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The World of Natural Fragrance: Methods to Prepare Scented Oils and Perfumes

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Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.

A Brief History of Perfumes

Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian book on medicinal plants written in 1500 BCE and Vedic texts from India written in the same period have in them the first documented mention of medicinal plants and perfumes. Egyptians considered Frankincense the perfume of Gods. Sandalwood was the ultimate perfume for Indians. There is also some evidence pointing to Indians mastering the art of distilling essential oils as early as 3000 BCE. The Chinese text, ‘The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine,’ is another treatise on ancient herbs and health care that mention perfumes.

The Greeks and Romans got their perfumes from the Phoenician traders who crossed the Mediterranean and went to the Far East countries such as China. Romans are known to have filled their entire surroundings with perfumes- the houses, public baths, fountains and so on. After the Roman Empire fell, the art and craft of perfume-making waned and relocated to countries such as Constantinople. Slowly, the Middle East, especially Arabia, became the abode of much-coveted perfumes. Jabir ibn Hayyan (800 CE) and Al Kindi (800 CE) were two prominent Arabian scientists who refined the methods of perfume distillation. Gradually, as Europe awoke from the dark ages, the art of perfumery made a come back to the continent.

Characteristics of Essential Oils

Natural perfumes are made by extracting essential oils from different plants or plant parts. A wide array of scented plant materials (about a few thousand) is available in nature for perfume extraction. A few of them are,
















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Sweet birch

The essential oils do not dissolve in water but dissolve in alcohol or oil. They tend to evaporate at room temperature when exposed to air. All the essential oils are in liquid form when kept at normal room temperature, though depending on which climate zone you are in. Essential oils are used in the production of,









Soft Drinks

Other Food Products


Toilet Products

People and Perfume in Ancient Egypt

Avicenna, Hieronymus Brunschwig and Adam Lonicer

Avicenna is thought of as the father of modern perfume-making; he is a polymath (one who has deep knowledge across many disciplines), and the author of ‘The Book of Healing’ and ‘The Canon of Medicine: A Medical Encyclopaedia’. Along with astronomy, alchemy, geography, geology, mathematics, medicine, and many other knowledge streams, he also pursued perfumery. The extraction of the scent of a flower using distillation is a technique attributed to Avicenna who lived in the 11th century CE. It is believed that he stumbled upon perfume extraction while “trying to isolate for Islam the soul of its holy rose”.

Hieronymus Brunschwig was a German physician (1450-1512 CE) who wrote the famous book, ‘Liber de Arte Distillandi de Simplicibus’, which is a comprehensive compilation of distillation techniques for different kinds of flowers and plant parts. These techniques were used to make aromatic water as well as essential oils though aromatic water was the popular product in those days. German herbalist, Adam Lonicer was responsible for shifting the emphasis from aromatic water to essential oils.

Till the early 20th century, naturally-made essential oils and perfumes ruled Europe and the world. The advances that set apart chemistry as a modern science also shifted essential oil production and perfume-making away from the realm of natural processes. Instead, chemical substances began to be used to make perfumes and aromatic oils. Rene’-Maurice Gattefosse’ was the chemist responsible for coining the word, aromatherapy. Once when he accidentally burned his hand while working in his laboratory, he applied some lavender essential oil and was surprised to see how quickly the burn healed. He went on to study essential oils in-depth and came up with the concept of aromatherapy.

Why Avoid Synthetic Perfumes

Synthetic aromatic products are less expensive and easier to produce and they can be mass produced with less labour. However, they lack the charm and quality of natural perfumes. There are many synthetic essential oils available in the market but they are mostly created using chemical methods and petroleum by-products. Many people could develop allergies and respiratory problems from the regular use of synthetic perfumes. In the long term, synthetic perfumes can cause skin problems as well if extensively used. The solvents used in the chemical extraction of essential oils are,

Petroleum naphthas



Solvent extraction is suitable for extracting essential oils from thermally unstable materials such as




Arabian Perfumes

Carrier Oils: The Base Oils for Making Natural Essential Oil

The essential oil extraction is possible from plant parts because the oils in these plants are lipophilic, meaning they can be absorbed easily by fatty oils. They are the fat of the plant and this is why they mix so well with animal fat and plant oils to some extent. This is why carrier oils are used to infuse the fragrance of the plant parts while creating naturally infused essential oil mixtures.

