Perfumery ingredients

Perfume in the ancient world

A day without fragrance is a lost day -- Egyptian saying

 John Weguelin, "The Obsequies of an Egyptian Cat," (1886)

John Weguelin, "The Obsequies of an Egyptian Cat," (1886)

Evidence of perfume (per fumare, or "through smoke") dates back 7,000 years to Syria, where small vessels made of gypsum, chlorite, and ceramics have been unearthed. Hieroglyphics tell us that the Egyptians made perfume as early as 3,000 BC for worship, sacrificial offerings, and entombment. Kyphi is an especially revered form of incense from ancient Egypt. Made with myrrh, calamus, cypress grass, wine, honey, raisins, mastic, cinnamon, and juniper, parts of the original recipe have been lost; but approximate recreations are still made today.

  Egyptian incense burner from the 7th century BC (broken on the left side)   Walkers Art Museum

Egyptian incense burner from the 7th century BC (broken on the left side)
Walkers Art Museum

  "Perfection" carved in agarwood.  Various forms of aromatic woods were burned as sacred incense throughout east Asia. In particular, sandalwood and agarwood developed a legendary reputation. Agarwood, aloeswood, or “oud” remains among the world’s most coveted fragrant materials and is equally if not more expensive than gold.

"Perfection" carved in agarwood. Various forms of aromatic woods were burned as sacred incense throughout east Asia. In particular, sandalwood and agarwood developed a legendary reputation. Agarwood, aloeswood, or “oud” remains among the world’s most coveted fragrant materials and is equally if not more expensive than gold.

In addition to their incense, Egyptians are famous for aromatic unguents: oil-based perfumes used for medicinal, pleasurable, and sacred purposes. These were stored in ceramic, glass, and alabaster containers. Below are several beautiful examples of unguent vessels found in tombs.

Strangely, numerous Egyptian paintings depict people with dome-shaped objects on their heads. These are believed to be unguent cones made of beeswax, plant oils and/or tallow, and scented with henna, myrrh, and cinnamon. The fragrant cones would slowly melt, adorning the wearer's hair, skin, and clothes with a perfumed oil that protected them from the arid climate and repelled insects: essential self-care practices in early Egypt.

  The earliest intact residue of perfume comes from Cyprus, where archaeologists unearthed 4,000 year-old ceramic jugs containing scented oils. Scientists were able to identify the ingredients as ben oil, anise, pine, coriander, bergamot, almond, and parsley. The multitude of jugs and alembics suggests a large-scale production of perfume in ancient Cyprus.

The earliest intact residue of perfume comes from Cyprus, where archaeologists unearthed 4,000 year-old ceramic jugs containing scented oils. Scientists were able to identify the ingredients as ben oil, anise, pine, coriander, bergamot, almond, and parsley. The multitude of jugs and alembics suggests a large-scale production of perfume in ancient Cyprus.

  The world’s first identifiable chemist and perfume-maker was a woman (!) named Tapputi Belatekallim, an over-seer of a palace in Mesopotamina. She and a female assistant are recorded on a cuneiform tablet dating to 1200 BC. The tablet describes some of Tapputi's methods to extract scent from plant material, including solvent extraction, distillation, and filtration.

The world’s first identifiable chemist and perfume-maker was a woman (!) named Tapputi Belatekallim, an over-seer of a palace in Mesopotamina. She and a female assistant are recorded on a cuneiform tablet dating to 1200 BC. The tablet describes some of Tapputi's methods to extract scent from plant material, including solvent extraction, distillation, and filtration.

There is evidence of perfume manufacturing in the early Bronze age of Greece, but perfumeries were destroyed in the collapse of Mycenaean civilization and did not resume until the 7th century BC. An early tablet describes a recipe of the perfumer Thyestes containing coriander, cypress seeds, fruit, wine, honey, and wool (probably as a filter). Below: early Grecian perfume vessels

Corinth and later Athens revived perfume-making in Greece, concocting herbal, floral, and resinous fragrances that were used extensively by both sexes for hygiene and romance.

  With increased trade, demand grew for a broader palette of aromatic materials. Routes connecting Rome, Greece, Egypt, Africa, Mesopotamia, and India distributed exotic ingredients to patrons far and wide, including rarities such as musk, ambergris, agarwood, and frankincense. Woods and berries were prized in arid climates, same as frankincense was desired in humid areas.

With increased trade, demand grew for a broader palette of aromatic materials. Routes connecting Rome, Greece, Egypt, Africa, Mesopotamia, and India distributed exotic ingredients to patrons far and wide, including rarities such as musk, ambergris, agarwood, and frankincense. Woods and berries were prized in arid climates, same as frankincense was desired in humid areas.

In the middle to late Bronze age, oil-based perfume was manufactured in Egypt for export to Rome. One of the better known fragrances was made in Mendes using myrrh, cassia, and cinnamon steeped in ben oil (a mildly fragrant carrier with a long shelf life). Some vendors added sweet wine to lighten the scent. A second popular perfume from Egypt, known as “Metopion,” contained galbanum, bitter almonds, unripe olives, cardamom, calamus, honey, wine, myrrh, seed of balsamum, and turpentine resin. Stakte, Cyprinum, and Susinum were other commonly known and well-loved Egyptian formulas.

