OLFACTIVE STUDIO X NESSO
Famous for its spices and rich biodiversity among a thousand other things, spirituality is also at the core of the Indian nation. Why are we talking about spirituality you may ask yourself? Because flowers are probably one of the best embodiments of this tradition, and not just any flower!
India has grown two particular endemic species of flowers for centuries: Sambac Jasmine for hundreds of years, then Grandiflorum Jasmine for the past forty years.
We went reporting on-site to Sathyamangalam, in Tamil Nadu (South of India) to see the harvesting and extraction of Sambac Jasmine, and discover the secrets behind the culture of Grandiflorum Jasmine with NESSO, one of the biggest producers of both Jasmine concretes in the country.
Let us take you on a trip, and jump into the story of Dancing Light’s incredible raw material with Olfactive Studio’s latest article!
HERE WE GO AGAIN
Last spring, we introduced you to Jasmine, the different species thriving on our dear planet Earth, a little bit of history, some chemistry, and its usage in perfumery. We basically gave you an overlook of this special flower. Now that you know the basis of Jasmine, buckle up because we’re about to get into the crusty details!
India is the main producer of Sambac Jasmine worldwide, and NESSO is a company that’s been manufacturing Jasmine concrete — the product of the petals' volatile solvent extraction — for over forty years. NESSO isn’t the only one in the game as the competition is strong given the continuous demand for Jasmine in fine fragrance.
Only 35% to 40% of the national Jasmine production goes into industrial uses (perfumery included). The remaining 60-65% that stay in India are used in local industries and mainly serve traditional aims.
Ashwath (Head of Floral Extracts Division & Marketing) and Nanda Kumar (Managing Director at Sathyamangalam Extraction Unit) welcomed our reporting team at one of the main producing belts of Jasmine in the country: the Coimbatore belt, and more specifically in the town of Sathyamangalam — in South West India, Tamil Nadu region, Erode district.
THREE LOCATIONS FOR THREE LEADING INGREDIENTS
As mentioned above, the Coimbatore belt is one of the two major belts for Jasmine production in India. Grandiflorum Jasmine is the leading raw material grown there, but Sambac Jasmine and Tuberose are also produced. The second belt is the cultural capital of Tamil Nadu, Madurai (South East of Coimbatore) which is the major one for Sambac Jasmine — it’s renowned for its traditional flower market where Sambac sales take place.
We must mention Mysore, the third belt — North East of Coimbatore — essentially for Tuberose (Polianthes tuberosa) culture. In Mysore the weather is not ideal for both Jasmine species. Nevertheless, some farmers do grow it in the Mysore area, but not on a large scale and only for domestic purposes.
These belts are specifically and geographically designed for each species to flourish. The best quality of flowers for each species comes from their respective production belt.
But first things first — before we get to the core of the story — let’s take a look (or a smell) at Jasmine among our creations.
JASMINE IN OLFACTIVE STUDIO’S FRAGRANCES
We didn’t wait for the birth of Dancing Light, last May, to embellish our perfumes with king Jasmine! In fact, its big sisters Chambre Noire and Flash Back in New York gave us a glimpse of the magic this ingredient could do to a fragrant composition…
Can you smell the so-called "cold" spices among Dancing Light's top notes? It's the Guatemalan Cardamom & Indian Ocean Pink Berries.
Light reigns and the fresh top notes of Icy Mint, and Siberian Pine Needles, the floral heart of Indian Jasmine and Neroli, and the richness of Sandalwood, Cedarwood and Musks all dance under one star.
Olfactive Studio's very first floral-white fragrance composed by Sidonie Lancesseur is an ode to the magnificent Aurora Borealis or northern lights.
FLASH BACK IN NEW YORK
In this leathery-woody-spicy fragrance, warm spices such as Cumin and Saffron are combined to the aromatic freshness of Clary Sage and a floral heart of Jasmine Absolute and Violet accord
In the base of the fragrance Birch Smoke essence, Vetiver and Tonka Bean Absolute, and Musks leave a comforting sillage.
