Spirit Becomes Concrete: Mandy Aftel’s Jasmine Grandiflorum Concrete * Leona Godin

“Is Jasmine then the mystical Morn—the centre, the Delphi, the Omphalos of the floral world? Is it the point of departure, the one unapproachable and indivisible unit of fragrance? Is Jasmine the Isis of flowers, with veiled face and covered feet, to be loved of all yet discovered by none? Beautiful Jasmine! If it be so, the Rose ought to be dethroned and the Inimitable enthroned in her stead; suppose we create a civil war among the gardens and crown the Jasmine empress and queen of all.”

—CHARLES DICKENS, Household Words, quoted from Mandy Aftel’s Fragrant


My partner, Alabaster, and I are living an unsettled life these days, moving from place to place in New York City. After five years away, we’re trying to regain a foothold. Luckily we have dear friends with roots firmly planted. David and Caroline are proud homeowners, or I should say rather, garden owners, because the garden they created around their small Woodside home that resembles nothing so much as a child’s drawing of a house (a square topped with a triangle), is a showstopper. Uber drivers have been known to gasp with admiration at the luxurious abundance where humble potatoes and cucumbers share space with the olfactorily glamorous roses and jasmine. Their home is our official mailing address and it is to their home I asked Mandy Aftel to send my win of her Jasmine Grandiflorum Concrete, which was waiting for me when we arrived to celebrate Thanksgiving last week.

As soon as we arrived, I tore open my small packet, twisted open the 5 milliliter glass jar, and inhaled deeply. Unmistakably jasmine with its luscious fruity floral over a hint of dirty indole, I resisted with difficulty the urge to stick my pinky in the jar and rub it under my nose—a private olfactory party!

In her wonderful book Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent, Mandy Aftel cites the old adage that every perfumer knows: “No perfume without jasmine.” Grandiflorum is a varietal of Jasminum officinale. It has “small, white, waxy blossoms” that “exhale a perfume so peculiar as to be incomparable,” according to Aftel, and “to walk past the flowering shrub in the evening is to be enveloped in the most glorious odor, which turns an ordinary street corner into a boudoir.”

Though it is known to go with just about everything in the perfumer’s palette, I thought perhaps the scent of jasmine would intrude upon our lovely Thanksgiving meal, almost one hundred percent of which came from the garden. I waited for dessert time to share my jasmine concrete. With hardly a word of explanation I passed the little jar along to my right. Happy inhalations followed by intrigued exhalations traveled around the table. I was gratified to find the sweetness of the jasmine went delightfully well with the not-too-sweet custard pie and apple crumble.

I explained to my friends that for many flowers, such as jasmine, the heat of steam distillation is too harsh. They require solvent extraction to separate the essential oil from the fresh flowers. I had had a bit of wine by this time, so my informational got fuzzy round the edges—I was calling hexane “hexon”! So let’s have Mandy take over:

In solvent extraction, flowers are placed on racks in a hermetically sealed container. A liquid solvent, usually hexane, is circulated over the flowers to dissolve the essential oils. Because the flowers give off a great deal of waxy material, the process yields a so-called concrete, which is semisolid. Concretes have a softness to their aroma and at the same time great staying power.

I have since taken a dab of the aromatic paste and dropped it into a small jar of alcohol that sits on the kitchen table. Every time I pass it I remove the top and inhale deeply and am pulled into a decadent Eden. This is a non-scientific non-commercial venture, so nothing to lose: I admit I stick my finger in there and dab a little on my wrist, too! I’m excited to experiment further—my new-found favorite combination is ginger and jasmine, so that might be the next step…

In her now-classic book on natural perfumery, Essence and Alchemy, Mandy describes how incorporating the paste-like flower concretes into a formula gives “the sense of working with a primordial substance.”

Perfumery has ancient ties to the world of alchemy, which itself is an art and a science that was half chemistry half religious mystery. Jasmine, like most flowers, are considered heart notes. They work to bridge the lasting and deep base notes, such as sandalwood and the bright, fleeting top notes such as bergamot. Though the flowers are intense and highly recognizable on their own, when placed in the heart of a formula they work to integrate and harmonize the whole. In Essence and Alchemy, Mandy likens this work to an alchemical transformation, where the singular elements combine to create a greater whole, like in the mystical alchemical marriage of opposites:  “The material, the prima materia, becomes spirit, and spirit in turn becomes concrete.”

Similar to the garden that gave us Thanksgiving abundance, this precious aromatic substance connects me with the life that courses through plants. Whether we’re digesting the vitamins and sugars of a humble sweet potato, or inhaling the aromatic molecules of the celebrated jasmine, I am grateful to be reminded of those magical life-giving and affirming transformations. Thanks so much to Aftelier Perfumes for this small, delicious spirit-turned-concrete  treasure from the plant world!

For a chance to win a treasure of your own from one of her giveaways, follow Aftelier Perfume on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter.

For more Mandy Aftel, author, perfumer, and museum creator, check out my interview with her HERE!


—About the Author—

M. Leona Godin is the author of There Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness and the founding editor of Aromatica Poetica.