Category Archives: Natural Perfumery

Distillation Manipulations

Ylang ylang blossoms

In my blog post about naturals (Part 1), I talked briefly about distillation. Distillation is the process whereby we get nearly all of our essential oils, cold-process being the other method that is used for citrus oils. In many cases, distillation begins at the beginning and continues to the end with temperatures and timing strictly controlled for highest quality and to yield a blend of desirable constituents. Various combinations of distillation techniques may be used to adjust oils, remove undesirable components, and otherwise produce a desirable and commercial product.

Fractional Distillation

In the case of the ylang ylang flower, the distillation process is interrupted at very particular times to yield different products. The distillation of ylang ylang is an example of fractional distillation. By timing the distillation carefully, four different fractions can be separately created. Generally referred to as ylang ylang extra, ylang ylang I, II and III they are quite different in fragrance with the extra being quite sweet and ethereal for perfumery while the 3rd is more suited to making soaps, the other fractions are less commonly used. Over the course of about 24 hours, distillers interrupt the process and pull off each fraction separate from the others. During the first 1 to 2 hours the essential oil is collected and separated as the ‘Extra’. Using experience, fragrance, and specific gravity measurements distillers remove the other fractions in their time. Or, distillers may simply continue the distillation uninterrupted to create the ‘complete’ which is sometimes referred to as ylang ylang VOP or Very Old Process.

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Perfumer’s Nose: Oud, The Beginning

AquilariaAstragalusRoyle US Public DomainSo many names – agarwood, oud, oudh, aloeswood, kyara, jinkoh, gaharu, eaglewood, kynam, sinking wood.

So many nuances—incense, wood, smoke, barnyard, balsam, sandalwood, ambergris, animalic, civet, fruity, fresh, minty, herbaceous, vetiver, spicy, peppery, galbanum, honey, castoreum.

Nuanced? Actually, yes, there are quite a few nuanced oud essential oils out there. There are also some with their fair share of stank. To be fair, when I walk out of my studio leaving the many scent strips on my workbench, it is the skank I smell when I come back in. But up close and with my eyes closed there are nuances, themes, accents, touches, and even choruses. But more about that later.

Perhaps I should define the stank part of agarwood; it’s a tough one but here is my take on it. The stronger ones seem to have a strong woody smell with tones of something like armpit or perhaps civet, if civet were a plant. But it’s a really nice armpit, one that maybe not long ago was daubed with honey or some sort of exotic spicy wood essence. You want to smell it again and maybe add a bit of rich fruit or a touch of smoke.

But don’t forget, there are some oud oils with no stank, beautiful worn alone on the skin, and endlessly interesting.

First the tree—there are a number of Aquilaria species comprising agarwood. In its natural state it has a relatively pale heartwood with little or no fragrance. It’s not the wood but the resin, produced as a result of wounding or infection by a fungus, that is aromatic. Age and level of injury act together to produce a highly resinated wood that is aromatic and darkly patterned. The pattern or dark striations on the light wood evoke the pattern of eagle feathers, thus the scientific name Aquilaria meaning eagle. Infection occurs naturally in a portion of the living trees, about 7%. From looking at the tree, it is difficult to determine whether it has produced a resin; cutting into the tree (or cutting it down completely) is often the only way to determine the level of aromatic resin. Over-exploitation has led to a drastic decline in this wood growing naturally in its native habitat throughout Asia with the result that many countries are exploring, with some success, the production of agarwood through cultivation.

Oud or agarwood oil is the product of steam distillation of resinous wood. So many things are involved in the fragrance of the agarwood—infection, wounding, terroir, age of the tree, and even species. In addition, once the wood is harvested it may be treated in a variety of ways before and during distillation. The wood is generally soaked for various lengths of time, water used for soaking may be local water or purified, distillation units may be traditional iron or modern glass, and the length of distillation can extend to days.

world soulThe story of oud is ancient and complex, the ways we use it seem to be the same. In pure form it serves excellently as a personal fragrance, as an incense it has an ancient history continuing to modern times, and more recently it has served as a unique note in perfumes.

