Ethereal Alchemy – the essence of natural perfume

Posted in Natural Perfume on October 2, 2009 by etherealalchemy

“The distillation of essential oils has evolved over the course of at least 4,000 years. It is one of the many contributions made by the ancient alchemists in their search for health, longevity and spiritual knowledge.”1

Essential oils have a direct and profound effect on the deepest levels of the body and psyche. Because their primary route of absorption is inhalation, they have a strong and immediate effect on the mucous membranes of the respiratory system. Passing through the capillary beds of the sinuses and activating the olfactory nerves, the fragrances of the oils enter the brain, producing systemic effects on the neurological, immunological, and hormonal functions. Essential oils powerfully enhance positive mental and emotional states, and build resistance to pathogens.2

Aromatics were highly prized articles of luxury and refinement in the ancient world, and trade routes developed in part around the relentless pursuit of spices and perfume ingredients. From remote civilizations, caravans and ships brought cinnamon from Africa; spikenard and cardamom from India; ginger, nutmeg, saffron and cloves from Indonesia. Some were too precious to eat and these materials were components of the fragrant mixtures used in religious rituals, as physical remedies, and to scent the body. 3

The practice of perfumery possessed an aura of magic and mystery. An exclusive but idiosyncratic fraternity, largely self-taught, perfumers were the practical and philosophical heirs to the tradition of alchemy, which had as its aim the transformation of physical matter into divine essence. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the technique known as enfleurage bestowed upon them the essences of jasmine, orange blossom, and tuberose, bringing the art of perfumery to full flower.4

Natural perfumes began to decline in 1905 when, as legend has it, Francois Coty catapulted his fledgling fragrance business into the world by dropping a bottle of perfume on the floor of an exclusive department store that had just declined to carry it. He was among the first perfumers to use synthetics along with natural essences, the decisive factor in making perfume an affordable luxury for the masses. Because of their low price and stability, the synthetics were vigorously promoted and soon replace natural essences in the manufacture of perfume, except for the precious florals, which were difficult to replicate. Synthetics offered all the reliability – and uniformity – of Wonder Bread, and being “modern” added to their cache. A process that once was poetic, went into eclipse.5

A century later, our olfactory sensibility has been marginalized and deadened by the chemicalization of our food and our environment, and the overwhelming proliferation of unnatural smells. Oversaturation with chemical smells has compromised our ability to appreciate complex and subtle natural odors. Sadly, many people do not know what real rose or jasmine smell like. We are bombarded by department-store perfumes that shout their presence and linger monotonously and pervasively on the body and in the air, but the true magic of perfume evades us.6

The study and practice of perfumery is uniquely apt to satisfy the hunger for authenticity that seems more keen in us now than ever. A spiritual process as well as an aesthetic one, the art of perfumery is at once holy and carnal, spiritual and material, arcane and modern, tangible and intangible, profound and superficial. To take part in it is to touch its most ancient roots, especially the long and secretive traditions of alchemy. Alchemy embodied such dualities, as the psychologigist Carl Jung recognized in embracing the alchemical process as a metaphor for the growth of the human soul through conflict, crises and change.7

Scent has always provided a direct path to the soul. To be immersed in a scent world, even temporarily, is to shift your consciousness and to awaken to the moment more fully, embarking on a journey into the grand and exotic past and the hidden, sensual present.8

1,2 – Crow, David, The Pharmacy of Flowers
3-8 – Aftel, Mandy, Essence and Alchemy, Introduction.



Posted in Uncategorized on September 27, 2009 by etherealalchemy

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