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That Elusive Scent

Julia tracks down the fragrance that tantalizes Ned in FROM WAIF TO GENTLEMAN’S WIFE

Since she grew to womanhood in India, it’s logical that when WAIF’s heroine Joanna Anders Merrill chose her perfume, she would select a blend produced in that country.  Although I knew this when I was writing her story, I wasn’t sure just what the perfume would be, other than the “exotic spicy scent” hero Ned comes to associate as Joanna’s own.

It wasn’t until after their story was complete that I started searching for Joanna’s special perfume.  Which led me to two fascinating discoveries: the city of Kannauj, seat of perfume-making in India for over 500 years, and the company DSH Perfumes, a boutique perfume maker in Colorado who creates special fragrances by blending by a wide variety of herbs, florals, essences and spices.

But the perfumer’s art predates even the craftsmen of Kannauj.  Here’s a brief look at its history.


The ancient Egyptians are generally credited with producing the first perfumes, which served in the religious ritual of preparing the dead for mummification, helped make live Egyptians smell nicer and protected their skin against the fierce desert heat.  Scented plants such as lavender, lotus, cedar, chamomile and rose as well as minerals such as myrrh were combined in a suspension of sesame or olive oil.  The Greek and Roman civilizations later continued the practice of using scented oils—though, like modern lovers, they employed perfumes more for seductive than theological purposes.

The Middle East produced a large quantity of myrrh and frankincense, which were used for making both perfume and incense and were important trading commodities.  The Persians, however, preferred lighter scents, especially those of rose and jasmine.  Rather than use oil emulsions, they used rose water and jasmine blossom water as perfumes, the scents created by crushing thousands of petals to yield their essential essence.

The Chinese also developed perfume, believing the sweet scents elevated the soul and assisted in enlightenment.  To the roses and jasmine of the Middle East, they added the spice of ginger and nutmeg, fashioning not just perfume but powder, oils and unguents.


Given Joanna’s background in India, I knew her scent must be sandalwood based, with notes of sweet jasmine.  So I was delighted to discover, on a tip from fellow historical writer Ammanda McCabe, the www.dshperfumes.com website.  Looking through their descriptions, I recognized at once that Joanna’s fragrance would be “Aphrodisia.” With spice notes over a blend of Bulgarian rose, jasmine and ylang-ylang and base notes of frankincense, patchouli and sandalwood, as the catalog says, it’s an “aphrodisiac scent with extracts of flowers, woods and spices known throughout history and folklore for their aphrodisiac qualities.”  Um, I like it already!

Jasmine in particular is symbolic of seduction.  Persian poetry compared a lover’s scent to that of this night-blooming flower; Cleopatra is said to have perfumed the sails of her ship with the fragrance when she journeyed to meet Anthony.  In addition to its aphrodisiac qualities, aromatherapists credit jasmine with relaxing properties, and its oil is soothing to irritated skin.


Where would Joanna have obtained her perfume?  Probably from Kannauj, a small town in the Uttar Pradesh area of India that has been producing sandalwood-based perfumes for five centuries.  Craftsmen in Kannauj today continue to create perfumes using the same traditional processes.

First the perfumers pulverize sandalwood and make it into sandalwood oil, which acts as a fixative and preservative for flower, herb and spice scents.  The trees containing this scented wood are uprooted rather than cut (the roots have the highest concentration of oil,) then carefully sawn into pieces to preserve the heartwood, the fragrant part of the tree.  All the pieces are numbered and weighed before shipping to the perfumery to guard against theft.  The wood is so valuable, even the sawdust produced when the heartwood is cut into sections is saved and sold.

Sandalwood oil is now mostly produced by modern pressurized steam distillation, but some perfumers still use the ancient distillation system employed to persuade the perfumed essences out of flowers and spices.  The sandalwood is chipped and ground into powder, soaked in water for 2 days and then distilled over a fire, the vapor condensing in another vessel where the precious oil is skimmed off.  Although the yield is less, purists insist the quality of the odor is superior to that obtained when the sandalwood powder is distilled under pressure.

Once the sandalwood oil base is obtained, distillation of the other scented materials begins.  Ingredients such as rose petals, jasmine petals, herbs, amber, saffron, spices and other fragrant woods are placed in a copper still with water and gently boiled over a wood or dung fire.  The perfumed vapor passes through bamboo pipes to a water-cooled copper condenser filled with the sandalwood oil. 

The scented steam condenses into the sandalwood oil and is allowed to sit overnight, after which any water is drained away.  The drained water, now scented, will be combined with fresh water, a new load of flower petals and spices, and the process begins again, the fragrant steam condensing again into the same sandalwood oil.  A single perfume may be distilled up to fifteen times, each time increasing the scented potency of its sandalwood base.

Once the desired concentration is reached, the perfume is stored in leather bottles.  The porous leather lets any remaining water pass through its membranes and evaporate, but does not allow any of the scented oil to escape.  Sandalwood is such an excellent preservative that if the perfume is carefully sealed, it will keep for years, its scent, like the flavor of a good wine, only improving with age.


Searching for that perfect fragrance to express your personality?  Check out the complete list of classic and modern blends at www.dshperfumes.com!


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