Created by New York perfumer Jérôme Epinette, Flash Back in New York surprises noses with its olfactory contrasts, just as this city surprises those who discover it for the first time.
In Chambre Noire, the Jasmine we encounter is none other than Grandiflorum Jasmine — a dark Jasmine — animalistic and floral at once.
After bursting with Pink Berries the fragrance quickly reveals its heart of Egyptian Jasmine, but that’s not all! Papyrus essence, Violet accord, Frankincense and Prune accord resonate in heart.
The base of Chambre Noire is filled with sensual ingredients: Vanilla Absolute Patchouli, Musks, and a Leather accord.
With Chambre Noire, we have a woody-balsamic fragrance, providing a real sensation of comforting warmth. The ensemble imagined by Dorothée Piot possesses many seducing oriental aspects.
How about we exit the dark scented room — pun intended — and make our way back to South India and the Jasmine Kingdom?
INDIA’S JASMINE CONCRETE PRODUCTION THROUGH AGES
India’s total Jasmine production is led by Grandiflorum Jasmine — which represented 8 to 8.5 tons until 2016 — and followed by Sambac Jasmine with 6 to 7 tons produced each year.
NESSO, as one of the concrete leading producers nationally, introduced Sambac Jasmine to their crops in 1992, becoming their third major ingredient and floral extract after Tuberose and Grandiflorum Jasmine. They were the first to present Sambac Jasmine as an ingredient for western perfumers!
INDIA VS EGYPT: LONG-TIME COMPETITORS
If Egypt was historically the first Grandiflorum Jasmine producing country in the 1950s, India became a big competitor in the mid 1970s. In 2017 India’s production decreased and the market naturally shifted back to Egypt for pricing reasons — 1.5K dollars per kilogram of Indian Grandiflorum Jasmine concrete against 1.2K dollars/kg of Egyptian Grandiflorum Jasmine concrete — alongside quality reasons.
For two consecutive years (2017 and 2018) this affected Indian farmers and manufacturers as the rising production costs consequently had a big impact on Grandiflorum Jasmine sales. India couldn’t compete with the Egyptian market anymore and lost an important fraction of the market.
As a result, the production of Grandiflorum Jasmine was slowed down and the demand decline for this portion of the Indian market made it very difficult to manage for local producers. This led farmers to switch the Grandiflorum Jasmine crops to other more profitable ingredients.
IN THE HEART OF JASMINE FIELDS
We’re bringing you to Sathyamangalam, Erode district, Tamil Nadu state, South India, close to the city of Coimbatore and right next to the famous Nilgiri mountains — 130km from the royal city of Mysore, Karnataka state.
It's 7am — May 23rd 2022 — and Sambac Jasmine harvesting started an hour ago, at 6 a.m. The ending time varies daily, it usually takes place until 11 a.m. and can often finish around 2-3 p.m.
Every day Mr Ravichandran, the farmer we visited, gets 80 kg of fresh flowers from his crops. He owns 11 acres, out of which 7 to 8 acres are dedicated to Sambac Jasmine cultures. The whole land belongs to his entire family (father, mother, wife, and children), and the Jasmine crops were started by his father 6 years ago.
A METICULOUS JOB
Within the land dedicated to Sambac Jasmine, one area flowers at once. After the flowering is completed in an area, it starts in another one. This provides the farmer with a continuous flower supply and maintains labor steadily. The plucking is also done by area because it is difficult to get employment for the entire land all at once — given its surface. Mr Ravichandran has 20 to 22 pickers working each day. They pick the unopened buds which will slightly bloom in the evening.
