L’Osmanthus

I would like to devote a series of articles on my olfactory impressions, from my daily life in China, my travels, my discoveries. A way to share with you thoroughly my experience in Asia what I am most passionate about, to feel.

Since living in Shanghai, my first olfactory impression is the smell of osmanthus. In some areas of the city that I have visited, I noticed that this scent is everywhere. At every street corner, you can smell this typical smell.

For me, osmanthus is the very raw material of China: it is the symbol of the Hangzhou region, but also the emblem of love and romance. The osmanthus tree originates from East Asia and extends from the eastern Himalayas to the northern islands of Japan. It traditionally evokes peace and fertility.

Osmanthus flowers are delicate, small, fragile in warm colors with shimmering golden or silver reflections. Like jasmine, the flowers wither very quickly once they are picked. In China, dried osmanthus flowers are used to flavour tea and some pastries, while fresh flowers are used to decorate religious ceremonies.

In perfumery, the harvest of osmanthus is specific: as the flowers are very fragile, they are stored in large tubs of brine, usually mixed with water and salt. They macerate throughout the harvest period, between September and October.

Once the flowers are harvested, an extraction is performed using volatile solvents to extract the odorous molecules from the osmanthus. Following this extraction, we obtain a very fragrant solid paste which we call “concrete”.

Then, we will transform the solid state obtained into a liquid state, we go from the “concrete” to the absolute. We mix the concrete with alcohol that we will heat: the alcohol will dissolve the concrete, which, once dissolved, will be filtered to obtain the final product, the absolute osmanthus. With 930kg of flowers, one gets only 1kg of osmanthus absolute.

The scent of the osmanthus flower is characterized by fruity notes of apricot peach, while the scent of the absolute osmanthus  is different. It is much more sensual, powdery and iridescent, with inflections of undergrowth and patchouli. The flower takes on a leathery, powdery and animal scent as the osmanthus flowers macerate in the brine tubs. It is this scent that is typical of the scent of the absolute, which is obviously more distant from the scent of the fresh flower of the tree.

When we analyze the smell of osmanthus with specific machines in perfumery, we find molecules such as B-Ionone and gamma-decalactone: the first is similar to the smell of violet, with iris facets, powdery,  earthy; while the second has a more fruity peach aspect, with milky and creamy inflections. It is these two molecules that provide all of the olfactory signature of the osmanthus. Olfactory, this raw material is primarily used to sublimate and complexify the fruity floral notes.

My experience with osmanthus since arriving in China has allowed me to realize that the smell of flowers at the end of the season is similar to the smell of the absolute. The surrounding air is filled with that characteristic scent that I smell every morning when I go to work. The flowering ends in autumn, that’s when the flowers develop this animal and leathery note, which gives the absolute a carnal, exotic identity.

It is experiences like these that can teach me even better how to use raw materials in perfumery, living them fully in their natural, real environment. Since then, I have been obsessed with this raw material and I want to work on it, to pay tribute to it. My mentors have always taught me how to reproduce the raw material as succinctly as possible, olfactory speaking. That is to say, reproduce the smell that we have in the nose in 3 to 4 raw materials. Once the agreement of the raw material has been obtained, we can actually have fun with this raw material by playing on different facets. That is to say, to sublimate a raw material with associations linked to this same raw material. Here the osmanthus  can be sublimated with notes of tea, smoked tea, pomegranate… or by going further in creativity, with unexpected associations such as ginger, for example.

However, the big brands have never really launched perfumes around osmanthus. This  raw material can be found more often in niche perfumery: I am thinking, for example of Osmanhe Yunnan d’Hermes or Jeux de Peau by Serge Lutens. However, there is really something to be exploited with this material because it delivers something unique: fruity and powdery facets, as in a chypre. I find him that << I don’t know what >> on which I would like to compose…