The most popular carrier oils are,

Coconut Oil

Avocado Oil

Jojoba Oil

Almond Oil

Apricot Kernel Oil

Olive Oil

Mango Seed Oil

Grape Seed Oil

Rose Hip Seed Oil

Those who have a nut allergy must avoid using nut-based oils.

It is better to select unrefined and organic oil because the refined oil will have chemical substances in them. Among the wide assortment of essential oils, there are

Root oils

Leaf oils

Wood oils

Fruit oils

Rhizome oils

Flower oils

Stem oils

Bark oils

Seed oils

Resin/Gum Oils

Essential Oil Extraction Methods: Expression/Cold Pressing

The cold pressing method is suitable for producing only citrus fruit essential oil. This is because citrus is the only fruit that has a lot of essential oil stored just beneath its rind. The mechanical cold pressing method separates the oil by first crushing the fruit or the rind. After this, the oil is separated from the juice by way of a centrifuge. This method is used to extract essential oils from








Ecuelle Method

In this method, the lemon fruit is rolled over a trough lined with sharp projections. These projections puncture the rind where the essential oils are stored and oil is released into the trough. The oil released will have some lemon juice content in it and this mixture once extracted through a central tube, undergoes centrifugal action. This separates the essential oil from the juice-oil emulsion.

Water Distillation

Distillation is the method by which using steam or water, the essential oil is extracted. In this process, the volatile oils are separated from the plant parts by putting them in water and then, heating. The evaporated essential oil is then collected by cooling it in a separate jar. To make the oil pure, sometimes double-distillation is carried out. As most essential oils are unstable at high temperatures, distillation is done at low temperatures and high pressure.

Perfume Distillation Equipment


Steam Distillation

Steam is passed into the distillation jar in which the fragrant plant material is put. The essential oil is released under the heat and pressure of the steam and it is then collected by cooling it. Based on the volatile property of the plant part involved, either water distillation or steam distillation is employed. Steam distillation is good for clary sage and lavender whereas water distillation works better for orange blossoms. Rose essential oil and citronella essential oil can be extracted using the distillation method. Some flowers such as jasmine are too delicate that their essential oils cannot be extracted via distillation. Heat and water may destroy the essential oils stored in them. For these, only solvent extraction (chemical extraction) works. A few plants from which perfumes are extracted using distillation are,













Maceration/Infused Oil

In this method, the fragrant plant part is soaked in any of the carrier oils listed above. Maceration is a method of creating infused oils naturally. The plant part being used should have no moisture content because the presence of water will turn the oil rancid. There are no chemicals involved in the entire process and this is a time-tested way of producing infused oil at home. First, you need to crush or chop the plant parts that have a natural fragrance.

Only a small quantity of essential oil from the plant part is infused into the carrier oil in this method.


This method was popular in Southern France and demands a lot of patience and time for completion. Often tallow (a semi-solid white fat extracted from the fat of cattle or sheep) or lard (thick fat extracted from the fat of a pig) was used in the process of making enfleurage during early periods. A framed sheet of glass is coated with tallow or lard. A layer of flowers such as jasmine or rose is stuck to this glue-like coating. Another glass sheet smeared with the same fatty material is placed on top of the flowers. Such glass frames are then stacked one above the other. Every day, the frames are taken apart, the old flowers removed, and a fresh layer of flowers added. This process has to continue until the fat smeared on the glass sheets gets infused with the natural oils from the flowers. For jasmine, seven days are needed to complete the process. The number of days will vary for each kind of flower. On removal from the glass sheets, the fat is washed with alcohol to separate the essential oil. Soon, the alcohol evaporates and what remains is the absolute, the pure essential oil extracted from the flower. This end product is often called enfleurage. Utmost care is required in this method to ensure that the plant parts used have no moisture content in them or the end product will turn up rancid.

