Perfume: from hand-pressed to fully personalized

February 4, 2021

Look around you. Are you, like most of us, surrounded by technology? From the screen you’re reading this on, to the washing machine doing your laundry, the car waiting to take you anywhere, at any time, to all other gadgets saving time and making your life easier.

“Technology helps us save time, freeing us for things that really matter and speaks to our individuality.”

The good side of technology

We can’t deny the good the technological advancements have brought to our lives. Take a smartphone or a computer for example – a couple of hundred years ago, only the most imaginative minds could envision a future where we could not only talk to each other at great distance, but even see each other in real time. Today, this is a normal part of our everyday and we rarely give it a second thought.

Like communication, perfume industry was also heavily influenced by the technological advancements. From the first perfumers tediously and manually extracting fragrant oils from plants we have progressed to today’s refined and precise processes. With the technological leaps, the perfumery grew and improved to the point where it can lifts its creation to a whole new level.

“Not everyone benefits from the same beauty product, food, skincare, or sports, so personalization has become the core value of wellbeing solutions.”

Extraction through the ages

Perfume making has its roots in simple, mechanical methods of extracting fragrant oils. As the technology advanced, new approaches appeared which helped perfume masters hone their craft. 

Let’s look at the four basic extraction methods used throughout the history of perfumery:

Expression is the oldest and simplest of the methods. Flowers, fruits, and plants were manually or mechanically pressed, squeezed or compressed to release the fragrant oils within. This method is still used today, but only for extracting aromatic compounds from citruses. In their case, expression is quick and cost-effective because citrus peels are very rich in aromatic oils. You can experience (and smell!) that firsthand every time you cut lemons or oranges.

Enfleurage uses odourless fats to capture the fragrances of flowers. It goes like this: animal fat (usually lard or rind) is spread on a glass plate. Flowers or their petals are placed on the layer of fat and left for 1-3 days, during which time the fragrance dissolves in fat. The flowers are then replaced with fresh ones until the fat is sufficiently saturated with the scent. Then the oils are extracted from the fat with the help of alcohol. Once the alcohol evaporates, we’re left with the so-called absolute. If we use warmed fats instead of the cold (or even solid) ones, the process is called maceration.

As its name suggests, enfleurage was developed in France in the 18th century. It allowed the country to produce high-quality perfumes, but by today’s standards it is costly, time-consuming, and inefficient. But at the time, it was the only way to capture the essence of delicate flowers like jasmine, which would be destroyed under high temperatures required by other methods, such as distillation. 

Enfleurage (Photo: CYRIL GOURDIN)

Solvent extraction involves submerging flowers into solvent (benzene or a petroleum ether) to extract the essential oils. This produces a waxy substance called concrete, which contains the fragrant oils, but is too viscous for use. So it is combined with another solvent, usually ethyl alcohol, to get to the final product. 

Steam distillation works by subjecting raw material to steam from boiling water. The distillate it produces contains both water and fragrant oils. Because oil and water don’t mix, oils float to the surface where they are extracted. 

Water that’s left after steam distillation retains some of the fragrant compounds and is often used in cosmetic purposes. You might have heard of rose water or orange blossom water? That’s the so-called hydrosol left after steam distillation!

Perfume distillation (Photo: NINU personal archive)

While some of the old methods are still used today, perfume industry has mostly embraced the more efficient and effective processes. And the extraction of scents is not the only way technology helps shape the perfume industry …

The future of perfume is personalized

While technology helps us save time on mundane daily tasks, freeing us for things that really matter, it also speaks to our individuality. Beauty and wellness brands compete to offer the most personalized solutions, because they are aware that people want to express their uniqueness. Why look or smell the same as everyone else when you can have it match your mood and character? 

Sometimes that is even necessary – not everyone benefits from the same beauty product, food, skincare, or sports, so personalization has become the core value of the most successful beauty, health, and wellbeing solutions.

And perfumery is no exception. Personalised perfumes are not new – Italian, French, and other European royalty has kept personal perfume masters and enjoyed having custom scent created just for them. 

Chinque Terre Italy (Photo: NINU personal archive)

Paris France (Photo: Pixabay)

“Technology can represent a cornerstone of a better, more connected and more relaxed life.”

But with today’s knowledge, we can take personalised perfumes to the next level. Guided by the artificial intelligence, we can create perfumes that fit your mood, your skin, and every special occasion. Apps on smartphones employ the latest AI algorithms to learn from you and act as your own perfume master, always at our side, ready to help you choose the perfect scent. 

When we use it wrong, the technology can eat at our time and distance us from the real world and its beauties. But if we use it wisely, it can represent a cornerstone of a better, more connected, and more relaxed life. It can help us tailor the life around us to our needs and preferences, and enjoy it a truly personalized experience.

Perfume oils (NINU personal archive)