Being a small-scale niche perfumery like ORTIR Apothecari means you are agile. Small batch means you can work with tiny yields, you can afford to spend more on high quality ingredients, be more experimental in your formulae and your process.
Compare this to the big Compound Houses – the IFF’s, Givaudan - the big guns who make the juice for commercial perfumery. This is industrial age perfumery, but before we get all snobbish, independent artisan perfume houses like mine should watch and learn. They work on a scale (and budgets) that allow them to be at the cutting edge of extraction processes.
As a perfumer I have benefited from experiencing many extraction methods first hand. I have observed scientists in lab coats talking me through processes that I couldn’t possibly hope to replicate. I have my own small laboratory set up where I work with table-top distillation methods as well as having the space to experiment with enfleurage. I have my very own stainless steel still on-site – ensuring that my larger crops can be distilled directly after harvesting.
Steam distillation is an age-old process and one I have found to be easily manageable with outstanding results. Water is heated in a very large kettle (the still or alembic) - until steam vaporizes and passes up through raw plant matter. This releases the volatile fragrant compounds which evaporate before condensing back into liquid form to be separated off from the distillate (hydrosol) using a Florentine. The essential oil collected is pure and fragrant with a light golden hue (dependent on crop and growing conditions) and prolific.
Dry distillation on the other hand involves high temperatures, since heat (or direct flame) is applied to the surface of the vessel containing the plant material, which can quickly lead to decomposition.
Some perfume ingredients cannot tolerate heat, as is the case with lemon essential oil, which is obtained by cold expression. This extraction process doesn’t utilise heat at any stage but harvests the fragrant oil by mechanically pressing the fruit peel.
Where once delicate aromatic crops such as jasmine used the method of enfleurage, a process where you steep freshly harvested flowers in fat to capture their oils before dissolving the fat in an alcoholic solvent (messy, labour-intensive, expensive) we are now working with methods of solvent extraction and more recently, swapping the solvent out for high pressure carbon dioxide gas which is excellent for delicate materials that can’t withstand heat. This is called Supercritical CO2 Extraction.
If you thought that sounded high-tech, science-fiction met perfumery back in the 1970’s with Headspace technology. This method captures the fragrance of flowers that cannot be transformed into essential oils by passing inert gases into a chamber that contains the raw matter and using a vacuum apparatus to extract it. Clever.
But return to solvent extraction, which obtains optimum levels of volatile oils from fresh natural materials. The perfume of the plant is dissolved in a solvent which in turn is evaporated to form a thick paste known as a concrete. When washed and stirred with alcohol the concrete will give you an absolute – a thick, deeply hued sticky mass that can boast both the highest price tag as well as the most concentrated aroma.
For example, to produce the golden suede-like orris butter derived from Iris Absolute, rhizomes (raw material) are left to dry for several years before being ground, the powder then dissolved in water before going through a distillation process resulting in the thick oily iris concrete.
Different processes deliver different results from a single ingredient. Compare the almost green citrus notes of rose essential oil produced using steam distillation with the richer, fuller fragrance of rose absolute, which is obtained through solvent extraction.
From a perfumer’s point of view, the process of extraction is as important as the raw ingredient itself. The method used contributes to the quality and intensity of the captured aroma and this is because the odour of any essential oil changes as it evaporates.
As a niche perfumer I can be extra choosy when it comes to the ingredients that I use to create my formulae. I work from a palette where I understand that the raw material is equally important to the extraction process that has been used to perfectly capture its precious scent.