The pickers work in lines, each of them picks the Jasmine buds from two lines. They are free to use the collecting item they want: some use the extra fabric of their sari, some use a bag — they can choose what’s most convenient for them. Pickers are paid by the hour and not by the quantity they collect. Their hourly revenue is 70 rupees which equals 1 euro. Nevertheless, they have to bring 5 to 6 kg of flowers on average, per day. Usually, they collect 5 kg during low time, and up to 10 kg during peak time (April).
AT THE CLIMATE’S MERCY
The flower production decreases during the rainy season (June to September). The week prior to our visit faced heavy rains, explaining why the production of flowers during our stay was lower than usual.
Would you like to hear something interesting about Sambac Jasmine? Well, the blooming of the flowers peaks for two weeks then drops below or to average for the following two weeks, then peaks again for another two weeks; and this goes on between April and mid-September.
The crops need a high temperature to grow well, and ultimately give a good yield of approximately 4 tons per acre!
AND THE CYCLE GOES ON
Sambac flowering can normally start as early as the end of February to early March. Nowadays due to the changing weather conditions everything is delayed by two to three weeks. The peak flowering season for Sambac Jasmine takes place in April, May and June.
In terms of lifespan, one plantation will last 10 years. When the plant hits 10 years old, its yield becomes too low. The plantation we visited was 7 years old, granting it another 2 to 3 years of exploitation. After 10 years the farmers transplant new crops. All baby plants are planted from the nursery to the new fields.
Both species of Jasmine don’t require too much water. During the rainy season, barely no irrigation is used besides the natural precipitation. Eventually, 1 or 2 liters per hour per acre are enough to keep the cultures hydrated! During the dry season, 4 liters of water are used per hour per acre, every 3 days. If the dry season is intense, 5 liters might be used (April-May).
The nearby Bhavanisagar Dam provides water for the area, for all the agricultural crops: Jasmine, banana, plantains, sugarcane.
A GOAT’S AFFAIR
Many farmers — such as Mr Ravichandran — use goats among the crops. Why? You’re probably wondering… Because the 600 rented goats put together in enclosed jasmine fields — after the harvesting is over — are present for manuring (natural fertiliser from animal feces). The animals graze outside the fields during the day, and are brought inside in the evening to supply organic manure to the land (instead of harmful chemicals). The goats cover all fields one by one, until they’ve all been harvested.
Not all farmers pick this alternative, and NESSO works with both specific cases: farmers choosing natural or researched manure (about 50/50).
Once the flowering season is over the goats are also brought to the plantations to eat the leaves. This makes it easier to prune (cut) the plants— allowing their growth to double by replanting the pruned cuttings.
At the end of the season, half of the total Sambac Jasmine crops will have been pruned. Sambac Jasmine is pruned at a higher level than Grandiflorum Jasmine, about a meter above ground.
THE CAPITAL OF SAMBAC: MADURAI
Madurai is the main belt for Sambac Jasmine; there is no Jasmine Grandiflorum. In Madurai you can find the famous flower market, where Sambac Jasmine is sold. In Madurai, Sambac Jasmine is traditionally bought by manufacturers at the flower market and never directly supplied from the farmers. This practice gives companies such as NESSO less control over the Sambac crops in Madurai. On the other hand, in Sathyamangalam, NESSO has the exclusivity of their farmers’ Sambac crops, meaning the flowers in this belt go directly to the factory after harvesting (as opposed to the market).
All chemical parameters are nearly identical for the Jasmine concrete obtained from each production belt. Therefore, enabling the Sambac Jasmine bought from the market to be mixed together, disregarding their origin in the district.
TO EACH THEIR OWN
The shelf life of Grandiflorum Jasmine is shorter, explaining why the bloomed flowers are picked — also allowing the fragrance to be kept until extraction — whereas for Sambac Jasmine, the unbloomed buds are collected. By the evening time, the daily Sambac harvest arrives at the factory: the buds are spread on the floor, and have partially bloomed (partly opened flowers).