Do you have a definition for skank? Do you use or collect agarwood/oud? How do you use it?

Next time I will talk about my search for all the above words and nuances in my samples of agarwood. Many thanks to JK DeLapp of Rising Phoenix Perfume and Katlyn Breene of Mermade Arts for beautiful products, lovely artwork, and free samples.

Read more about oud in my article for CaFleureBon here:

The image of agarwood is from WikiMedia and is US Public Domain, Deep Earth Vision is courtesy of Katlyn Breene.

Perfumer’s Nose: The Lovely Frangipani


Frangipani Plumeria alba Copyright Elise Pearlstine

The absolute of frangipani comes in a jar; the true fragrance from my side yard in the early morning and early evening. Also known as plumeria, it is an amazing tree with a luscious tropical fragrance that is strongly floral and just slightly fruity. It has just the slightest hint of the decadence that characterizes some tropical flowers. The one above is my favorite and was grown from seed pods scavenged at a local nursery. Another planting yielded a more familiar yellow and white variety that also smells lovely with a slightly stronger hint of peach. The branches seem to be quite fragile and I will sometimes find them broken off and growing leaves as they lay on the ground beneath the tree. Since this is Florida, such things happen.

golden frangipani 750 px

My yellow one.

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Perfumer’s Nose: The Other Lavenders


Lavender Flowers Copyright Elise Pearlstine

There are lavenders that are wild, lavenders that are hybrids, and lavenders that are not distilled but extracted via solvent. I’ll go through this varied group today. The same descriptors I used in my last blog apply: floral, herbaceous, sharp, woody, balsamic, coumarinic, refreshing, and clean notes.

For my last blog (Part 2), I evaluated 12 varieties of Lavandula angustifolia here (, and Part 1 was an introduction to lavender here (

Today I sniff other lavender types and species:

Lavandula angustifolia Wild—is sharp, woody, and slightly rooty. The floral lavender is apparent underneath the woody notes and the dryout is mild and fresh. It definitely has a wild aspect to it but is not harsh. Continue reading

Perfumer’s Nose: Lavender: A Purple Haze

IMG_3180 bees on lavender mound adj 750 px

Lavender Copyright Elise Pearlstine

True or English lavender belongs to the species Lavandula angustifolia (previously/also known as L. officinalis). Lavandula comes from the Latin word ‘lavare’ meaning ‘to wash’ and angustifolia refers to the narrow leaf. Officinalis is often used as the species name for medicinal plants. As a valuable horticultural and economic plant, this species of lavender has been the subject of selection and breeding to produce a variety of sizes, colors, and fragrance profiles. It is easy to grow if you are in the right zone, hardy and drought-tolerant, beautiful, and everyone loves a fragrant plant. Some examples of the variety of characteristics to be found:

  • Size—dwarf or compact varieties in particular
  • Hardiness—cold, soil, drought
  • Leaf color—variegated or silver
  • Flower color—shades of purple, pink, white, and even yellow or red
  • Growth habits—fast or slow
  • Fragrance—everything from sweet and floral to medicinal and camphoraceous

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Perfumer’s Nose: Lavender Love

pretty lavender 750 pxThere are places in the world that you immediately recognize and that feel comfortable to you. The Provence area in the South of France is one of those for me. The climate is Mediterranean, which refers to the deep blue sea that is such a part of the coastline there, but also to specific climatic characteristics. A Mediterranean climate is hot and dry in the summer, often receiving little to no rain for 4-6 months during the warm season, with mild to cool winters that are wet. In addition to coastal areas of the Mediterranean Basin, other areas with a similar climate include much of California, southwestern Oregon, parts of West and South Australia, parts of South Africa, sections of central Asia, and central Chile.  These are generally coastal areas where the ocean is a moderating force in the winter. In these areas, mountains and highland areas provide for cooler temperatures during the summer but also in winter.