  "The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra," Lawrence Alma Tadema (1884)   The famous Egyptian queen Cleopatra embraced the seductive effects of perfume. According to legend, she coated the sails of her boat with fragrant oils so that Mark Antony   would delight in the scent of her marvelous arrival.  In the words of Shakespeare:  "The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne, Burn’d on the water; the poop was beaten gold, Purple the sails, and so perfumed that The winds were lovesick with them…"

"The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra," Lawrence Alma Tadema (1884)

The famous Egyptian queen Cleopatra embraced the seductive effects of perfume. According to legend, she coated the sails of her boat with fragrant oils so that Mark Antony would delight in the scent of her marvelous arrival.  In the words of Shakespeare:

"The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burn’d on the water; the poop was beaten gold,
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick with them…"

At the Virginia Perfume Company, all of our Field to Fragrance® perfumes are inspired by the art and ingredients of ancient perfumery. Given the heavy spices, resins, and woods that characterize Egyptian perfume, I would choose "Tabac" as our most ancient-smelling fragrance. It contains an absolute of tobacco leaves (an American plant, but one with a resinous, woody, and honeyed scent), labdanum (also known as the resin of Cistus), cinnamon, east Asian agarwood, Moroccan rose absolute, Indian sandalwood, African copal bark, birch tar, Chinese musk, and clove. Tabac smells like the inside of an old tobacco shop, which bears some olfactory resemblance to an ancient temple: deep, dark, fragrant with woody incense, and sacred.

Here ends my overview of ancient perfumery. In my next newsletter, I will continue the story with fragrant tales from the Judeo-Christian tradition.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about perfume in the ancient world. Please join our mailing list to be notified of future articles on the 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®
perfume@fieldtofragrance.com
www.fieldtofragrance.com

Give thanks to patchouli

Sweet and earthy patchouli

Patchouli is not a gorgeous plant. Its flowers are ordinary, and some people associate patchouli with mothballs or beatnik culture. That said, patchouli is without a doubt one of the most valuable base notes in perfumery. I wager to bet that many people wear it unaware of its presence in the fragrance mix. In this newsletter, I will do my best to elevate your esteem of this fabulous essential oil.

First, some history: in the 1800s, Indian textiles were impregnated with patchouli oil to protect them from insect damage during transport to Europe. The scent association of patchouli with Asian textiles became so pervasive, European weavers were obliged to scent their imitation fabrics with the oil. During the social revolution of the 1960s, the patchouli enjoyed a resurgence because it smells of nature and has an exotic freshness that sets it apart from old-fashioned perfume.

From left to right: textiles from Kasmir; detail of "Will You Go Out With Me Fido?" by Alfred Stevens (1859); hippies from the 1960s

  The essential oil of patchouli is obtained by steam distillation of the leaves of   Pogostemon cablin  . A small, bushy herb from Indonesia and the Philippines, patchouli is widely cultivated in warmer regions of Asia. The best quality oil comes from plant material that is harvested during the wet season. The leaves cannot be distilled directly due to a need to rupture the cell walls. Light fermentation is the technique of choice, although blanching is sometimes used to produce an oil of inferior quality. Fortunately, the relatively low-cost and wide availability of patchouli reduces risk of adulteration, unlike many costly essential oils.

The essential oil of patchouli is obtained by steam distillation of the leaves of Pogostemon cablin. A small, bushy herb from Indonesia and the Philippines, patchouli is widely cultivated in warmer regions of Asia. The best quality oil comes from plant material that is harvested during the wet season. The leaves cannot be distilled directly due to a need to rupture the cell walls. Light fermentation is the technique of choice, although blanching is sometimes used to produce an oil of inferior quality. Fortunately, the relatively low-cost and wide availability of patchouli reduces risk of adulteration, unlike many costly essential oils.

  Patchouli is beloved for its complex odor and incredible tenacity. Deep, sweet, and smoky, patchouli slows the evaporation of more volatile oils and lends an earthy note to perfume. Aromatherapists prize patchouli for its relaxing and balancing effects. Unlike volatile essential oils, patchouli improves with aging. The new oil can have minty or harsh herbal notes that mellow with age into a smooth, deep sweetness.

Patchouli is beloved for its complex odor and incredible tenacity. Deep, sweet, and smoky, patchouli slows the evaporation of more volatile oils and lends an earthy note to perfume. Aromatherapists prize patchouli for its relaxing and balancing effects. Unlike volatile essential oils, patchouli improves with aging. The new oil can have minty or harsh herbal notes that mellow with age into a smooth, deep sweetness.

To make perfume, I use a five year-old essential oil of patchouli from White Lotus Aromatics, as well as a “double distilled” patchouli from Eden Botanicals. The five year-old patchouli is my favorite. The notes are more complex, the body is fuller, and the sweetness is more exalting. It reminds me of a cool, sweet creek running through lush woodlands. I use the double distilled variety for lighter perfumes where earthy notes are inappropriate. I’ve experimented with two different varieties of SCO2 extraction, but I find both inferior to the essential oil. A resinoid version of patchouli exists, but I have never tried it.

Patchouli blends so well with most other oils, it is hardly worth listing them all. A few notable pairings include rose, neroli, bergamot, sandalwood, tobacco, and clary sage. Mandy Aftel writes “patchouli does wonderful things to rose, deepening and layering it so that it gives the impression of petals opening and unfurling infinitely.” To experience patchouli in my perfumes, I use it so extensively that I suggest that you try my collection, either The Field to Fragrance® Travel Collection, or my Sample the Field to Fragrance® Collection.

Thank you for being a subscriber to The Virginia Perfume Company's mailing list. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about patchouli. 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®
perfume@fieldtofragrance.com
www.fieldtofragrance.com

Take a deep breath of jasmine

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.

 The time-consuming and labor intensive process of cold fat enfleurage

The time-consuming and labor intensive process of cold fat enfleurage

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.

 Field to Fragrance® Jasmine Blossom perfume

Field to Fragrance® Jasmine Blossom perfume

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®
perfume@fieldtofragrance.com