Grandiflorum Jasmine is too fragile and its delicate flowers would not survive until the evening to be correctly extracted. The quality of its concrete would not be optimal. Therefore, the whole process takes place faster.
Still due to its shorter shelf life, Grandiflorum is not employed traditionally in Indian culture. Sambac rules the country — you’ll find it beautifully decorating women’s braids, and every single temple. Grandiflorum Jasmine would not resist such usage as the flowers are left out for hours, or even some days.
Both Jasmines grow in the form of a bush. In the plantations, they are left with enough space in between each plant to allow them to grow properly until the beginning of the flowering season.
When the new season starts, the crops are cleaned up nicely: all the weeds are removed because they suck up the water intended for Jasmine, therefore threatening their healthy growth (especially with the more water-demanding Grandiflorum).
That's right, Grandiflorum Jasmine requires more water than its Sambac sister. Moreover, its lifespan is longer than Sambac — no less than fifteen years!
For both Indian Grandiflorum and Sambac Jasmine, the flower is pristine white, yet the concrete is orange! The flower tends to darken towards a reddish color because of its indol content (a characteristic molecule). Indol content in Sambac Jasmine is higher — as we can see on the orangish Sambac flowers adorning women’s hair.
Egyptian Jasmine Grandiflorum is completely different from its Indian cousin colorwise, scent-wise, and commercial-wise.
GRANDIFLORUM EMPORIUM: THE COIMBATORE BELT
As mentioned earlier, the finest production belt for Grandiflorum Jasmine is around Coimbatore, an industrial city — the cultures are on the land nearby provincial towns such as Sathyamangalam where we traveled.
Grandiflorum Jasmine samplings were imported to India from France by NESSO about 40 years ago. The crops developed with time and it is nowadays one of their main products amidst their floral extracts. Today, no less than 180 farmers in the Sathyamangalam area grow Grandiflorum Jasmine, against about 120 for Sambac Jasmine.
There are two types of production for Grandiflorum Jasmine concrete, one is “open flower” corresponding to the harvesting of bloomed flowers, which takes place in the Coimbatore belt — it’s the most common. In another part of Tamil Nadu (region), the flowers are grown for harvesting in the still bud-form, where they pluck the flowers when they haven’t bloomed yet (just like Sambac).
Indian Sambac Jasmine, on another hand, has one single variety of concrete. There are no grades within the concrete types — as it's often found among natural ingredients — each type offers a single grade.
Both are used for domestic uses, and in perfumery after being extracted and transformed into concrete and absolute. Nevertheless, the best quality of concrete is the “open flower” concrete, odor-wise, colorwise, and yield-wise.
The standard yield for Grandiflorum Jasmine absolute (obtained from the open-flower concrete) is 55%, and even better for Sambac Jasmine absolute with a 60% minimum.
‘TIS THE SEASON
The season for Grandiflorum Jasmine slowly starts in June with a low yield, advances towards the peak in August-September, and ends in December (sometimes extending until mid-January). The pickers collect the flowers from 6 a.m. until 12-1 p.m.
In Coimbatore, the Grandiflorum Jasmine doesn’t encounter the same treatment as Madurai’s Sambac Jasmine: it doesn’t go through the market, but directly from the farmers to the extraction unit. The same thing is valid for Sambac Jasmine flowers grown in Coimbatore
In Sathyamangalam, you’ll notice the soil is crimson red due to its high iron (Fe) content. If the soil doesn’t contain enough iron, the plant will go white. Luckily no Jasmine disease has significantly affected the cultures which NESSO processes.
We visited a second farm: Grandiflorum Jasmine, this time. The fields belonged to the Ponnusamy family composed mainly of women, and were smaller in size with 200, 2 to 4 years old plants (.25 acres). Farmers tend to own up to 700-1000 plants! These women own 3 acres in total which are also used to grow cattle food and bananas.
