It’s time that I come clean about one of my most powerful addictions: fragrance. Here’s something that may surprise you: Most women choose perfume not as an expression of their personality, but as a quality they aspire to. A sexually assured, high powered businesswoman, for instance, will most often choose a delicate floral. Her shy and introverted sister is most likely to opt for a sultry oriental. As for me, I dislike most commercial fragrances. Not only are they overpriced, many of the most expensive and highly advertised perfumes smell revolting. Why? Because they have become more and more polluted by artificial chemicals which create allergic reactions in many. After all, phoney chemicals are cheap, while the real thing is costly. A discerning nose can easily sense the difference. This is the main reason why I make my own fragrances. It’s easy, and I’ll tell you how I do this. But first, come with me on a mini-journey into the sensuous, irresistible world of real fragrance that, long ago, literally changed my life. Who knows? It could even change yours...
At the foot of the Mediterranean Alps, amidst the wild herbs and brilliant citrus of Southern France, lies Europe's hoard of sensuous delight and healing power: Grasse, perfume capitol of the world since the fifteenth century. But that was already long after holy orders of monks had settled in what they called a 'blessed herb garden', where cloves, tuberose, jasmine and lavender spread over the earth in wild abundance, and grew in the harmony of perfect ecological balance. They acted upon that balance with great skill and cunning, introducing rare plants from Persia, India and the Iberian Peninsula—plants to heal the plague and banish evil, plants to soothe and quiet a troubled mind, plants to perfume leather and to heighten the charisma of courtiers and bishops. In alchemists' chambers and cloistered cells, stoves glowed and retorts bubbled with one end in mind: To extract the 'soul' of each plant and flower, of every root and leaf and bark. These men knew that the life-force is something after which every creature lusts. If only they could capture it, they reasoned, if only they could distil it and then drink its essence through their skin and senses, perhaps they could heighten their own experience of abundance, pleasure and wellbeing. That was more than five hundred years ago. Now the advent of high-technology has altered the means. We no longer use words like 'alchemy' or 'soul', yet the goal is the same: To extract the fine, light, almost ethereal essence of the living plant: The essential oil—one of the great miracles of nature.
SOUL OF A FLOWER
These substances taken from roots, leaves and flowers in the prime of life once formed the core of the world's great perfumes. So precious and rare are these essences that it takes some 8 million blossoms of jasmine to produce a single kilogram of the essential oil, or five tons of rose petals to yield a similar quantity of the famed rose absolute. The essential oil of tuberose is so expensive that every drop is worth its weight in gold. Along with small quantities of animal substances such as civet, ambergris and musk and the new synthetic aromatics, such essential oils are the be-all and end-all of real fragrance—balms to soften skin, perfumed soaps, flowery powders, bathing oils, perfumes, spicy dishes and aromatic drinks.
LAMAS AND PROSTITUTES
Throughout history, essential oils have been prized for their mind-bending qualities. Tibetan lamas mixed extraordinary combinations of complex hydrocarbons taken from herbs and flowers to produce incense, to heighten concentration and center the mind. Knowing every secret of sensuality, temple prostitutes used them to create heady aphrodisiacs—fragrances carefully contrived to make themselves irresistible to their worshippers. In Persia, astrologers advised their clients on the use of balms made from opopanax and origanum, to give protection when malevolent planets made transits. But perhaps most important of all, these subtle aromatics, which are the life-blood of a plant, formed the basis of potent medicines for healing all the way from East India to the west coast of America. Plant-based essences extracted from flowers, fruits, woods, herbs, spices and resins have extraordinary complexity, both chemically and in subtle energies for healing which they carry. In some mysterious way, they capture the sun's photo-electromagnetic energy and, through the actions of enzymes, transform it into biochemical power.
NATURE’S GLORIOUS GIFTS
A natural essential oil is absolutely impossible to reproduce artificially. For it is something which, in its wholeness and its power to act on the human mind and body, can only be created by life itself. Herein lies the wonderful paradox of all potent nature-created substances. On the one hand, they have quite remarkable abilities to affect our bodies, minds and feelings. On the other, they are so fine and light and delicate that power can be virtually destroyed unless they are cultivated, harvested, extracted, stored and used in a manner which shows absolute respect for nature and her needs. But herein lies the rub:
The essence of any plant is locked within it. In the case of flowers such as rose, jasmine and tuberose, it is found in the blossoms. It can also be taken from stems and leaves such as patchouli, geranium and mint, from fruits, (strawberry, orange and lemon) from roots, (angelica, orris, and vetiver) from woods, (rose, cedar and sandalwood) as well as from needles and twigs such as cypress and pine, herbs and grasses such as hay, sage and basil, resins and balsams such as myrrh and galbanum, and barks such as cinnamon. A few plants, such as the bitter orange tree, are "multiple producers". It yields neroli from its blossoms, petitgrain oil from its leaves, and bitter orange oil from the peel of its fruit. But the most costly and rarefied essential oils come from flowers whose fragility and fine fragrances have made them infinitely desirable. And the method for cultivating them, picking them and extracting them is as great an art as it is a science.
