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Extracting Essential Oils
Through Distillation

Part III of a Multi-Part Series

"The exquisite pleasure derived from smelling fragrant flowers would almost instinctively induce man to attempt to separate the odoriferous principle from them, so as to have the perfume when the season denies the flowers. Thus we find the alchemists of old, torturing the plants in every way their invention could devise for this end; and it is on their experiments that the whole art of perfumery has been reared."

— G.W. Septimus Piesse, The Art of Perfumery

(The complete text of this 1857 book is available to members of the Perfume Maker's Club as a free 132 page download in pdf format.)

In Part I of this series we learned how to make a simple perfume by soaking flower petals and other fragrant materials in water. But we also discovered that flower petals and other fragrant materials do not give up their scent so easily to our efforts.

One our Voyage of Discovery we learned that by applying heat to these materials, additional scent can be extracted, but that heat, while useful for extracting fragrance from more solid materials, was not as helpful for capturing a strong floral aroma.

Our conclusion was that at this point technology was needed to give us workable quantities of the essential oils that would allow us to progress to our next level of perfume creation.

Historically, by the beginning of the 19th century (1800), four technologies had been established for extracting "the odoriferous principle" from flowers and other natural materials. Among these technologies was distillation.

We have already discovered that we can extract a fragrance from natural materials with water and heat. Distillation is simply a refinement of this technique. If you have a bent for chemistry, you can set up your own home still with either kitchenware (awkward!) or some basic chemistry lab equipment (more practical).

But first let's look at what happens to our fragrant material in the distillation process.

Show above is an example of the equipment used for basic distillation. Here, tapwater is being used to cool and condense the vapor produced by heating aroma materials covered with water.

Technologies of Essential Oil Creation: Distillation

The earliest, crude, technique for obtaining an essential oil through distillation involved placing the "odoriferous principle" (your natural materials) in an "iron, copper or glass pan," covering the materials with water, and fitting a dome shaped top to the pan. An opening at the top of the dome led to a corkscrew shaped pipe (the "condenser") which ran for a distance and terminated over a bucket, tank or jar (the "receiver").

Heat was applied to the pan holding the water soaked natural materials. As the water boiled, the fragrant oils released from their source and were drawn into the water. As the boiling water was vaporized into steam, it rose to the top of the dome and escaped into the corkscrew tubing where cooled, it liquefies and drips down into the receiving tank.

moonshine still
A moonshine still. The simplicity of the equipment that can be used for distillation led to the rise of essential oil production by small producers in many remote regions. As might be expected, the quality of oils produced by small manufacturers varied from poor to excellent. Today, proper storage of essential oils in tropical climates continues to be a challenge for small producers.

As the liquid in the receiving tank continued to cool, it separated into two layers: (1) the essential oil extracted from the natural materials, which, being lighter than water, rose to the top, and (2) the water, now scented with the aroma of the essential oil. In commercial production, the essential oil became one product, the lightly scented water, another.

While you can set up chemistry lab equipment and duplicate this process, a word of warning. This is not the ideal way to produce an essential oil. Why? Because in the technology which has just been described — and which was widely used up until the middle of the 19th century — the heat, applied directly to what a moonshiner would call the "mash," is destructive of delicate floral aroma.

Thus a refinement of this technology was developed: steam distillation. Steam distillation was developed and perfected by companies seeking a higher quality of essential oil. With additional refinements this technique continues in wide usage today.

Today, essential oils of the best quality are produced by high-tech, steam distillation equipment such as the modern 'still' shown here.

Steam distillation of fragrant materials to produce essential oils

In the production of essential oils, heat is both our friend and our enemy. With heat we can extract the essential oil from a flower. But this same heat can destroy the beauty of the aroma of the oil we have extracted. Thus the next step in the use of heat to produce an essential oil was to separate the heat and water from the source material. This process is called steam distillation.

In steam distillation, the fragrant materials are placed on a screen above or away from the water and heat. Steam alone is passed over the fragrant materials. Again, the process extracts oils from the natural materials and passes it through the top of the dome, into the condenser to liquefy and into a receiving tank where the essential oil, once cooled, is separated from the lightly scented water.

But a refinement is added to this process. In modern equipment, the temperature and pressure of the steam can be controlled so that it is just hot enough to extract the oil from a particular material with minimum harm to the aroma.

Different natural materials can be subjected to differing temperatures of steam and pressure thus minimizing the destructive effects of the heat.

This technology has become a major industrial process for producing essential oils on a commercial scale. Many of the highest grade essential oils available today have been produced through high-tech steam distillation technology. Even with your own lab equipment, it would be extremely difficult to replicate the top level technology used to produce essential oils by steam distillation.

Problems Remain

Heat, friend and enemy, continues to be impractical for extracting the aroma of several very delicate flowers which happen to be among those most prized for perfumery. This leads us to an extraction technique called enfleurage. But before taking up the subject of enfleurage, let's take a side trip to India and the Middle East and explore The World of Attars.