With a quarter acre of Jasmine, the average daily harvest reaches 7 kg of flowers (40 g per plant). Let’s mention Grandiflorum jasmine is lighter than Sambac and occupies less volume. Throughout the entire season, 1250 kg are obtained by this family.
All farmers build a residence on their land — as we could see — because they need to be on-site during the season to manage the crops and feed their cattle.
PRICY & PETAL NEEDY
In one season (6 months long for Grandiflorum) the farmers receive a payment every week, based on the amount of flowers they harvested and the price that’s been fixed. All farmers fairly get the same price per kilogram.
For 1 kg of Sambac Jasmine concrete, 720 kg of flowers are needed, whereas for Grandiflorum Jasmine only 320 kg of fresh flowers are necessary to obtain 1 kg of concrete. On the farmer’s level, she or he sells 1 kg of Grandiflorum flowers to NESSO (or another firm) for $3-3.5.
A SHIFTING MARKET
This year the flower price of Sambac Jasmine has exploded compared to previous years! By exploded, we mean it has literally doubled. The reason for this increase is an important demand — buyers will keep raising the bid to obtain the quantity of flowers they need at the auction working Madurai flower market — among the manufacturers, and fewer crops, reducing the offer.
One kilogram of fresh Sambac flowers used to cost INR 120-140 (rupees) which equals about $1.64 and nowadays it’s gone up to INR 250-260 corresponding to almost $3.5/kg! Meanwhile, Grandiflorum has stayed behind at $2.5/kg. This has led the concrete’s price to also double and go from around $1500 to over $3000 per kg, making it harder for suppliers just like NESSO to convince their customers to buy from them.
Despite Grandiflorum Jasmine typically being the most famous — for its notoriety and costly price — this year Sambac is under the spotlight with its skyrocket price increase!
REAL FACTORY CEREMONY
It’s Monday May 23rd 2022, 7 p.m., and we are at the factory unit in Sathyamangalam. Built in 2014, it’s NESSO’s latest addition to the company.
We’d have guessed what’s going on inside from miles away… Why? Because the thousand flowers’ bewitching scent speaks for itself, or allow me to say “smells for itself”! The floor is already covered in tens of thousands of Sambac buds laid inside, past the door, and all over the terrace!! It’s an extraordinary show our eyes and nose have the chance to witness — you’ve got to see/smell it to believe it.
A PRECISE PROCESS…
The hessian bags filled with Sambac Jasmine buttons have been coming from different plantations located all around the Mettupalayam belt (a town North of Coimbatore) since 6 p.m. They’ll keep coming at least until 8:30 p.m., and even later on.
About eleven men are working the shift, during which the flowers are spread on the floor because they still contain some moisture, and are fanned for 1.5 to 2 hours to remove this undesirable parameter. This practice also gives extra time for the flowers to open more and release their fragrance for the upcoming extraction. The 6pm arrived buds will ideally have partially bloomed by 8:30-9 p.m. — allowing the hexane (solvent) to penetrate the blossoms and extract their fragrant compounds.
This technique is used for Grandiflorum as well, and allows to get rid of any water that’s sometimes been added by some farmers to have their batches weigh heavier in order to get paid more.
Once the flowers are dry, they are loaded into wicker baskets which are brought by an electronic controller to the upper floor to reach the distilling tanks’ opening. The factory possesses six extracting tanks over two meters high, each able to hold a volume of 500 kg of flowers.
…& PRODUCTIVITY AT ITS BEST
This sums up to an extracting capacity of three tons of Sambac buds each evening. Throughout one season, 3000 kg will be extracted every night without interruption!
Each tank possesses 6 trays on which the Jasmine flowers are laid separately. This allows hexane to penetrate better in between the flowers. The trays are washed with water after each extraction, and left to dry for the next one. Any remaining water will be separated from the concrete (final product) during the extraction process, as water will stay at the bottom of the tank due to its density.
