Based on a totally unscientific sample of people whose opinion of Jasmine I happen to know, it is a very polarising smell and is one that appeals to men more than women. That many people don’t particularly like the smell is a bit unfortunate given the trouble that has to be gone to to obtain it.
Jasmine petals are tiny and are richest in the delicate compounds that make up the scent at night. This means that they have to be gathered in the dark. They are also too sensitive to be extracted by anything as crude as steam distillation. The technique that has to be used is called enfleurage, and the full name of the final product is jasmine absolute of enfleurage. (I’ll just call it jasmine from now on.) It involves painstakingly laying the petals onto a suitable oil. Olive oil on cotton is one way it can be done. The components of the petal diffuse into the oil over a period of days.
Greenies will like that fact that the production of Jasmine absolute involves no unsustainable use of fossil fuels. But despite this, the shear amount of time involved makes this one of the most expensive ingredients used in cosmetics. It is mainly used in the formulating of fine fragrances where it is rarely used at very high levels.
Jasmine is a favourite of the Chanel family of fragrances. You can find it in the classic Chanel No 5, but also pops up in more recent offerings like Coco Mademoiselle. It would take a perfumer to say what exactly jasmine contributes to a fully formed fragrance, but it must be important to justify the price.
I am on firmer ground with the chemistry. There are a couple of esters that make up a large proportion of jasmine – benzyl acetate and benzyl benzoate. These are relatively unusual in plants and probably contribute a sort of fruitiness that jasmine possesses in the background. There are a couple of very unusual components, jasmone and jasmolactone. These probably give it its jasmineness. Jasmolactone also pops up in hops used to flavour beer – whether that has any bearing on why men seem to prefer I wouldn’t like to say.
It has been used in ayurvedic medicine , amongst other things as a cure for madness with anger. I’ll give it a try some time.
So what does it smell like? As I say it is a polarising ingredient. I am in the pro camp. It has something of the night about it, and it has a sort of heady richness to it. It might be expensive, but I think it is worth it.