyi vids. got off on the left foot me thinks. i’ll study up on some perfume forums.

    rod February 17, 2016 at 3:25pm Reply

  • chanez: Hello
    I work in the national scientific museum in Paris, and we also edit a magazine (4000 prints)
    We prepare an article about perfume and I am looking for a picture of “enfleurage” in HD quality.
    Can you help me
    Thank you all the best
    Florence Chanez May 2, 2016 at 11:20am Reply

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