At the end of the extraction, the solvent draining process takes place to eliminate hexane using a vacuum evaporator, after which the concrete is collected. Filtering takes place before the final step of the process. From last night’s extraction, 4.25 kg of Sambac Jasmine concrete were obtained.
This past week (May 16-22/2022) the weather was supposed to be very hot, but instead the mornings were chill — explaining why not as many flowers as hoped were picked, despite being the peak of the season.
CAN’T STOP WON’T STOP
The flowers kept coming and coming! What we witnessed was the result of the work of 14 farmers. They brought the Sambac buds they picked after 2 p.m., and had sent the morning harvest to Madurai’s flower market. This way the flowers intended for the evening extraction were more mature, bigger in size (from the sun’s exposure throughout the afternoon), hence ready to be extracted in a couple hours.
To be clear, the morning harvest could also have been extracted at night, but given the factory’s limited capacity, and nearby farmer’s land; this strategy was established to sell and use the totality of the flowers which were picked.
By 8 p.m., 1167 kg of Sambac Jasmine from Sathyamangalam had been collected, and brought over — additionally two more vehicles loaded with comparable quantities were still expected.
Ten minutes later, at 8:10 p.m. the baskets were finally getting filled with flowers to consequently load the tanks. At 8:40 p.m., the first tank had been completely loaded, sealed with a cotton rope serving as a joint, and locked with bolts. Following, the second tank’s filling had already started.
A GLANCE INTO NESSO’S WORLD
In terms of volume, NESSO extracts the most Sambac Jasmine, followed by Grandiflorum Jasmine flowers. Yearly the firm exports 900 kg to 1 ton of Grandiflorum Jasmine concrete, and 1.5 tons of Sambac Jasmine concrete — making it one of the leading manufacturers and exporters of Sambac Jasmine (concrete and absolute).
Even though the company holds a dominant position by being among the three leading companies for Grandiflorum Jasmine (open and bud flower concrete), there are obviously competitors. Another of India's main Jasmine manufacturers is Jasmine Concrete Exports Private Limited.
Moreover, NESSO is the only Indian company in this business to have set up three different units in three different strategic locations (Mysore, Sathyamangalam, Madurai). NESSO’s Mysore head office and first factory were built in 1979. In 1989, the Madurai factory plant was built to extract Sambac and Sambac only!
A VIRTUOUS CIRCLE
When the concrete is ready to be exported, the company always sends a sample from the batch first. In fine fragrance, a steady quality is required for a homogenous production of perfume concentrate — the same olfactive characteristics should be present in all productions. If the client (a fragrance house) is satisfied with the sample, NESSO sends them the quantity required from that same batch.
NESSO’s CEO is Anirudh Ranga, the firm employs 85 people directly, and thousands indirectly (farmers, pickers). The farmers are chosen depending on certain criteria, and according to the company’s experience in the field. During the harvesting season, keeping in touch with the farmers is essential as the company cannot visit all their farmers’ lands!
The company’s priority and main focus is quality. To do so, maintaining a healthy relationship with their farmers is crucial. The bright looks on their faces, and their glowing attitude when we visited the lands said it all. At each farm we witnessed respectful, and fruitful exchanges between NESSO’s representatives, and the farmers and their families.
If the quality is good, the client buys, the product sells and everybody wins. Their mantra is “everybody should win, the client, the farmer, and us”. This is the culture of the firm.
THE MYSTERIOUS COUSIN
Shall we finish on an intriguing note? Have you ever heard about a third species of Jasmine, also extracted for its scent? If your answer is no, don’t worry neither had I before discovering its existence in India!
Jasmine auriculatum — called “jui” in Bengali — is another species that’s endemic to, and grows in India. It is only extracted in a very small amount as there’s neither enough demand nor flowers for a larger scale production. Its scent is completely different from its two other cousins, but it is closer to Sambac than Grandiflorum Jasmine.
Anna Grézaud-Tostain for Olfactive Studio