What did they smell like and what did it take to make them?
In Queen Victoria’s time, perfume was still pretty much naturally based on flowers and herbs and resins. The modern ingredients had not come out yet and would not be in perfume until the flask of Eau Imperial was presented to The Empress Eugenie in the latter part of the 19th century by Houbigant.
Roses, lavender, iris root, jasmine and violet were favorite blending ingredients. The latter, violet, was either excruciatingly expensive (as the real essence is hideously painstaking to collect) or it was a simulation from several other ingredients which smelled a lot like violet. In any case, it was quite luxurious and that accounts for our thoughts on it being an “old lady” perfume (in some cases” because its rarity pushed up its popularity).
Natural perfumery is not a one man endeavor. Very few people have attempted to make their own perfumes out of what they can grow in the garden. To use natural ingredients you have to wait for them to bloom, have masses of them to process, gather it all at the right time, and be able to deal with it it properly (i.e. distill it if need be, enfleurage in some cases, etc.). Victorian ladies would never have submitted to the tremendous work involved in the process. Never. Remember, they didn’t have access to the ingredient makers that we do now.
Roses are processed from the rosa damescena trigintipetala found in Bulgaria, Morocco, Turkey, India and a few other places. The quality varies wildly from place to place and regarding how it is handled. Of course, the prettier it is, the more expensive. In most cases, roses have to be distilled down from the fresh flower, and the amount of end product is measured in tons of petals processed to get there. Tons. They have to be distilled within a certain amount of time from picking, too. You need help here.
Iris root is a highly processed perfume ingredient, too. You have to grow the proper type of iris for the right number of years, then dig it up, clean it and age it. Then you have to grind it to powder, or chop it into chunks. Not what you normally want to do if you are mincing about in hoop skirts and long dresses.
Jasmine is gathered by the tons of blossoms and is put through enfleurage which is to spread a sheet of glass with lard (which is odorless) and place each flower on the lard with its face down so that the scent radiates into the fat. The flowers are discarded after a set time and another set of flowers is spread down in the same way. That is repeated a number of times and then the lard is considered to have absorbed as much of the fragrance as it can hold. It is scraped off and placed in a distillation process where the fragrance is extracted from the liquid fat. This is a very time consuming activity and must be done almost as a ritual.
Patchouli was introduced to England thanks to the presence of the British in India, the jewel in the crown. Patchouli is extracted from a small patchouli plant and is pretty easy to get. It is uniform, there are variations on it but most of the time the scent is so overpowering that it is difficult to tell the nuances unless you are directly comparing one type of it to another. Patchouli is one thing which improves over time. It becomes thicker, darker, richer, deeper and better as you let it sit and grow old gracefully. I think it’s eternal.
Lavender is taken out of the plant and there are lots of different kinds of lavender. There is also a continuum of lavender scent. On one side, it is very much like turpentine, no surprise then that some forms of lavender extracts are used as solvents for oil painting. Spikenard is a great example of a plant being in this part of the family, very volatile and not often used for perfume. On the other end of the spectrum is Hidecote Lavender, which is the English lavender so famous around the world. It has a very high percentage of coumarin which gives it a green-vanilla undertone which is breathtakingly lovely. The high coumarin lavenders are prized in the perfume trade, and make all the difference in the world for mixing.
Those were some of the fragrances that Victorian women smelled of when donning scent. They were pretty basic to our noses, and I dare say that if we were to come into contact with Victorian fragrances nowadays, we would not be impresses as our great grandmothers were. Actually we are so in love with musks (a modern synthetic palette of fragrance), vanillans (very different from vanilla extract), and other modern things to smell like that we could never go back to relying on just the basic scents and nothing else.
During my Dark Matter series, I have tried to invent fragrances which keep in the spirit of Victorian perfume while giving my clients that thrill of modern scents. In some cases I have leaned further on the heavy resinous sorts of things than I normally do, and in other cases I have really experimented with flowers more than I normally do. It has been a great experience for me to bring to life characters that I actually created, and to present how they smelled when they were in their finest form. See them here, this is the first part of the story and the perfumes, this is the latest part of the story and the perfumes. Dark Matter will continue through the summer of 2010 at least on Possets perfume.