The flowers which are best for producing perfumes by enfleurage method are,




Enfleurage Method of Extraction of Essential Oils

Storage of Naturally-Made Essential Oils

Once prepared, the infused oil or enfleurage must be kept away from sunlight and artificial lights inside a refrigerator in airtight bottles. Once they start smelling rancid, which will happen eventually even if you keep them in the refrigerator, it is better to discard them. While storing in the refrigerator, keep the bottles of the infused oil wrapped in plastic sheets to avoid moisture getting in and also to keep apart the smell of the food items and the infused oil. The unrefined oils get cloudy easily but that is not a problem if they are not rancid.

It is better to keep the oils in small bottles to reduce the increasing volume of air in the bottle as consumption progresses.

Hydrosol: The Aromatic Water

In the distillation process, once the essential oil is separated from the water, the remaining water will have some aroma left in it. This is called hydrosol/hydroflorate/hydrolat. Rose water, Lavender water, lemon balm and clary sage water are examples of this. Hydrosols usually have a mild fragrance and are widely used in aromatherapy.

Attar/Ittar, the Flower Otto: Traditional Production Method

Floral attars/Ittars are distilled concentrates of flowers in either sandalwood oil or carrier materials such as paraffin, and attars are produced by hydro-distillation of flowers. Deg and Bhapka have been the equipment assemblage used to produce attar traditionally for many centuries. This method was prevalent in entire Arabia and India and is still alive in Kannauj, India. The different parts of the assemblage are,

Still (Deg)

A Receiving vessel (Bhapka)

A bamboo condenser (Chonga)

A furnace (Bhatti)

A cooling water tank (Gachchi)

A leather bottle (Kuppi)

Attar Making in Kannauj, India

Asmat Begum, the Inventor of Rose Otto

Nur Jahan was a powerful 17th-century Indian Moghul queen, wife to King Jehangir, and it was her mother, Asmat Begum, who invented the Rooh Gulab Attar, a rose otto of tantalising fragrance. Jehangir wrote in his diary about this perfume as below,

I have the same regret for the Jahāngīrī ʿit̤r (so-called otto of roses), that his nostrils were not gratified with such essences. This ʿit̤r is a discovery which was made during my reign through the efforts of the mother of Nūr-Jahān Begam. When she was making rose-water, a scum formed on the surface of the dishes into which the hot rose-water was poured from the jugs. She collected this scum little by little; when much rose-water was obtained a sensible portion of the scum was collected. It is of such strength in perfume that if one drop be rubbed on the palm of the hand it scents a whole assembly, and it appears as if many red rosebuds had bloomed at once. There is no other scent of equal excellence to it. It restores hearts that have gone and brings back withered souls.”

Nur Jahan: 17th Century Moghul Queen of India


The Perfumes of Cyprus

Cyprus was a well-known perfume destination in the ancient era. The perfumes of Cyprus had olive oil as their base oil and the fragrances were extracted into it from oak moss, bergamot and rockrose. The extraction method was distillation and mud vases are used for this. In Verdant Solea Valley in Cyprus, a perfume theme park is set up to display how perfumes were made in Cyprus as early as the Bronze Age. French for Cyprus is one of the world-famous seven perfume groups.

Traditional Perfume Making in Cyprus

Bint-El-Sudan, the Mysterious African Perfume

Bint-El-Sudan means, the daughter of Sudan. This perfume was created in 1920 by Eric Burgess, a British adventure traveller. The story is that he made this perfume using the indigenous African incenses given to him by 14 African tribal chiefs. This perfume was sold to and became very popular among the African Hajj pilgrims who travelled to Mecca. African Chanel No. 5 is the more popular name by which Bint-El-Sudan is known.


The Smell Report, Social Issues Research Centre,

Llewellyn's Complete Book of Essential Oils: How to Blend, Diffuse, Create Remedies and Use in Everyday Life, Sandra Kynes, 2019, Llewellyn Worldwide, Limited.

Essential Oil,

Extraction Methods of Natural Essential Oils,

The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri: or, Memoirs of

Jahangir, by Nuru-d-din Jahangir Padshah, Editor: Henry Beveridge, Translator: Alexander Roger

The Ancient Perfumes of Cyprus, Deccan Chronicle,

Around the World Scented trip: Perfume of Africa, 2020,

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Deepa

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