What is the Perfume Project?

This blog is a constantly evolving forum for thoughts on perfume, perfume-making, plants (especially orchids and flora of the Pacific Northwest) and life in general. It started out chronicling the adventures of Olympic Orchids Perfumes, established in July 2010, and has expanded in other directions. A big part of the blog is thinking about the ongoing process of learning and experimentation that leads to new perfumes, the exploration of perfumery materials, the theory and practice of perfume making, the challenges of marketing perfumes and other fragrance products, and random observations on philosophy and society. Spam comments will be marked as such and deleted; any comments that go beyond the boundaries of civil discourse will also be deleted. I am grateful to all of you, the readers, who contribute to the blog by commenting and making this a truly interactive perfume project.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018


I’m not sure that everyone who enjoys perfume is clear about the difference between an essential oil and an absolute, partly because the distinction often gets lost in the listing of notes, the hype, and the fact that there are vendors who sell “essential oils” purported to be from materials that do not lend themselves to the distillation of oils. If the price you see for “frangipani absolute” is absurdly cheap, what you would be buying is neither an essential oil nor an absolute. Re-sellers may not even be aware of this issue, perpetuating it among the users of materials for perfume and aromatherapy. There’s nothing wrong with a synthetic fragrance oil meant to smell like frangipani, in fact, it might smell more realistic than the natural extractions, but if that’s what it is, it should be labeled as such.

Essential oils are steam-distilled or cold-pressed. Any material that contains a lot of oil, like citrus peels, can be cold-pressed. You’ve probably done this accidentally while peeling an orange and getting the oil on your hands. You could even do cold-pressing at home as a demonstration or experiment if you have enough citrus peels and a separatory funnel to remove the water-based layer or are willing to skim the oil off the top. For materials that contain a smaller ratio of oil to other materials, steam distillation heats the plant material, and the distillate is condensed and collected. Generally the oils are more volatile than the water, but both will come out of the condenser during the course of distillation. In this method, too, there is an oil layer and an aqueous layer, which must be separated. The aqueous layer is sometimes sold as a “hydrosol”. It generally contains a small quantity of aromatic molecules, so can be used in various cosmetic applications.

As I mentioned in my last Wednesday post, some materials do not lend themselves to steam distillation. These include many types of flowers. Other materials, like lavender, can be steam-distilled to produce an essential oil or extracted to produce an absolute. Generally, the essential oil will smell different from the absolute because a different subset of molecules is extracted by each method. In many cases the absolute (or other type of extract) will smell more like the natural material. The choice of which to use in perfumery depends on the desired scent properties, price, availability, and so on. Absolutes are almost always more expensive than essential oils, assuming both are available, but the extra expense may be worth it if the material is featured in the composition and a naturalistic scent is desired. And sometimes a synthetic reconstruction does the trick.

[Top and bottom photos are3 mine, orange peel photo from a commercial website] 

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