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Natural Fragrances: Profile of a Master

Delving further into research on natural fragrances, I had the pleasure recently to connect with Jack Chaitman, an expert on plant distillation who has been extracting premium essential oils for over 25 years. When it comes to natural fragrances, Jack is extraordinary: an inspiration and a true artist who taught me much about essential oil extraction. I am glad to share with you some of his wisdom and passion. There are differences in how essentials oils are distilled, and when they are extracted artfully with hydrodistillation methods, according to Jack, you are going to get a full spectrum of fragrance components that cannot be achieved with CO2 and steam-extracted essential oils and absolutes. Jack calls these minor fragrance constituents of the plant “soul components” — components that transfer the plant’s intelligence and the intact life force. It is due to these soul components that natural fragrances are so complex, that the scent keeps changing as you smell it. When you breathe it in, it is like being in nature or like smelling the ocean. Through this poetic vision of essential oil extraction, distillation is seen as the art of releasing the plant’s soul into the oils. Jack says it is easy to understand essential oil extraction when you consider the parallel to food processing. For example, olive oil can be extracted with a hexane solvent (which is not allowed at Whole Foods Market for stand alone oil) or it can be expeller pressed, and the same is true for essential oils. Fragrance, when extracted properly, is alive and can be compared to the highest quality olive oil. Jack’s foundation for learning about natural fragrances was a natural silk dyeing business that he owned years ago. Through the dyeing process, Jack noticed that the natural colors had a smell, which planted the seeds for Jack’s current business, Scents of Knowing. When Jack decided to start extracting his own essential oils for Scents of Knowing, he designed his own equipment. Jack only distills in pure glass (in ancient times, it would have been ceramic) and only uses live flame. He uses the ancient principles of hydrodistillation for crafting his oils, where plant materials are extracted in water, gently heated over the course of hours, and then cooled so that the plant will release itself. Extraction can be an art, and the extraction process is a little different for each plant material. Flowers, for example, contain a high wax content, so in Jack’s process, he uses 100% natural jojoba wax to extract the flower oils. And frankincense undergoes 13 different temperature changes over the process of its distillation. Jack describes this process as peeling the layers of an onion. The end result is that Jack’s oils are “in tune” — telling the whole story of the plant. Jack likes to point out that there is a connection between how we smell and how we feel. This is why some traditional Chinese medicine doctors diagnose by smell. In this vein, Jack has observed many people smelling through the fragrance guides that he conducts (similar to a wine tasting), and it gives him much joy to train people and attune them to natural, harmonic scents. Often times, people are only used to smelling synthetic fragrances, so that they need to “re-train” their nose to recognize and appreciate natural fragrances. As Jack likes to say, listen to the smell, the natural plant fragrances are trying to tell you something. Even after all these years, Jack claims he is still learning to listen.