Where an oil is grown dramatically affects the balance of its constituents. The same variety of plant, such as Lavendula angustifolia, grown in the cooler English climate at lower altitudes will produce a different type of oil or ‘chemotype’ than its Mediterranean or Eastern European counterpart. Essential oil qualities also differ from batch to batch and from crop to crop, even within the same year – which of course affects the quality of the fragrance too. It was once thought that high-altitude lavender produced the best quality oil, but this is not necessarily the case since factors such as soil type and other environmental conditions also play their part.
There are over 150 different constituents in lavender oil, but the two main ones are linalool and linalyl acetate – it is these which give lavender its light, sweetish note. The linalyl acetate (ester) content of lavender oil is also used as a criterion of quality. Typical constituents of lavender oil (L. angustifolia) usually fall into the following range:
The setting up of ‘communelles’ in France has enabled suppliers to offer buyers within the industry large weights of essence of a similar price and quality, but over the years this has also led to a growing trend in France towards the production of ‘speciality compositions’. This means that the suppliers ‘treat’ or ‘build up’ the primary essence to correspond to different quality levels according to the price that the buyers are willing to pay. Unfortunately, adulteration is all too common, as two of the major constituents – linalool and linalyl acetate – can be produced synthetically at a fraction of the cost. In the 1992 season, for example, official figures proved that the French produced less than 50 tonnes of lavender, yet they still managed to export well in excess of 100 tonnes!
Nowadays, gas chromatography is the main method used for analysing the exact composition of essential oils and for ascertaining their quality. A skilled technician can easily identify a lavender oil cut with synthetic linalool, since there is a sub-component in synthetic linalool (called dihydrolinalool) which does not occur naturally in lavender oil. This trace would show up on a GLC (gas chromatography) machine – where the presence and position of each peak on the graph indicates the amount of each component.
Much of the lavender which is commonly available has been extended/ blended in this manner, although oils from Eastern Europe are less likely to have been tampered with, due to these countries’ lack of ‘technical sophistication’. A high quality pure essential oil of true lavender should be a pale yellow, mobile liquid with a pungent top note which quickly disperses, leaving a soft, fresh, floral and long-lasting aroma. As with tea tree oil, however, recent research has shown that different species and ‘chemotypes’ of lavender oil have different therapeutic effects, so the ‘quality’ of an essence in the context of aromatherapy depends largely on its specific use and appropriateness, rather than simply on its aesthetic appeal.
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