MADURAI: Intoxicating scents swirl around the skilled pickers harvesting white jasmine buds in southern India, which will be pressed when fresh and used by perfume makers around the world to deliver their precious essence.
Jasmine releases its fragrance only when it blooms at night, so it is essential to pick the buds before they open.
“We know which ones to pick,” says Malarkodi, who names only one, his expert fingers painstakingly grasping the buds. Then, she picks some open flowers that she tucks into her dark hair.
Expressing refinement, grace and sensuality, jasmine flowers have been used in India for millennia to honor deities.
In the ancient city of Madurai in southern India, the ubiquitous jasmine flower attracts top perfume makers. It is found in the bottles of “Jador” by Dior and “Mon Guerlain” by Guerlain.
Experts say that it is one of the most subtle fragrances.
But it is “one of the most expensive essences in the world”, says Raja Palaniswami, director of Jasmine Concrete, which presses fresh flowers in vast quantities for a few precious drops of the heady-smelling essence.
Harvesters earn about $1.50 for harvesting four to five kilograms, at a rate of about 4,000 buds per day.
Once picked, they are immediately shipped to the market and sold for 200 to 2,000 rupees (2.40 to $24) per kilo.
Madurai jasmine, an Asian variety with the scientific name Jasminum sambac, received a “geographical indication” from the World Intellectual Property Organization in 2013, claiming its “intense fragrance”.
“It’s exotic, it’s sexy, it’s rich, it’s alive,” Thierry Wasser, perfumer and “nose” of the French house Guerlain, told AFP while visiting a farm.
Jasmine has a “sweetness (…) and something floral that is irresistible”, says Mr. Vasser, who gets his supply from Mr. Palaniswami’s company.
Apart from Guerlain, Guerlain also says that it supplies to Bulgari, Dior and Lush etc.
In Madurai, the white and dazzling flower is everywhere in homes, in hair, or at the huge 14th-century temple dedicated to the city’s patron Hindu goddess Minakshi.
Every evening, Hindu devotees offer garlands of fragrant jasmine flowers to the goddess, who joins her husband Shiva during a great ceremony symbolizing the union.
“Once you understand that with this flower, it is love, brotherhood, family and friendship that you are celebrating, then inhaling its fragrance, it takes on another dimension”, explains Mr. Wasser.
“To me, this flower is an expression of love. Period.”
But extracting the essential oil requires a long process.
Pickers, on the other hand, barely have time to enjoy its pleasures, whether to honor their divinity, celebrate a wedding, attend a funeral, or indulge themselves in a luxury perfume.
In a jasmine field on the outskirts of town, women carefully twirl the branches of the bush in search of the perfect bud.
During harvest season, the factory operates 24 hours a day. “As soon as the[jasmine]begins to flower, it spreads its fragrance,” says Mr. Palaniswami.
Late at night, as heady scents fill the air, workers load the buds into extractors.
The jasmine is then immersed in a solvent that absorbs the olfactory molecules, before being collected and boiled, producing a waxy paste called “concrete”.
The concrete is treated with alcohol to vigorously remove the wax, and a liquid substance called “absolute” is obtained, which will enter the composition of the perfume.
According to Palaniswami, around 700 kg of jasmine flowers are needed to produce one liter of essential oil, which sells for around $4,200.
But Amasavalli Karuppuswamy has a stand opposite the flower market, where she makes and sells jasmine flower garlands and necklaces.
She says, “The fragrance is not worthy of fresh jasmine flowers, nothing can be equal to the real scent of jasmine.”