Where Does Perfume Come From?

  • By: Nathan Cherry
  • Time to read: 8 min.

Perfume is as old as civilization.

From the ancient Babylonians and Egyptians up to today, human beings have always loved to make themselves smell good. 

But have you ever wondered what it is exactly? Where does it come from, and how is it made? 

What is considered “perfume” and how they are made can vary from culture to culture. However, perfume as we know it today is essentially a blend of natural extracts and essential oils, synthetic molecules, and perfumer’s alcohol or oil.

But creating a perfume is a far more complex process than you might imagine. 

Let’s take a closer look. 

A Brief History of Perfume

To give a detailed account of the history of perfume would take a book or two, so let’s keep things short, sweet, and to the point. 

The exact origin of perfume precisely isn’t known. However, the art of perfumery was being practiced in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus River Valley. There is evidence that perfumes were manufactured around the same time in ancient China as well. 

These early perfumes did not resemble the modern perfumes we know, of course. They were more akin to attars, fragrance oils, which are still widely used in the Middle East and in the Indian Subcontinent today.

Perfume was highly prized by the ancient Egyptians, and they exported them all throughout the ancient Mediterannean world. 

As time went on, new refinements of the perfumer’s art were achieved, particularly in the early medieval Middle East during the Islamic Golden Age. Medieval alchemists explored the limits of chemistry, and their discoveries allowed for greater and more delicately perfumed blends. 

Ancient Greek perfume bottles

By the middle to late Middle Ages, a nascent perfume industry was being developed in Western Europe, where alcohol was added to the mix. 

Italy, with its deep commercial ties to the Middle East, became a center for perfume manufacture in Europe during the Renaissance. Later, though, French perfumery would come into great prominence with the patronage of Catherine de’ Medici. Grasse, a city in the south of France, would become one of the world’s leading producers of raw materials for perfumes, and it still is to this day. 

But perfumery would totally and inexorably be changed in the late 19th century. In 1889, the house of Guerlain, which had supplied perfumes to the French royal court for decades, released one of the first major perfumes made with the addition of synthetic compounds: Jicky, the oldest fragrance still continuously produced today. Widely considered scandalous at the time of its release, it has cemented itself as an icon which changed perfume history. 

Another Guerlain classic, Shalimar, released in 1925, was one of the first Western perfumes of the “oriental” genre.

Jicky helped usher in the era of perfumery in which we live today. Perfumes before the late 19th century were largely naturals based, and hence quite fleeting, used more for freshening up and even, in some cases, for drinking. 

Jicky’s mixed-media approach has since become the standard for the industry. Using a variety of different aromatic compounds, perfume makers are able to approximate and enhance the scents of nature. 

The Building Blocks of Perfumes 

Any perfume out there today (unless explicitly stated otherwise) is a mix of natural extracts and essential oils, synthetic aroma chemicals, and perfumer’s alcohol or oil. 

But how do they fit together?

Let’s start by taking a look at essential oils and raw material extracts. 

Essential Oils/Extracts 

Essential oils and natural extracts are derived from raw materials. These are smells found in nature and totally unadulterated. For thousands of years, essential oils formed the foundation of perfumery, and they still make up large portions of fragrance compositions today. 

There are a variety of methods to derive these extracts from a raw material. 

Methods of Extraction

Expression

Perhaps the most traditional, and straight-to-the-point, way is through a process known as expression. This involves literally squeezing and pressing a material until it lets out its natural aromatic compounds, then scouring the water from the mix until only the oils are left over. Today, expression has very limited application; only citrus oils are still extracted in this manner. 

Tincturing

Another method is to create something called a tincture. This essentially involves allowing a raw material to soak for extended periods of time in ethanol. After days or weeks of steeping, the fragrant essence of the raw material is released. The solution is then exposed to low pressure, which makes the ethanol evaporate, and leaves behind a tincture, or a more concentrated absolute

A more advanced, and more widespread, version of tincturing is known as organic solvent extraction. The idea is basically the same as making a tincture, but a chemical solvent other than alcohol is used. 

Enfleurage

In the past, a process known as enfleurage was common, especially in Grasse, where it was invented. Enfleurage was done by smearing a pane of glass with animal fats or wax, then placing the desired raw material – rose petals, for instance, or orange blossoms – in the fat to soak for a few days. The process was repeated multiple times, and the fragrant fat left over was used either for making soap or diluted in alcohol for making perfumes. 

This process is mostly no longer used, though, as there are far more efficient and less expensive methods for fragrance extraction. 

Distillation

The tools of the trade in a medieval alchemist’s workshop, including those used for distillation.

