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Monday, 22 June 2009

Behind the scents

Published: June 12, 2009, 23:40
Perfumes in attractive bottles are one of the best forms of art that can be collected when you travel to places that epitomise the pursuit of beauty — such as Paris.It was not surprising to find a museum for perfumes in Paris, the city of museums. Last year, I stepped into Musée du Parfum, a palace of perfumes, located near the Opéra Garnier. Grand interiorsOpen since 1983, the museum is run by the scent manufacturer Fragonard. The sweet news is that they offer a “behind the scents” tour, absolutely free.The Musée du Parfum occupies a lovely Napoleon III townhouse, which was built in 1860 by Lesoufaché, a student of Garnier. The architecture and the interiors — a gorgeous mix of gold, white marble, dark wood, mural paintings, mirrors and crystal chandeliers — belong to that era and, of course, the sweetest of scents. The museum showcases the history of bottled fragrance through the ages.Our museum guide, Laurence, had an Oriental charm about her, although she spoke English with a heavy French accent. She drifted from one exhibit to the other. The museum taught us a lot about the sweet smells in attractive jars. There are elaborate displays of the tools used in the making of perfumes. Laurence told us about the various perfume-making techniques and the raw materials. Over the years, perfume makers have developed various methods to obtain the purest raw materials from flowers, plants and other natural ingredients. Today, with innovations in modern chemistry, it is possible to produce natural scents in laboratories. Laurence guided us through the procedures of extracting and bottling of scents.DistillationThis technique is based on the ability of steam to capture essential oils. It was first used in antiquity but was perfected by the Arab civilisation in AD8 and is still used in traditional perfume making. The flowers or plants are placed on perforated trays in the upper part of the still; the lower part is filled with water. which is brought to a boil. As the steam rises, it captures the scent-bearing components and carries them into a container where the vapour is condensed by refrigeration. The mixture of water and essential oils is collected in essence bottles, called Florentine flasks. The essential oils rise to the surface and are used to make perfume while the scented water left from distillation, such as rose water and orange-blossom water, is used for other purposes. AbsorptionThis technique is based on the ability of animal fat to absorb odours naturally. Depending on how well the plant matter withstands heat, this process is conducted at either hot or cold temperatures.ExtractionExtraction using volatile solvents consists of adding the fragrance-bearing part of the plant to a solvent, which is boiled. This was practised in the 18th century using ether. Some methods include supercritical carbon dioxide extraction, where a carbon dioxide by-product is used as a solvent. Since this solvent is easier to eliminate, production costs are lower. Raw materialsThe raw materials of plant origin used to make perfumes are sourced from all around the world. Raw materials of animal origin are not very well known and have been replaced by synthetic products. The first perfume to use synthetic products was Chanel N°5, created in 1925 — one of its components is an aldehyde. Synthetic raw materials obtained through petrochemistry have as high a quality of fragrance as those derived from natural raw materials.Plant of many partsAlthough not always cheaper than their natural counterparts, synthetic raw materials are more desirable from an ecological point of view and ensure consistent product quality. There is also a perfume map on display at the museum, with pictures and details of each raw material and its place of origin.Depending on the species, various parts of plants or trees are used to make perfumes: petals, flower or leaf buds, roots, leaves, stems and stalks. Although cultivated internationally, some flowers are still picked in the fields around the Grasse region in France and used in the local perfume industry. The museum also has some huge, beautiful copper vessels traditionally used by perfumeries around the world. Perfume bottles made of glass, porcelain and granite, with elaborate handwork, complete the vanity behind the precious essence they contain. Don’t be surprised if you’re inspired to buy some at the end of the tour. A lot of them have their roots in Asia and the Middle East. Shop for giftsThe boutique shop offers gift ideas presented in admirable pick-me-up fashion. You can shop for soaps, cosmetics, home scents and perfume sets.I was intrigued by the variety of perfumes in miniature bottles, especially the Soleil collection. Laurence said soleil means “Sun” in French. The bottle’s cap was self-explanatory. I picked some lovely perfume bottles in gilded sets. Some of the world’s sweetest perfumes from the museum lingered as we cruised on the Seine River that evening. The Fragonard bottle stands out among other sweet-smelling cosmetics, singing Paris, je t’aime (Paris, I love you).Blooms, herbs and perfumeThe main flowers used are:
1. Rose, picked only at dawn when the perfume is strongest. The rose most commonly used for making perfumes is the rosa centifolia, or May rose. It is cultivated in Grasse, Turkey, Bulgaria and Morocco. 2. Jasmine, the white flower most used for many perfumes, helped establish Grasse’s reputation for perfumes and is also imported from Spain, North Africa and India. 3. Tuberose, native to Mexico, was brought to Grasse during the 17th century and is also common in India. 4. Orange blossom is cultivated in Provence, Italy and Egypt. When distilled, it produces an essence called neroli. 5. Lavender, fields of which cover the plateaus of Haute Provence. It is mainly used in fragrances for men. 6. Mimosa, found in abundance in the Grasse region during the end of winter, is a flower without petals. Its little yellow florets are composed of stamens. 6. Ylang-ylang is produced by gnarled trees found in islands in the Indian Ocean: the Comoros archipelago, Mauritius, Indonesia, the Philippines and the Republic of Madagascar. Aromatic herbsThyme, rosemary, mint and basil are also used to make perfumes. They are cultivated in France, Spain, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, India and Madagascar. Fruits, roots and the restFruits and their peels add a refreshing citrus note or an exotic touch. Let’s take a quick look at where they are sourced from in bulk: 1. Lemon from Italy, California and the Ivory Coast. 2. Bergamot from Calabria in Italy, the Ivory Coast and Spain. 3. Orange from California and Spain. 4. Mandarin, native to China, is also grown in Italy. 5. Grapefruit from the US. 6. Vanilla, native to Mexico and cultivated around the Indian Ocean. Spices and seeds are used too:1. Tonka beans from Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil. 2. Coriander, cultivated and distilled in Russia, Hungary and North Africa. 3. Badian from China. 4. Cumin, native to the Mediterranean basin and India. 5. Ambrette from India and the West Indies. 6. Cardamom from India, Guatemala, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Central America. 7. Cloves from Madagascar, the Philippines, Indonesia and Tanzania. 8. Fenugreek, with its smell reminiscent of walnut and celery. 9. Nutmeg, harvested from the evergreen nutmeg tree. 10. Pepper, used mainly for fragrances for men. Some leaves useful to the perfume industry: 1. Patchouli, cultivated mainly in India, Indonesia and the Philippines. 2. Petitgrain extracted from the leaves of the bitter orange in Italy. 3. Geranium from South Africa, Egypt and China. 4. Violet from the hills of Venice; the leaves give a very green floral essence. 5. Myrtle, native to the Mediterranean region. Roots are prized raw materials: 1. Vetiver from the island of Java. 2. Iris, of which Italy is the biggest producer. It is also grown in Greece, India and Morocco. 3. Ginger, cultivated in India, Japan, China and West Africa.Wood, barks and mosses are also used to make perfumes:1. Sandalwood from India, Timor, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. 2. Cedar from Kenya and the Moroccan Atlas Mountains. 3. Cinnamon, harvested in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, India and Vietnam. 4. Birch bark from Russia and northern Europe. 5. Lignum vitae from Argentina, Paraguay and the West Indies. 6. Oak moss from the forests of the Massif Central in France, Morocco and Spain. Resins and gums, secreted by plants (or trees) are used to form a particular note in a fragrance. Plant secretions from which perfume is extracted are: 1. Galbanum from Iran and Afghanistan. 2. Benzoin, produced in Laos, China and Vietnam. 3. Opoponax from Ethiopia. 4. Myrrh, a gum drawn from spiny shrubs found in Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan and the Arabian Peninsula. 5. Labdanum, extracted from rock rose (cistaceae) leaves sourced from North America. 6. Tolu balsam from South America. 7. Frankincense is collected from a wild shrub mainly from Oman, Yemen and Somalia.Road and railFrom the Boulevard Périphérique:Exit at Porte Maillot and take Avenue de la Grande Armée to Place Charles de Gaulle, then Avenue des Champs Elysées to Place de la Concorde. Here turn left into Rue Royale leading to Place de la Madeleine, then right into the Boulevard de la Madeleine direction to Opéra Garnier. By public transport:Métro : Opéra station (lines 3, 7 and 8).

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