A ROSE IS A ROSE
Take rose, for instance. The Centifolia rose is cultivated in the vicinity of Grasse. It also grows in Morocco and Egypt. But the most famous rose in the world is the Damascene rose of Bulgaria, which grows in great abundance at the foot of the Balkan Mountains. It bears blossoms for a mere thirty days a year—blossoms which can only be gathered by hand individually, as they have been for centuries. This process begins at dawn each morning and is a race against time. For as the sun grows high in the sky, the flowers yield their essential oils to the surrounding atmosphere—so much so that, by midday, they are only half as potent as they were at sunrise. Whole families enter the fields to pick flowers, each person carrying a great bag over his stomach. A skilled worker can harvest as much as fifty kilos in a day. It is a considerable gathering, yet it will yield only a few drops of the essence. Flowers thus picked must be quickly removed from the sun and processed within twenty-four hours. The Damascene rose is then subjected to a process of distillation where blossoms are spread in abundance on a grill and great quantities of steam directed through them. The intense heat calls forth these fragrant materials, which have a very high boiling point. In the case of the Centifolia rose of Grasse, a process of extraction is used instead to yield not the oil itself, but what is called the rose absolute. Each species of flower is unique, and despite the high-technology of modern perfumery, there will never be a single method of drawing forth the 'soul' of every plant.
A Jasmine harvest takes place even earlier—while the dew is still on the tiny white flowers, which appear on bushes each night and are removed at dawn by hundreds of pickers of all ages, each carrying a sturdy market basket, into which is poured the blossoms. Harvest in Grasse lasts from the beginning of August to the end of October. There each morning, as you walk in a field of 200 or more of these prolific bushes, you can find yourself inebriated with fragrance. Essence of jasmine, like many of the most prized essential oils, has a relaxing effect on the human body and a narcotic effect on the human mind. By midday, hundreds of baskets of blossoms have been taken to the processing house where they are weighed and wages are paid in cash on the spot. The blossoms are piled high on strainer grills in the extraction container. Then a solvent such as petroleum is passed through them. After the solvent has become replete with the scent, it will be distilled to yield what is known as jasmine concrete. A further process of extraction in alcohol will yield the jasmine absolute. It takes ten tons of the flowers to create 2 1/2 kilos of the concrete, which is transformed into a mere 1 kilo of the prized absolute.
Tuberose, the lovely night-hyacinth—a relative of the lily—is perhaps the rarest of all the white flowers, the most costly to extract, and certainly the most demanding of care if one is to draw forth its essence. It is personally my favorite scent. It is grown in Italy and Morocco, as well as in the south of France. There the blossoms are hand-picked and swaddled in damp cloths, and then processed immediately by enfleurage, an ancient method using lard, which is painstaking, slow and laborious. Fat is spread on both sides of a piece of glass and blossoms pressed into it. After 48 hours, the blossoms are removed and new ones replace them, until eventually the fat is thoroughly saturated with essence. A further process of extraction using alcohol then produces the tuberose pomade oil. Because of the time and expense involved in using enfleurage, it has largely been replaced by more efficient and less costly extraction using liquid solvents. Yet tuberose is still one of the most expensive absolutes in the world—a treasure used only in minute quantities.
LET’S PROTECT LIFE
With the development of high-technology methods of analysis, the current growth in fascination with the healing properties of essential oils, and the burgeoning passion of the Western world for 'natural' products, essential oils could have a bright future. That is provided our awareness of their ecology and our intention to preserve it develops equally well. But it is a big issue. For, ultimately, the preservation of these precious etheric substances is dependent upon our caring for the wellbeing not only of the land around Grasse and other places from which they come, but on our caring for the wellbeing of the whole planet. That, and only that, will ensure the continued existence of this 'blessed herb garden' at the foot of the French Alps—a garden which has brought pleasure and healing for centuries.
Don’t rule out using good quality, pure essential oils to fragrance your hair and body. Most are relatively inexpensive. They are a delight to play with, and they can be combined to create your own unique signature scent. You’ll need to dilute them, since some can burn the skin if applied neat. I use 25ml each of pure alcohol (vodka will do) and apricot oil, with 12 to 15 drops of essential oils. Store your scent in a beautiful perfume bottle. Wear it on your body, spray it in the room you work in or play in, put it on your linens and pillows before sleep. Indulge in the magic of real fragrance and sleep like a child again.