The Ancient Art of Extracting Essential Oils & Making Perfumes & Today’s Methods

The Ancient Art of Extracting Essential Oils & Making Perfumes

According to Miriam Stead, author of Egyptian Life, the process of distillation using steam was not known for the extraction of essences, but there were three techniques available for producing perfumes from flowers, fruits and seeds. She writes, There was enfleurage, the saturation of layers of fat with perfume by steeping flowers in the fat and replacing them when their perfume was spent.  In this way, the Egyptians were able to create creams and pomades.

The Original Coneheads

A popular form of pomade was the so called cosmetic cone which was worn on top of the head. They frequently represented in banqueting scenes, worn not only by the guests but also by the servants.  The cone is usually white with streaks of orange brown running from its top.  The coloring represents the perfume with which the cone was impregnated.  As the evening progressed, the cone would melt and the scented oil run down over the wig and garment, creating a pleasing scent and, no doubt, a sticky mess.  Throughout the course of an evening, it became necessary to renew the scent on the cones and the tomb scenes show servants circulating among the guests, replenishing the perfumed cream.  A popular late-night comedy television show called, Saturday Night Live, use to include an skit of a family with coneheads. I am sure the writers of this routine thought they were being original, although cone shape heads was all the rage in ancient Egypt.

The second process for creating perfume was maceration, that is dipping flowers, herbs, or fruits into fats or oils heated to a temperature of about 65 degrees Celsius. This technique is depicted in a number of tomb scenes.  The flowers or fruits were pounded in mortars and then stirred into the oil, which was kept hot on a fire.  The mixture was sieved and allowed to cool.  It might then be shaped into balls or cones, or, if liquid, poured into vessels. An alternative process may have been to macerate the flowers in water, cover the vessel with a cloth impregnated with fat and boil the contents of the vessel until all the perfumes had evaporated, fixing them in the fat which was then scraped off the cloth.  This technique is still used by peoples living near the source of the Nile.

Thirdly, there was the possibility of expressing the flowers or seeds.  This process was borrowed from the manufacture of wine and oil. The material to be pressed was placed in a bag with a stick attached to each end.  The sticks were twisted by a group of workmen. This technique was not used often, as most recipes specify either maceration or enfleurage.

How Essential Oils Are Produced Today

Producing essential oils continues to take a lot of work. It takes sixty thousand rose blossoms to produce one ounce of rose oil, whereas lavender is easier to obtain and yields approximately 7 pounds of oil from two-hundred and twenty pounds of dried flowers. The Sandalwood tree must be thirty years old and over thirty feet tall before it can be cut down for distillation. Myrrh, frankincense, and benzoin oils are extracted from the gum resins of their respective trees. While citrus fruits such as orange, lemon and lime are squeezed from the peel of their fruits. Cinnamon essential oil come from the bark of the tree, and pine oil comes from the needles and twigs. Other flowers must be picked by hand early in the morning before the sun rises and heats up, evaporating the essential oil within its petals. Hence, you can understand the variation in pricing of various essential oils on the market.

There is a variety of ways in which essential oils are extracted. The most common methods steam distillation, solvent extraction, expression, enfleurage and maceration.

Steam distillation involves using steam to pull essential oils from the plant by suspending the plant material over water in a sealed container, which is then brought to the boil. The steam containing the volatile essential oil is run through a cooler, when it condenses, and the liquid is collected.  The essential oil appears as a thin film on top of the liquid, as water and essential oils do not mix. The essential oil is then separated from the water by collecting in a small vial and the water into a large vat.

Solvent extraction involves using little heat, in order to preserve the oil which would otherwise be destroyed or altered during steam distillation. Plant material is dissolved in a liquid solvent of hepane, hexane, or methylene chloride as a suitable perfume solvent, which absorbs the smell, color and wax of the plant. After removing the plant material, the solvent is boiled off under a vacuum to helping to separate the essential oil.  This can be achieved since the solvent evaporates quicker, which leaves a substance called, concrete. The concrete is mixed with alcohol to aid in filtering the waxes. The next process is to distil the alcohol away, which leaves an ˜absolute. The word absolute will appear on the label of some bottled essential oils, although they still contain 2-3 per cent of the solvent, thus not considered pure essential oil.

Citrus oils is expressed rather than distilled. Within citrus fruits such as orange, lemon, lime and grapefruit, the essential oil is located in little sacs just under the surface of the rind. The oils need to be squeezed out or expressed from the peels and seeds, and this is achieved by letting the fruit roll over a conveyer that has small needles coming out, piercing the little oil pockets in the citrus rind. The oil runs out and is caught and filtered.

As mentioned before, enfleurage is an ancient method of extracting oils that is rarely used today because its long, complicated, and expensive process. Fragrant blooms were placed upon sheets of warm animal fat (or long sheets of vegetable fat), which absorbed the essential oil. As flowers are exhausted, they are replaced with fresh blossoms. This process is repeated until the sheet of fat is saturated with fragrance and is separated with solvents, leaving only the essential oil.

Macerated oils are not pure essential oils as they are carrier oils. Plant material is gathered and chopped, then added to either sunflower or olive oil. The mixture is stirred for a while, then placed in the sunlight for several days. This process transfers all of the soluble components in the plant material, including the essential oil, then is carefully filtered. This process leaves a carrier oil infused with essential oil.