This Fashion 101 is about the process involved in making perfume. Perfume is something many of us wear, and most of us know it involves flowers… but I didn’t know much beyond that. Ayala Moriel, whose eponymous brand is made in Vancouver, took an hour to explain to me the process she, and many other perfumers, use to create a scent.
First, Ayala explained that her perfumes are quite different to many of the mainstream scents, as she only uses natural, botanical essences. Apparently most fragrances on the market have a lot of synthetic ingredients, and she cites Thierry Mugler’s Angle as an example, which is a perfume that only has one natural essence (patchouli.)
So let’s begin with the ingredients. Almost every perfume needs flowers in it, it is very difficult to make a unique scent without a floral essence. Flowers are the most expensive essence as they need to be grown (duh) and they have a small yield. Flower essences are actually quite similar to wines in that the flowers will smell differently every year depending on the harvest, like a wine vintage.
Rose and Jasmine are the indispensable perfumery ingredients, it is really hard to make a perfume without them. Ayala told me she went to the Grasse region in France to see how the rose was grown and harvested. She actually visited the largest rose fields in the area, 70,000 square metres with 50,000 rose bushes. The fields are owned by Chanel and are used for Chanel No. 5. and they bought the fields, which were originally planted by monks, to ensure that there would be no issues about having sufficient product to put into their perfumes.
Did you know that Chanel is one of the only luxury brands that does not license out their perfume? Almost all luxury brands have specialty perfume companies make and market their perfume (and there are only a handful of big ones in the world, so most designer fragrances come from the same place), whereas Chanel does it in house…Chanel has a habit of doing this sort of thing, they also own seven of the top craft ateliers in France, including A. Michel et Cie (a hat maker), Les Broderies Lesage (one of the most famous embroiderers in the world), Lemarie (who makes feathers and flowers), and Desrue (a company that makes luxury buttons), which ensures they will always have craftsman to make flowers, feathers, and other handmade accessories for their collections. It also protects these crafts from disappearing.
The climate and soil will have a huge impact on the quality of the flower, and therefore affect its scent. Once the rose plant is grown, it needs to be picked at a certain time, often very early in the morning, but late enough that the flower has opened. The rose harvest takes place in May, usually over a span of 3 weeks. Flowers are picked by hand and extracted on site. The harvest is a very delicate process, each bag can only contain a certain number of flowers, so that they don’t crush one another and lose the oils.
The next step is to extract the oils, which must take place immediately after picking. They start by putting layers of petals on a metal layered drum (again, quantities need to be precise, not too much, not too few,) so you end up with layers of trays of flowers. The flowers are then immersed in a solvent for five and a half hours in 30 degrees, usually this solvent is hexane gas. Then the hexane is removed, and what is left over is a floral wax, which looks like a mushy wax that has the oils in it. The oils are essential oils and fatty oils. The fatty oils need to be removed, so the wax is washed with ethanol, and what is left is a material called absolute. This is the process for extraction of rose essence, but they same process is used for jasmine.
Distillation is also another way to get the scent from the flower, plant matter would be inside a big lambic in water and the vapour would rise up. You would then skim the oil off. Rose can be extracted or distilled. Rose water is what is left from the distillation process, as you lose some of the scent into the water. In absolute, which is made from the extraction process, you get all of the aromatic matter in the plant whereas in steam distillation, there is a lot left behind.
A huge amount of plant matter is needed to get a small amount of essential oil, that is why perfume is expensive.
- 1 kilo of roses = 500 flowers
- 400 kilos of rose flowers = 600g of absolute
- a 7.5-15ml bottle of french perfume (not eau de parfum or eau de toilette) would have 20-30% concentration of absolute, so about 1.8ml of absolute which is approx 2g
That equates to about 660 roses to get the scent into that small bottle of perfume.
A few definitions…
- Eau de Toilette contains about 6-10% essential oils in an alcohol and water base.
- Eau de Parfum contains about 11-15% essential oils in an alcohol and water base.
- Perfume (which the highest concentration of essential oils), contains about 20-40% essential oils in an alcohol and water base. (Note that some scents do not have water added.)
Floral essences are also very expensive because they are so labour intense and fragile, a drop of rose costs 1 dollar, and prices fluctuate all the time.
Ayala then explained a bit about how she makes her perfumes. She explained that she only uses real extracts of rose and jasmine, no synthetics. She sources very high quality materials, which are often hard to find and need to be compared. It can take years of training to recognize a good rose and how it should smell. She has had to make connections with suppliers around the world to buy the best and purest essences, she explains that like cooking, perfume starts with quality ingredients.
From year to year the ingredients can change depending on the harvest, so sometimes her formulas needs to be altered, again like a non-vintage wine. Ayala puts together the essences and the raw materials herself, to make the perfume. Once the ingredients are sourced, she says the rest of the process is not actually that technical. She would by deciding what she wants a scent to be. For example, Espionage (Ayala’s best selling scent) was originally designed as a custom scent for herself, and came from the theme of spy stories. (Espionage contains both rose and jasmine essences.) Espionage was inspired by romantic spy novels, and she thought about the time spent by a spy, waiting for people, they would smoke a lot of cigars, drink a lot of whiskey, there would be lots of waiting, and this would bring in the tobacco nose.
A tobacco nose can be created by blending a few scents, for example cade oil has a smoky scent. Cade is made from a type of juniper, and uses destructive distillation, which means the flowers are heated until they burn and scorch, and then they are distilled. There are a few essences created in that way. Used for curing and preserving leather, cade oils smells like liquid smoke (and therefore are associated with the smell of leather. Botanical musks are also used in this scent (which contains no animal essences), seeds from hibiscus make the musk.
Espionage was created as a skin scent, it starts with a really bold and smoky and leathery, then there are softer florals in the middle (rose, iris, jas) and lastly a musty vanilla. It is intended to become part of you, people can’t tell if it is perfume or if it is your smell.
When mixing a new scent, Ayala first needs to see (or smell) how the scents will interact with each other, and there lots of trial and error with ratios. There is no water in her perfumes, she just blend the essences with ethanol. Developing the formula takes the most time, and then scents should mature 4-6 weeks before they are ready for sale, In fact, this is a minimum, as scents improve with age. Once the bottle is open, the scent will slowly begin to change.
Some perfumes require filtering, if they have materials that don’t dissolve in alcohol (for example, iris doesn’t dissolve well) so after the scent is matured, it needs to be filtered to get a clear perfume without a lot of particles.
Ayala works on her own line, and also designs scents for private labels for smaller companies, such as scents for home products. She always works with a brief, like a blue print of what the scent will be, which then needs to be fine tuned as the scent is developed. Scent is very obscure, and many people have trouble putting scents into words, as the olifactory is processed in a different part of the brain. I guess that makes sense, as smells can invoke memories that cannot be captured by images, sounds, or tastes.
Read more Fashion 101’s
Fashion 101: Why Luxury is Expensive – The Hermès Bag
Fashion 101: Lessons on Denim
Fashion 101: The Fashion Supply Chain
Fashion 101: Copyright Laws in Fashion
Fashion 101: How Haute Couture Works
All images supplied by Ayala Moriel.