The origins of perfume are shrouded in mystery — in some senses quite literally, as the word perfume derives from the Latin prefix per, meaning through, added to fumare, meaning to smoke, referring to the herbs and resins that were burned to heighten the atmosphere at religious ceremonies. Anyone who has inhaled the incense-infused fug of a Catholic cathedral immediately after High Mass will be familiar with this ancient kind of perfume, but these days we generally associate the word with the scented aromas that emanate from a bottle rather than a censer.
Perfume has always been mysterious and exotic, its formulae carefully guarded, composed using rare and precious ingredients gathered from the four corners of the earth. Incense alone contains frankincense from Oman, myrrh and opopanax from East Africa and labdanum from the Mediterranean, while perfume ingredients formed an important part of the trade that fanned out along the Silk Road between China, the Middle East and Europe. Even today, in an age of almost total mechanisation and ever-more sophisticated synthetic materials, the perfume industry still sources some of the same natural ingredients it has used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
It’s easy to imagine why people started trying to capture the heady fragrances of flowers: who wouldn’t want to smell as alluring as roses or orange blossom? But how on earth did anyone discover that, when dried, a gland from the male of a rare species of Siberian and Himalayan deer has a wonderful musky scent that, until its use was prohibited in 1979, formed the basis of hundreds of fine fragrances? Or that the tuberous roots of two species of wild iris flowers, cleaned, dried and carefully stored for three to five years, develop a beautiful, soft, powdery scent that can be slightly earthy and even smell of violets and freshly baked bread?
Often known as orris, the roots of Iris pallida, whose origins lie along the Adriatic coast, were used to sweeten the air of musty rooms, a fact that Marcel Proust remembered in À la recherche du temps perdu. The most expensive orris is grown in Tuscany, although the bearded iris, Iris germanica, is also widely used in perfumery and grown in Italy and Morocco. Heading southwest from Marrakech and up into the Atlas Mountains, twisting roads climb slowly up to the spectacular Zat Valley and the bustling little town of Tighedouine. Here, at a height of 1,600 metres, bearded irises are cultivated on narrow terraces above the town, their violet blooms adding a brilliant splash of colour to the sun-bleached mountainsides. Hundreds of thousands of their roots are harvested each spring, then laboriously peeled by hand and stored for the next three years while their fragrance gradually matures and they’re ready for processing.
The tuberous roots of two species of wild iris are cleaned, dried and stored for three to five years
Morocco also produces wonderful rose essences, derived from the Damask rose (Rosa x damascena), a hybrid variety that — as its name suggests — may have originated around Damascus in Syria. In Morocco, these deep-pink blooms are grown mainly along the approaches to the Dadès Gorges, along the irrigation channels around farmers’ fields. In May, when they are harvested, their intense perfume fills the air for miles around. Picked from dawn until mid-morning, before the flowers’ essential oils evaporate in the fierce sunshine, the petals are collected and taken to a local distillery to be processed. It takes between 3,000 and 4,000kg of rose petals to yield a single kilogram of rose essence, which goes some way to explaining why perfumes have always been expensive.
On the other side of the world, an equally laborious process turns the seed pods of a tropical orchid into one of the most distinctive ingredients in perfumery. Vanilla essence, which of course is also widely used in cookery, is extracted from the dried, fermented pods of Vanilla planifolia, an attractive climbing orchid that originated in Mexico but is now cultivated in Madagascar, Reunion and the Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean. Although its flowers are pollinated by hummingbirds and insects in the wild, cultivated varieties have to be pollinated by hand and their long, green seed pods are left on the stems for several months before being picked. The green pods are scalded with hot water, then dried in the sun for several months, repeatedly turned and sorted, until their distinctive aroma develops.
By contrast to the extraordinarily long and complex preparation process that iris roots and vanilla pods have to go through, when it comes to extracting perfume from flowers, speed is quite literally of the essence. Jasmine, whose intoxicating scent is an essential component of many great perfumes, is an adaptable plant that can be grown in many countries. But the two main varieties used in perfumery, Jasminum grandiflorum and Jasminum sambac, are cultivated on a wide scale in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, along with the overpoweringly fragrant flowers of tuberose. Each morning at dawn, women walk through the fields, picking the delicate flowers by hand, filling baskets and bags that, collected together, are taken to a factory where a waxy paste is extracted using volatile solvents.
Yet perhaps the most delicate flower of all is ylang ylang, which is widely grown in southeast Asia. So good that they named it twice (ylang ylang means “flower of flowers”), this fast-growing exotic tree bears long, drooping blooms all year round, which develop a deliciously fresh, sweet fragrance when they have turned from greenish to buttercup yellow. Unlike tuberose, whose scent continues to develop even after the flowers are picked, ylang ylang has to be processed no more than two hours after harvesting, using a distillation process that lasts for almost 15 hours.
One of the ironies of perfumery is that because they are so labour intensive to grow and process, top-quality natural ingredients are astronomically expensive (it’s often claimed that, ounce for ounce, iris extract can be worth far more than its weight in gold), yet many of the people who actually cultivate them are among the poorest workers in the world. Spare a thought for them next time you wince at the price of an expensive perfume.