With respect to perfume ingredients, there is an elephant in the room that cannot be ignored: the almighty jasmine. It has long been said “there is no perfume without jasmine,” and never a truer statement has been made. Without jasmine, perfumery would be a pale shadow of itself. Widely considered to be the queen of scents, jasmine has been central to the perfume industry for centuries. Its aroma has been described as heavenly, sensual, and intoxicating. Jasmine is costly, but even a small quantity of its essence can give a rich fullness to a perfume.
From left to right: pink jasmine sambac, jasmine grandiflorum, and a variety of jasmine sambac
The flower was revered by royalty in China and traded along the Silk Road. Hawaii, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Syria, and Thailand all use jasmine as a symbol of cultural identity and pride. India is famous for its jasmine production. Vendors sell garlands at the entrance to temples, on major thoroughfares, and in rituals like marriages, welcome parties, religious ceremonies, and festivals. Indian brides weave intricate patterns of jasmine blossoms into their hair. Jasminum sambac flowers are used to make fragrant tea in China and Japan. Of greatest importance to me, jasmine is a key ingredient of my perfumes.
The effort to extract the scent of jasmine is astonishing. The flowers must be harvested by hand and processed shortly thereafter, otherwise its delicate scent will be ruined. It takes 8,000 hand-picked blossoms to produce only 1 gram of jasmine absolute, the precious material most commonly used by perfumers. Indian jasmine flowers, also known as Chameli or Chambeli, are sometimes extracted using warm oil to obtain an “attar” that is rare in today’s marketplace. A process of cold fat extraction called enfleurage was once common, especially in the Grasse region of France, but has nearly disappeared due to the extreme labor demands.
From left to right: an Indian bride with jasmine garlands; a 12th century painting by Zhao Chang; a vial of jasmine absolute
The most common method to obtain jasmine essence, known as jasmine concrete, involves petroleum ether or hydrocarbon solvents. Annual production of jasmine concrete is more than 15 tons, with the largest producers being Egypt, Morocco, India, Italy, France, and China. The concrete is washed with alcohol to yield jasmine absolute: a dark orange, slightly viscous liquid with a sweet, intensely floral, and tea-like aroma. Steffen Arctander writes that "the method of processing concretes is an art and a science which demands experience, skill and general 'know-how.'" The quality of jasmine concretes are highly variable, adulteration is common, and perfumers should test their suppliers before placing orders in larger quantities.
Jasmine absolute is a middle note of enormous value to the perfumer because it establishes an undeniably floral heart and has a powerful, diffusive aroma. Due to the high cost of jasmine absolute, modern perfumers extend and stabilize the natural material (often to such an extent that very little if any real jasmine exists in the final product). The primary constituents of jasmine concrete are benzyl acetate, linalool, benzyl alcohol, indole, benzyl benzoate, cis-jasmone, geraniol, and methyl anthranilate. The presence of indole in jasmine lends the flower a dirty reputation, as "indolic" is often used to describe the stench of fecal matter (which contains the same molecule); and indole alone has a musty smell that is reminiscent of decay. As is often the case with perfumery and plants in general, jasmine magically transforms this raunchy molecule into a beautifully sexy scent that is wholly unlike isolated indole. That said, I can assure you that mixing the primary constituents of jasmine, even in proportions that match the flower’s chemical constitution, will yield disappointing results. The addition of other notes in judicious quantities is useful; but in the end, there is nothing like the real thing, and other notes should be used for augmentation only. Jasmine sambac has a richer, spicier aroma than jasmine grandiflorum, and jasmine auriculatum is deeper and more indolic still. Depending upon the perfumer's goal, the degree of masculinity or femininity, and the heavier oriental style versus lighter aromas, one or another variety (or some combination) of jasmine is indicated for the blend.
If you want to try your hand at perfumery, some auxiliary notes to jasmine include (in no particular order): hedione, tobacco, labdanum, ylang ylang, chamomile, jasmatone, benzyl salicylate, aldehyde C-14, cashmeran, javanol, and velvione. There are various synthetic re-creations of whole jasmine, but I have never found the artificial jasmines to be useful. I use real jasmine absolute with only small quantities of auxiliary notes to support its natural beauty. To experience jasmine in my perfumes, I recommend that you try Jasmine Blossom. It contains the essence of six different jasmine varieties, including a precious extrait of jasmine sambac enfleurage.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about jasmine. Stay tuned for future articles on ingredients, artistry, and methods that make perfumery a wonderful experience for the senses.
Kelly Heaton, Owner and Perfumer
The Virginia Perfume Company
Makers of Field to Fragrance®