The Art of Enfleurage in Perfumery
Posted on September 01 2023
Photo Credit by Wit, Owner & Perfumer for Wit & West Perfumes (photo of Wit & West irises in enfleurage tray)
Before they can be utilized to construct a perfume, perfumery raw materials, and specifically ingredients of natural origin (e.g., those extracted from natural botanical sources such as plants, citrus, flowers, leaves, twigs, spices, resins, wood, etc.) must undergo a process called extraction to remove (or separate) and concentrate the aromatic chemical constituents from plant materials. The methods used most widely on a commercial scale include distillation, solvent, and CO2 extraction.
The most well-known method of extraction also produces the most well-known natural raw material; an essential oil, or volatile materials derived by a physical process from plants of a single botanical form or species. Essential oils are either expressed (exclusive to citrus in which the citrus peels are pressed using machinery to extract the oil from the peels) or distilled. Distillation is a method of separating components based on differences in evaporation rate of volatile constituents through temperature, pressure and subsequent condensation taking place within a still. In addition to essential oils, there are other methods of extraction that are important to the natural perfumer’s palette as not all botanical materials can be extracted using distillation. For example, in the case of jasmine, jasmine’s volatile aromatic oils are composed of heat-sensitive chemical compounds that do not allow for extraction methods such as steam distillation to yield a usable product. Instead, jasmine requires methods such as solvent (a process that uses a solvent such as alcohol or hexane) or CO2 extraction (a process that uses carbon dioxide gas under pressure at ambient temperature) to yield a product that is suitable for use in perfumery (Arctander, 1960). Learn more about natural perfumery and natural perfume ingredients in the Wit & West blog post: What is Natural Perfume?
Beyond the commercial methods of extraction, there are other traditional methods such as tincturing (e.g., using a solvent such as 190 proof alcohol to extract aromatic materials from plants) and enfleurage that have seen a revival in recent years by artisan perfumers (including myself).
The Art of Enfleurage in Perfumery
Tincturing, or the process of creating a botanical extraction using alcohol as a solvent, is likely something you have heard about as tinctures are more commonly used for non-perfumery purposes such as herbal remedies as well as for food and beverage flavorings. Enfleurage on the other hand is less known to those outside of perfumery. So, what exactly is enfleurage and how is it used in perfumery? Enfleurage is a French word that comes from enfleurer, which means to saturate with the perfume of flowers. The enfleurage extraction method is done using odorless fat (e.g., coconut oil) to capture the fragrance of fresh flowers. Enfleurage is limited to flowers that continue to release or exhale their fragrant oils for many hours after having been picked such as jasmine, gardenia, tuberose, lilac, peony, violets, roses (rose can also be extracted via distillation or solvent extraction) (Curtis & Williams, 1994). A process that yields a beautifully fragrant product that accurately represents the actual scent of a living flower, today enfleurage is a technique that is primarily only used by artisans. As a natural perfumer I find the technique and artistic process of enfleurage to be incredibly rewarding, not only because of the beautiful result it produces, but also because it is the true embodiment of artisan natural perfumery that is handcrafted garden to bottle with a focus on slow beauty, or in this case, slow perfumery.
The History of Enfleurage
Developed in 1750, enfleurage gained popularity and became more widespread throughout the 18th century in Grasse, France. Prior to the introduction of newer methods like solvent extraction and distillation, enfleurage was the only available method of extraction for flowers such as jasmine and tuberose. By the end of 19th century, enfleurage had become a fully developed and major industrial process for the extraction of these types of flowers. Despite its widespread use at the time, enfleurage saw a sharp decline in the 1930s in favor of other more economical and higher yielding extraction methods such as solvent extraction (Curtis & Williams, 1994).
What is the Process for Enfleurage?
So how does the enfleurage process work? Enfleurage can be done via two primary methods: Hot or cold enfleurage. The material used for absorbing or extracting the scent molecules from flowers varies and can include odorless fat such as coconut or palm oil, powders such as tapioca starch or rice flower. Cold enfleurage with fat is probably the most popular of the enfleurage method and is also my method of choice. For me, cold enfleurage – while still labor intensive – is less laborious and easier to achieve the desired final product. Below I discuss how each method works as well as options for how far to take each method, depending on whether you want to use the enfleurage for a solid perfume, a fragrant body butter, or as an ingredient in an oil or alcohol-based perfume.
Cold enfleurage utilizes a glass tray with a thin layer of fat such as coconut oil is spread on the tray and then a layer of fresh flowers on top which is then recharged daily until a desired scent is achieved. Here is a summary of the process I follow to enfleurage flowers from the Wit & West garden including bearded irises (iris germanica), peonies, roses (several different hybrid species) and lilacs.
Preparing the Enfleurage Fat for Cold Enfleurage
- Preparing the enfleurage fat. The enfleurage fat (such as coconut oil or similar scentless semi-solid fat) is heated along with a small amount of wax (I use a vegan alternative to beeswax such as soy or jojoba wax).
- Pour the fat into glass trays. Once heated, a thin layer of the enfleurage fat is then poured into a glass tray covering the bottom of the tray.
- Let the fat cool. As the fat cools, it will start to solidify.
Preparing Flowers for Enfleurage
Once the fat has been prepared, fresh flowers are gathered and applied as a layer on top of the fat.
- Gather flowers when they are most fragrant. For many flowers this is early in the morning, but some are more fragrant in the evening (some types of jasmine for example).
- Avoid Moisture. It is important to avoid moisture and ensure flowers are not damp from sprinklers/rain. If so, they will need to first be dried (but not dried to the point of being too dry that they lose their scent).
- Removal of unwanted pests or debris. Flowers should be examined for bugs or any other unwanted botanical materials.