Finally, distillation, the same method used to make whiskey and other spirits, is also used for fragrance extraction. Most essential oils that you can buy at the supermarket are made in this way. 

Ibn Sina (more widely known as Avicenna), a Persian alchemist and philosopher who lived in the 10th and 11th centuries, was the first to use distillation to obtain a natural fragrance extract when he distilled rose essence. 

If you’ve ever seen a movie, read a book, or played a video game where an alchemist’s workshop makes an appearance, you might’ve seen some of the instruments used in distillation

Raw materials – perhaps roses – are placed in an alembic or retort, and then set over boiling water. The steam from the water passes into the alembic/retort, and the condensate – the liquid produced by steaming the raw materials, a blend of essential oils and water – is funneled into another vessel.

Antique retorts and stills used in perfume distillation in Provence.

In that vessel, the essential oils rise to the top, since, as we all know from middle school science class, oil and water don’t mix. The oils are then removed, and the water leftover, called hydrosol, is often sold in its own right. Rose water, orange blossom water, and witch hazel are common commercially available hydrosols

There are other processes for extracting the fragrance from raw materials, but these are some of the most common. 

The End Result 

Whatever the method used to extract the fragrant essence, you’ll be left with one of the following by-products: 

  • Tinctures: obtained by macerating raw materials in alcohol or other chemical solvents.
  • Essential oils: usually obtained by distillation or expression.
  • Absolutes: a more concentrated and potent essential oil. Rose absolute, tobacco absolute, jasmine absolute, and tuberose absolute are some common and highly prized absolutes used in perfumery. 
  • Concretes/Butters: a waxy, sticky, semi-solid mass of plant materials and essential oils. Concretes can be further diluted into absolutes, depending on the ingredient, but they are more commonly used in soap production since they are not as soluble in alcohol as other extracts. One widely used concrete, however, is orris butter, used in iris-based perfumes like Dior Homme Intense

Aroma Chemicals

Aroma chemicals are simply chemicals that have an aroma. Many if not most are naturally occurring, the chemical components which give raw materials their odor. Any natural fragrance that you encounter – say the smell of an orange peel – is made up of numerous chemical compounds. 

Eugenol, for instance, is an aroma chemical found in cloves and used widely in perfumery. Benzaldehyde is a compound extracted from bitter almonds. Benzyl acetate is found in strawberries. 

The difference between raw materials and aroma chemicals is simple. 

If you use a raw material, you are extracting a fragrance as it occurs in nature, with all of the aromatic compounds which make up its smell. 

If you use an aroma chemical, however, you are directly extracting one part of a scent profile. If a scent is a four paned glass window, using an aroma chemical is like taking one pane out of that window. Indole is just one component of the fragrance of jasmine, for instance. 

Aroma chemicals can heighten, change, or enhance the fragrances of nature. Layering an aroma chemical with an essential oil can bring out different facets of that oil which you might want to emphasize in your perfume. 

This is especially useful considering that certain raw materials, such as jasmine absolute or oud oil, can be quite pricey. You might be able to recreate the smell of jasmine simply by blending a few synthetic compounds together, and no one would be any wiser. 

The scent of some raw materials cannot be extracted, through any method. Because of this, aroma chemicals must be used to reconstruct these smells. Leather, for instance, cannot be distilled or tinctured; but leather perfumes have been made since the 19th century. 

It all comes down to a clever layering of different aroma chemicals, and some natural materials like  birch tar, to accurately reconstruct the smell of leather. Similar results have been achieved with materials like amber and lily-of-the-valley. 

A perfumer, then, is both artist and chemist. Making a great perfume does not just involve using beautiful natural ingredients. Rather, it all depends upon how deftfully those natural ingredients are layered and blended with synthetic aroma chemicals. 

The result is a brilliant fusion of art and science.  

The Finishing Touch

The perfumer records their formula, mixes together the solution, then dilutes it in their solvent of choice, usually alcohol or oil. 

Then, it’s blended again, and allowed to macerate (soak and age) for between four to eight weeks before it’s finally tested and bottled. 

The Final Word

As you can see, the art of perfumery is a lot more involved than mixing essential oils together and pouring it into bottles. 

It is a complex and difficult process which takes years of intensive study and practice to master. Even today, some of the secrets of perfumery are not widely disseminated among the public. 

Making a great perfume takes a deep understanding of chemistry, as well as not a small touch of artistic sensibility. 

Perfume companies might list just 2-3 notes on the bottle, but every fragrance has far more ingredients than meets the eye. Some formulae can have dozens of ingredients. 

As a layman, my knowledge of perfumery is limited; but I hope this article has given you a greater understanding of, and respect for, perfumes and their ingredients.