Part I: Making Your Own Perfume For Pleasure or for Profit

Part II: Voyage of Discovery

Part IV: Making Indian Attars

Part V: Producing Agarwood Oil In Thailand

Part VI: Turning homemade perfume into a commercial product

Making Perfume By The Quart
Making Perfume By The Quart: A do-it-yourself project book

Many who love perfume dream of having their own -- but it can seem too complicated, too "from another world." Making Perfume By The Quart brings it down to earth for you in ten remarkably easy to understand chapters of instructions that guide you through the complete production process, from concept to finished perfume. But you make just one quart.

Creating Your Own Perfume With A 1700 Percent Markup! (3rd edition)

Perfume is famous for the markup it can achieve, even for a middle market fragrance. While "everybody knows" that perfume costs next to nothing to make (not completely true) the making of it is often considered an esoteric secret. "Creating Your Own Perfume With A 1700 Percent Markup!" details how a 3-person company with no experience created their own fragrance in response to a marketing opportunity that was too good to pass up. The book explains exactly what was done to create a fragrance for that opportunity but it is far more than a history of the author's project. "Creating Your Own Perfume With A 1700 Percent Markup!" lays out every step in the process of creating your own perfume, either as a do-it-yourself project – and without the benefit of automated equipment some compromises and workarounds are required – or full bore professional production under your supervision. Either way you will be producing a quality fragrance at a remarkably low cost. Do you have a marketing opportunity that would be wildly profitable if only you could obtain your fragrance at a ridiculously low cost? "Creating Your Own Perfume With A 1700 Percent Markup!" is the guide you need to do it.

Naming Your Perfume And Protecting Your Name

A really great name, a special name that is just right for a particular perfume or perfume marketer (or entrepreneur with money to invest!) can be worth a ton of money. But few individuals with great ideas ever manage to cash in on those brilliant ideas. Instead they wait while others "discover" their idea, acquire legal rights to it and make all the money while they are left out in the cold without a penny having been earned for what was once THEIR idea.

If you are struggling to name your perfume and are looking for a name that will have real value, "Naming Your Perfume And Protecting Your Name" will help you weed out low value names and point you to names that have better marketing value plus the potential to become valuable assets in themselves.

If you have a great name you want to protect but no fragrance, "Naming Your Perfume And Protecting Your Name" will guide you through the simple steps you must take to acquire a legal right to that name before someone else grabs it! Best of all, "Naming Your Perfume And Protecting Your Name" shows you how to gain strong legal protection for your name without a lawyer and without spending more than pocket change.

Never had an idea for a product name? Never thought much about perfume? "Naming Your Perfume And Protecting Your Name" may stimulate your interest in a whole new game that, when played well, can make you lots of money without your having to leave the comfort of your home office.

How To Launch Your Own Perfume Company: A Simple Business Plan

You can build a perfume business of your own using this business plan as a guide. By following its detailed strategy you learn to identify motivated groups of potential perfume buyers. Members of these groups are near the tipping point of desire for a new perfume. You don't know these people and they don't know you but you know a marketer they trust, one who does not currently sell perfume and might never think of selling perfume were it not for your approach. Here is where you step in with a professional plan, promotion, and perfume to take advantage of this ripe opportunity for mutual profit. Before your first promotion has peaked, you will already be developing a relationship with your next marketing partner. Following this plan, you will gain more and more profit with each new marketing partnership.

Creating your own perfume from dropper bottles: Methods, mechanics, and mathematics

Now when you make your own perfume you can make it fully "commercial" meaning you will be creating a product ready for regular, continuous sales to friends, relatives, and the public! If the fragrance you've made has already won praise, why not share it with others? Some might pay you for it and want it for their web stores or retail boutiques! Creating your own perfume from dropper bottles: Methods, mechanics, and mathematics guides you through steps that can turn your hobby project into a perfume business. Discover how close you are now and how little more you must do to take what you made with essential oils and dropper bottles into a business of your own! For an introduction to this book, watch this video.

How To Create A More Valuable Name For Your Perfume

When you name a perfume you create a valuable asset – the name itself. To sell your perfume you want the most effective name possible. But a good name can have value beyond the edge it gives your sales. In naming your fragrance you are creating a trademark and a trademark can have value independent of the product. The value of that trademark can vary. Much depends on how well, in naming your perfume, you follow the trademark "rules." How To Create A More Valuable Name For Your Perfume first helps you develop a name that will be effective in selling your perfume. It then prods you to make use of certain techniques that can turn a good name into a great trademark, strong and valuable. If you have questions about how to protect a name, How To Create A More Valuable Name For Your Perfume will answer many such as:

  • Can you protect your name yourself or do you need a lawyer?
  • Can you register a trademark without a lawyer?
  • What does it cost to register a trademark?
  • How do I enforce the rights I have established?

How To Create A More Valuable Name For Your Perfume covers both state, federal, and international protection.

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Philip Goutell
Lightyears, Inc.