Futuristic advancements in Grasse’s extraction techniques for processing natural raw materials inspire a look back at their origins.
The history of perfumery is intrinsically tied to developments in extraction techniques.
Up until the 19th century, the two key processes used to create scented ointments, waters, and oils were enfleurage, a process known since ancient times, and steam distillation, discovered in Middle Ages.
The use of scented products remained fairly limited across the history of mankind until it gradually became more widespread in 19th century and showed a marked increase in the 20th century.
In addition to dramatic changes in personal habits and cultural trends, this growth can be explained by that era’s industrial and technical progress. Since that surge, fragrances have been produced in prodigious quantities and the supply of perfume plants continues to steadily increase on the French Riviera and in many other parts of the world.
In the late 18th century, Grasse perfumers began specializing in perfume-plant processing in earnest; they joined forces with boilermakers to perfect the stills and extractors needed for this activity. They also improved the equipment used for enfleurage and reinvented the way work methods were structured. This meant that, until the late 20th century, perfume plants were processed using one of three techniques: enfleurage, steam distillation, and extraction using volatile solvents.
Enfleurage and maceration are the terms for the techniques that rely on the absorption of odor molecules by fat or oil. The first is a cold process used on the most delicate flowers, like jasmine and tuberose. The second uses heat, mixing the fatty substance and the flower corollas together, a technique used with roses, for example, as rose petals cannot tolerate the temperature extremes of distillation over an open flame. The best-known of the two techniques, enfleurage, involves placing the petals on a layer of cold fat and letting the fat trap the odor molecules. The operation is repeated several times and the resulting substance is of superior quality. This ancient technique was improved upon and adapted over the course of the 19th century, abandoned after World War II, only to be recently embraced anew by the Grasse company Robertet.
Distillation uses water vapor to extract the odor molecules. The 19th-century development of the steam engine led to another surge of innovation in Grasse as perfumers channeled water vapor directly into their stills. Soon Grasse’s boilermakers were vying to outdo each other in ingenuity as they adapted each still to the needs of their perfume-making clients. As a result, between the 17th and the 19th centuries, six boilerworks set up business in Grasse: G. Dumont, J. Gauthay, Hughes, Robin, Roudier, and Tournaire Frères – almost as many as in Paris, which, in that same era, specialized in cider distillation.
Soon the Tournaire (Grasse) and Deroy (Paris) companies had become leaders in making equipment for perfumery. They exported their creations worldwide, giving rise to new industry sectors as the 20th century dawned, particularly the expansion of ylang-ylang and clove tree crops in Madagascar.
With the discovery of extraction using volatile solvents – first benzene, then hexane – these manufacturers pursued the industrial-scale adaptation of research by Naudin and Massignon, whose patents were bought by Etablissements Antoine Chiris in 1879. The technology is based on the transfer of odorants from the raw material to the solvent during a maceration phase. After the odor-laden solvent and natural waste materials are separated, the extract is concentrated by evaporation of the solvent. This process results in an alcohol-soluble “absolute.”
Photo (Source : Tournaire) : Benzene extraction of oak moss, mid-20th century – Extraction room at Etablissements Antoine Chiris, Grasse