The characteristic shrubby vegetation may be familiar to anyone who has spent time in the Maquis of the Mediterranean region, the Fynbos in Africa, Chaparral of North America and the Kwongan of Australia. These ecosystems are shaped by fire and many of the plants are fire-loving and will re-grow readily after fires, outcompeting those not adapted to a fire regime. Their tough leaves are well adapted to retaining water during times of drought and they are often aromatic. The aromatic plants rosemary, thyme, and lavender are native to this area as are evergreens, olives, figs, citruses, bay laurel, sages and various grassland species.

Provence EVP_5566Does this explain why I love Provence? Perhaps a bit – the landscape is open and rugged, dramatic, often aromatic, and with a wonderful diversity of life. It just feels like home to me.

This is the home of lavender and, depending on what you read, there are between 30 and 40 species in the genus Lavandula that have originated in these areas. These also tend to be the areas where lavender is being grown commercially.

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Perfumer’s Nose: Variations on Orange

Orange with Mint Copyright Elise PearlstineWhen I teach about essential oils and talk about the citrus group, I mostly talk about their cheerful nature. Citrus essential oils, especially orange, will uplift you and make a great room spray or kitchen countertop cleaner. I remind students never to use citrus essential oils on their skin neat, or in any fashion, before exposure to the sun due to the potential for phototoxicity. I remind them that citrus essential oils are best used within six months to a year and should be refrigerated. And always date your oils when you receive them.

We then have a wonderful time blending orange, lemon, grapefruit, mandarin, and bergamot. Then we might add in a touch of lavender or some peppermint. Citruses are easy and forgiving and everyone goes home with a lovely blend for diffusing.

There’s something to be said for easy and there are times a nice orange essential oil does just what you want it to, whether it’s a bit of lift in a perfume topnote or just diffused into a room to cheer you up. And I love it in our orange spice soap too!

But, really, an orange is not an orange is not an orange. There are several types of orange, all with varying degrees of intensity, deepness, sweetness, and orange-ness. For this post I evaluate four types of your basic orange essential oils from the fruit Citrus sinensis.

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Perfumer’s Nose: Amber Perfume Accords’s not the gem but it has a golden aura about it. It’s not the whale product, ambergris sometimes called ambre, but it can be sweet and earthy at the same time. What is it? Amber, when the term is used in perfumery, is an accord or blend that has the basic formula of benzoin, vanilla and labdanum. I found my first formula for an amber base in Mandy Aftel’s iconic book Essence and Alchemy. Her formula is about 4:1 benzoin to labdanum with just a hint of vanilla. She then uses her amber accord like another fragrant ingredient. Other ingredients that she mentions are styrax and civet.

Labdanum is a favorite base note of mine and I have found that just a tiny bit can do wonders to extend and sweeten the base accord in a perfume. I reach for the dark and rich absolute that is thick in the bottle as often as I reach for the ‘clear’ version which is a bit easier to work with but still thick. A note here: I love working with thick and gooey botanicals in their pure form. I don’t warm them to make them easier to pour but I use a variety of ‘tools’ to scrape and chop the absolutes. Basically getting my hands fragrantly dirty as I do this perfume work. This takes time but I love the connection with these amazing and deep botanical ingredients.

Benzoin, as I write about in my last post, is golden and sweet—a pure vanilla. Add anywhere from a touch to a smidge to a healthy dose of vanilla to get just the right amount of rich and deep. Or use a lighter vanilla CO2 for a more easy-going vanilla note.

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Perfumer’s Nose: Sandalwood, The Heavenly Oil

L0038494 Catu-tsjambu, Hortus Indicus Malabaricus

Santalum album (Source Wikimedia, see below)

Ancient and sacred sandalwood trees were said to grow in the heavens where they would fill the celestial world with divine fragrance. On earth, true East Indian sandalwood is one of the oldest known perfume materials and has been in use for over 4000 years. This will be a three part series on sandalwood, beginning with a bit of ecology, history, and a description of the species.