Apply the Flowers to the Enfleurage Trays
- Arrange the flowers on the enfleurage tray. Fresh flowers are carefully placed on top of the enfleurage fat, ensuring there is breathing room and some space between the flowers.
- Cover the enfleurage tray and store it in a dark room. The enfleurage tray is then covered and stored in a low humidity, low heat room with minimal sunlight.
- Reapply or “recharge” flowers daily. For flowers where I use 3-6 trays, each with 30-40 charges per tray, per season (a “charge” in enfleurage is the reapplication of fresh flowers), I will often recharge the flowers twice per day. A good example is lilacs. Not only is the lilac season short (sometimes only 2-3 weeks, 4 weeks if I am lucky), but because I have two large lilac bushes (25+ year-old lilac bushes that require a ladder to reach the top!) and three smaller lilac bushes, there would be no other way for me to feasibly gather all the flowers without doing multiple charges per day.
Hot enfleurage is a method that uses heat and fat or oil to extract the fragrance from flowers. As mentioned previously, this method is less desirable in my opinion as it requires more time to monitor the process while the fat or oil is heated. Despite the additional labor required for hot enfleurage, some artisan perfumers love this method as it can yield a quicker result. Hot enfleurage is generally best for delicate flowers such as roses, orange blossoms and mimosa flowers.
Prepare the Oil and Flowers for Hot Enfleurage
- Prepare the flowers for hot enfleurage. The same process for preparing flowers that is used in cold enfleurage is also used in hot enfleurage.
- Preparing the enfleurage fat. Oil such as moringa or olive oil is placed in a pan on the stove and the oil is heated to about 140 degrees.
- Add the flowers to the hot enfleurage. The flowers are added to the oil and stirred until the flowers are completely saturated with oil.
- Allow the flowers to macerate. The flowers are then left in the pan of oil to macerate for a couple of hours (stirring occasionally).
- Strain the flowers and store the oil. Once the initial charge of flowers is complete (after the flowers have lost their fragrance), they are then removed from the oil using a strainer. The oil is then stored until the next day or next charge of fresh flowers.
- Reapply or “recharge” flowers daily. Like cold enfleurage, flowers are gathered daily, and the oil is heated and recharged with flowers until the desired scent is achieved.
Completing the Enfleurage Process
Storing and using the enfleurage pomade or oil. Once the enfleurage fat from cold or hot enfleurage has been charged multiple times (I generally charge each tray up to 40 times), the resulting product known as an enfleurage pomade or oil can be used as-is for things such as a base for a solid or oil-based perfume or a body butter. The pomade or oil is then stored in an airtight container in a dark, cool room.
Further extraction for an enfleurage extrait. The enfleurage pomade or oil can be further extracted for alcohol-based perfumes by washing the pomade or oil in alcohol to draw the fragrant molecules into the alcohol creating a product known as an enfleurage extrait. This extrait can be used as the alcohol base for a perfume or as a single note or ingredient in a perfume.
Enfleurage in Wit & West Perfumes
Enfleurage is truly one of my favorite artisanal perfumery methods. While many of the tropical flowers like jasmine and tuberose do not grow in Colorado, I am lucky enough to have a garden on almost an acre of land with several fragrant flowers that bloom at different times throughout the season. I start the enfleurage process each season with lilacs in the spring, transition to peonies in late spring, irises in early summer, and roses in mid-summer to fall. One of the perfumes in the Wit & West Reserve Collection – The Violetear Eau de Parfum – includes an iris enfleurage extrait that is extracted using the same USDA organic grape alcohol base used in all Wit & West fragrances. For this enfleurage extrait, it required over 40 charges of fresh iris flowers gathered from the Wit & West garden over the course of two seasons!
Check out our TikTok video on the enfleurage process here:
@witandwest Today I’m sharing a behind the scenes look into the enfleurage method (see also: @Wit & West Perfumes) and the process I use for my in-house created iris enfleurage extrait, a key ingredient in the Wit & West limited-edition Reserve Perfume, The Violetear. The Violetear is a fougére-style fragrance that features bergamot, lavender, mimosa, rose, my in-house iris enfleurage extrait, tonka bean, oakmoss and frankincense. #perfumetok #perfumetiktok #artisanperfumery #naturalperfume #indieperfumery #naturalperfumer #naturalperfumery #perfumehistory #perfumeingredients #botanicalperfume #enfleurage #fougére #witandwest ♬ Chill and Cute Kawaii electronica(1414894) - Kawaii&Chill
Conclusion On Enfleurage
As, one of the oldest methods of extraction in perfumery, the artisan process of enfleurage is a rewarding and wonderful way to create scented products from locally sourced flowers. As a natural perfumer, enfleurage allows me to create extractions from flowers that are not available commercially, such as iris or lilac (the former only being available commercially as an extraction from the rhizomes or roots creating a product known as orris butter or orris absolute, and the latter only being available commercially in a CO2 oil that is only partially soluble in alcohol and therefore of minimal use for alcohol-based perfumes). While not a method I would recommend for everyone, I would recommend it to those who have a passion for gardening and creating things by hand, using slow artisanal methods that require a great degree of patience, flexibility, and persistence. There are no shortcuts in enfleurage – it is a process I have learned and perfected via trial and error over the course of 4+ years – but I can attest to the fact that it has been a journey that was well-worth the effort, affording me the ability to create unique fragrances as a part of the Wit & West Reserve Collection. Stay tuned for new Wit & West Reserve Collection perfumes featuring our in-house artisan enfleurage extraits (hint: the next one will feature lilac enfleurage!).
Arctander, S. (1960). Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin. Elizabeth: Orchard Innovations Reprint Edition.
Curtis, T., & Williams, D. G. (1994). An Introduction to Perfumery. Port Washington: Micelle Press.