God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore… He described plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. 1 Kings 4:29, 33.
Since Biblical times, cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani) was among the most prized for its scent properties. Indeed, as Morris notes, Lebanon comes from the Akkadian word lubbunu, which means incense (55). Besides being used in incense blends, cedar was a wood of choice of the aromatic architecture reserved for palaces and temples. Sargon II (722-705 B.C.) used it for his Khorsabad palace, while King Solomon selected cedar for the construction of his temple.
My first encounter with the scent of cedar was through a couple of sticky cones my father brought from Siberia, where he unsuccessfully tried to hit the gold mine by working in the diamond industry. They rattled when shaken and contained small nuts, which with much difficulty revealed soft balsamic flesh. I remember keeping the cones in a small box, which eventually became permeated with their sweet resinous scent. Every time I would open it, I envisioned tall cedar trees of Siberian forests cloaked in white snow that protected its domain from adventurers like my father.
In perfumery, there are several main sources of cedarwood oil, not all of which are technically cedar. Atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica) is steam distilled from the wood of an evergreen cedar tree. However, Virginia cedarwood (Juniperus virginiana) and Texas cedarwood (Juniperus mexicana) are not actually cedar trees, but junipers, both of which are related to a plant (Juniperus communis) that yields juniper berry used for flavouring gin (Morris 243). Virginia cedarwood oil is softer and less balsamic than Atlas cedarwood. The conifers’ needles can also be expressed for their oil, which is very inexpensive and is commonly used in soap manufacturing. The precious cedar of Lebanon is no longer felled for its oil as it has become endangered.
Cedar bears a distinction of one of the most frequently used base notes. If presented in moderation, it rounds out sharpness of spice and incense notes, grounds sentimental florals and adds interest to more transparent accords, without compromising their clarity. It is often encountered in fragrances intended for men, since it combines particularly well with citrus notes, the top notes of choice in many masculine fragrances. Given the potential of cedar, it is no wonder that some perfumers like Chris Sheldrake are particularly fond of it and incorporate cedar marvelously in their compositions. My interest in cedar was revived after I encountered Serge Lutens Boix range, which includes cedar variations on violet, spice, musk and autumnal fruit themes. Although cedar is an effective insecticide, mothball associations are usually indicative either of mediocre quality cedarwood or of wrong ornamentation. Testing several types of different cedarwood oils I found the scents to range from smooth and voluptuous, with sweet resinous edge, to sharp and balsamic, with distinct naphthalene smell.
In aromatherapy, cedar is said to encourage confidence and calm anxiety. Perhaps, it is one of the reasons why Japanese baths have such a wonderful effect. The cedar lining of the traditional Japanese bathrooms emanates the sweet balsamic scent, which combined with the steam makes for a true relaxation. It is this experience that inspired Olivia Giacobetti’s Iunx L’Eau Sento No.2.
Perfumes dominated by cedar: Armani Privé Bois d’Encens, Donna Karan Black Cashmere, Iunx No. 2 L’Eau Sento, Ormonde Jayne Isfahan Pour Homme, Parfums 06130 Cèdre, Serge Lutens Cèdre, Serge Lutens Bois de Violette, Serge Lutens Bois et Fruits, Serge Lutens Bois et Musc, Serge Lutens Bois Oriental, Shiseido Féminité du Bois.
Perfumes containing cedar (this is hardly an exhaustive list, and I welcome additions of your favourites): Agent Provocateur, Caron Parfum Sacré, Caron Alpona, Caron Fleurs de Rocaille and Fleur de Rocaille, Caron N’Aimez Que Moi, Caron Pois de Senteur, Caron Royal Bain de Champagne, Caron Tabac Blond, Chanel Cuir de Russie, Diptyque Opôné, Guerlain Chant d’Arômes, Comme des Garçons Sequoia, Guerlain Eau De Fleurs De Cedrat, Hermèssence Poivre Samarcande, L’Artisan Parfumeur L’Eau du Caporal, Ormonde Jayne Osmanthus, Ormonde Jayne Ormonde Woman and Ormonde Man, Ormonde Jayne Frangipani Absolute, Parfums de Nicolaï Pour Homme, Rochas Tocade, Serge Lutens Chêne, Serge Lutens Miel et Bois, Serge Lutens Arabie, Serge Lutens Cuir Mauresque, Serge Lutens Douce Amère, Serge Lutens Iris Silver Mist.
References: Lawless, Julia. 1992. The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils. Element Books, UK. Morris, Edwin T. 1984. Fragrance: The Story of Perfume from Cleopatra to Chanel. E.T. Morris and Co., New York.
Picture: Cedar of Lebanon from en.arocha.org/plants.