Santalum album is the classic Indian species with a beautiful woody, buttery fragrance. It is native throughout China, India including Tamil Nadu, Indonesia, and the Philippines. It grows in dry forests and is hemi-parasitic, growing on the roots of other trees. The species is vulnerable to extinction due to overharvest for the essential oil and for wood for carving, in addition illegal poaching has contributed to the vulnerable status of this species. Trees must be at least 30 years before a good harvest of the essential oil can be obtained. The richest oil is in the heartwood of the trunk and the roots requiring the tree to be chopped down. Trees will regenerate from suckers and from seeds that have passed through the digestive system of birds and need their host trees nearby.

There are several other species from various areas around the tropics and sub-tropics. Santalum spicataum grows in Australia and is being managed on plantations where it may be grown in relation to various Acacia species, using them as hosts. It seems to do well is the dry habitats of Western Australia. According to the Forest Products Commission of Western Australia, sandalwood is currently being grown from wild stands but they manage over 6,000 hectares of sandalwood plantation for future production. The native Western Australian sandalwood was exported to China beginning in 1844 in powder form for making incense. A small Australian marsupial, the woylie, was once responsible for much of the natural re-seeding of the native sandalwood trees. Woylies would gather seeds and bury their cache in a shallow hole much like squirrels do. When local foresters mimicked the actions of the woylies, they were able to increase regeneration of the trees (From:

Santal_austrocaledonicum_Denis Prevot

Santalum austrocaledonicum showing host tree at the back. Source: Wikimedia, Denis Prevot

Another wonderful source of lovely sandalwood is Vanuatu and New Caledonia – S. austrocaledonicum. Because I don’t use Indian sandalwood, this has been an excellent choice to substitute. However, a bit of research indicates that, as of 2007, wild sandalwood in Vanuatu was being harvested for wood and oil, possibly leading to depletion of the wild population. Plantations are in the ground and should be producing within the next 10-15 years. In the meantime, the government of Vanuatu is attempting to control harvest of sandalwood trees to within a sustainable level. (From: An inventory of wild sandalwood stocks in Vanuatu, 2008, published by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research). I have not found any information on the status of New Caledonia oils, still looking. Some research shows a close similarity of New Caledonian oil with S. album.

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Perfumer’s Nose Clary Sage: Narcotic and Radiant

clary sage stalk 1000

Clary Sage USA Copyright Elise Pearlstine

There are some essential oils and absolutes that I just pull out sometimes for a sniff (or a rather deep inhale). It may just be that I am sitting in front of my perfume organ and something catches my eye so I uncap the bottle and spend a moment. Clary sage absolute is one of these lovely experiences. I don’t know whether the absolute has the same emotional effect as the essential oil but it definitely takes me to my happy place. On the other hand, I have sometimes thought of the aroma of clary sage essential oil as a beautiful note sung by a soprano, it is intoxicating but goes on and on and on just a bit too long. I need space to walk away from the essential oil at full strength.

Having said that, it was really lovely spending time with several dilute samples of the essential oil and finding that there is really more of a difference between my samples than I had thought. Mostly I use the essential oil for soap-making and the absolute for perfumery so I haven’t paid a lot of attention to my various clary sage EO samples except to give them a quick sniff and approve.

Most of you who use essential oils regularly are familiar with the ‘clary sage’ note and I found that Arctander mentions that distinctive odor. This is what remains on the scent strip after the nuances have evaporated. It was the nuances I was interested in and I began armed with my own descriptors of herbal, warm, sweet, and green. After reading a bit I added floral and hay-like. Also, tobacco features in many of the descriptions but may be one of those circular things because clary sage is used as a flavoring in tobacco. In fact, one of the early growers of clary sage in the US was RJ Reynolds, the cigarette company, who began growing it in North Carolina.

clary sage 750 px Continue reading