A perfume is a mixture comprised of both natural and synthetic raw materials. The synthetic raw materials are usually called aromachemicals or odorants. Aromachemicals are made from simpler building blocks in chemical factories. One good example is the vanillin, the main component of the vanilla bean’s smell. It is synthesized from lignin, a by-product from the manufacturing of paper.
Synthetic materials are normally produced in the range from a few hundred kilograms per year worldwide to thousands of tons, depending on the price and usefulness of the raw materials. The price of the synthetic materials is always a measure of the amount of the efforts needed to produce it. The secret knowledge and skill of getting the distinctive and consistent quality fragrance is always highly sought after in the fragrance making industry, especially where high purity and low price is a must.
Natural raw materials are normally natural occurring aromachemicals that comes in mixture. The compositions of the materials that can be extracted ranges from the simple, such as nearly pure coumarin from tonka beans, to the complex such as the rose oil that contain hundreds of different chemicals. One distinct difference between synthetic and natural raw materials is that the natural materials varies in quality and prices from year to year. Therefore, perfumers have to constantly tune their formulas to maintain the same fragrance in order to adjust to the natural material variation. The perfumer has to be highly skilled in order to achieve consistence fragrance every time.
Solvent extraction and steam distillation are the two common ways in which the perfumers get the smell out of the natural materials. Solvent extraction mainly requires the soaking of the natural materials in solvents like the hexane and applying different level of heat to different materials as required. The mixtures is finally filtered and distilled to extract the essential oil. Steam distillation mixes water with the natural material and then heat is applied until the mixtures become steam. When the steam mixtures cooled, the mixture is automatically separated into water and essential oil due to the fact that oil and water do not mix.
However, there are other more sophisticated extraction methods such as those that use carbon dioxide under pressure or HFCs to produce high value materials for those that are willing to pay the price. Due to the uniqueness of each individual fragrance, it is a common practice among perfumers to use a mixture of both natural and synthetic raw materials to achieve a consistent and yet sensually dynamic fragrance.