Tolu Balsam, Benzoin, Styrax and Other Oriental Balsamic Notes

Tolubalsam

Balsamic: heavy, sticky, sweet, unctuous scent, usually from an aromatic resin. If you think of balsamic vinegar whenever you read about balsamic notes in perfumery, you are not far off. They have a similar sticky-sweet, rich character as a true wooden cask aged balsamic vinegar.

The oud trend and the fascination with the East is nothing new in perfumery. The oriental style of fragrances, compositions that rely on rich, opulent notes of vanilla, musk, resins and ambers was inspired by the traditional elements of Middle Eastern and Indian perfumes. As the fascination with everything Eastern and exotic grew at the end of the 19th and early 20th century, these “odalisques and harems” fantasies also took olfactory forms. The oriental fragrances, which are represented well by Guerlain Shalimar, Dana Tabu, Estée Lauder Youth Dew, Yves Saint Laurent Opium and Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan, are inconceivable without balsamic notes. Whether they include benzoin, tolu balsam, peru balsam or styrax, their sweet vanilla fragrance with a distinctive cinnamon note lends a beautiful richness and heft to the compositions.

Balsam is a term used to describe the gummy resin from various trees and shrubs. In perfumery, there are several classes of balsamic notes, but balsams like tolu balsam, peru balsam, benzoin, and styrax are distinctive because they have a strong cinnamic note and they are often used in oriental fragrances to give a rich and pleasantly spicy quality to the warm oriental accords. They are very beautiful materials on their own, although using them requires some skill. In excess, their rich, heavy fragrance can suppress the composition, with other notes hiding under the dense balsamic richness.

Benzoin is balsamic resin derived from the bark of several species of trees in the genus Styrax. In perfumery, either benzoin Siam (from Styrax tonkinensis trees) or benzoin Sumatra (from Styrax benzoin). Benzoin has a clear vanillic fragrance (it contains vanillin, just like vanilla beans) as well as a hint of cinnamon. It is one of the most versatile notes among other balsams, and it is used in most amber, vanilla and oriental accords. It also can be found all over the fragrance wheel, from citrus colognes to woody blends. I especially love its sweet vanillic note in Chanel Coromandel and Serge Lutens Vétiver Oriental, where paired with incense, it creates a gilded, plush sensation.

Tolu balsam or balsam of Tolu is the resinous secretion of Myroxylon Balsamum, a tree native to South America. Like benzoin, it is formed when the tree is injured. This was noticed in ancient times, and benzoin and tolu balsam were commonly used to heal wounds and skin rashes. Even today some of these balsams (particularly peru balsam) or their derivatives are used in various dermatological ointments. Tolu also has a vanilla and cinnamon fragrance, but I notice a strong smoky and sweet note. Tolu is reminiscent of almonds and leather, a seemingly darker note than benzoin. Tolu balsam is the leading player in Ormonde Jayne Tolu as well as an important supporting note in Cartier L’Heure Defendue. A smoky, warm touch of tolu balsam in Donna Karan Gold and Robert Piguet Fracas lends their florals a spicy, rich quality, which is further augmented by other sensual, oriental notes.

Peru balsam (also called Peruvian balm) is related to tolu balsam; it is derived from another Myroxylon tree species, Myroxylon Pereirae. I find Peru balsam spicier and smokier. The smoky note can be introduced by processing methods when the raw material is boiled in water over a wood-burning fire. It is quite a dark, heavy material, and it is usually blended with other balsamic and ambery notes as in Hermès  Elixir des Merveilles, Serge Lutens Amber Sultan, Lorenzo Villoresi  Incensi, Yves Saint Laurent Opium or Nicolaï Sacrebleu Intense.

Styrax is a genus of about 130 species of large shrubs or small trees, but for our purposes, styrax resinoid obtained from Liquidambar Styraciflua L. is the one that is interesting. It is a beautiful dry, smoky, spicy note, with a distinctive leather and incense facet. It is the least sweet and vanillic out of the balsams I have described here.  You can smell a beautiful note of styrax in the drydown of Serge Lutens Cuir Mauresque, Bois Oriental and Tubéreuse Criminelle. It is generally a supporting character, but smell Bond No.9 Broadway Nite, and the presence of leathery styrax is unmistakable right from the top note, where it is given a nice lift by the violet and aldehydes. Also, many leather accords like Chanel Cuir de Russie, Dior Fahrenheit, and Tom Ford Tuscan Leather rely on the leathery darkness of styrax.

Drawing of Tolu balsam plant from wiki commons.

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20 Comments

  • hongkongmom: Thank you so much for a wonderful education!!! I can almost smell the notes from your descriptions. If you ever get to teach this in real life with the essences, I would be your first student! February 23, 2011 at 3:39am Reply

  • flittersniffer: Thanks for this! Your post has clarified my considerable fuzziness about the precise nuances of the terms “balsam” and “resin”, and when they are or aren’t vanillic in nature. February 23, 2011 at 4:03am Reply

  • Victoria: I would love to have all of you in one room so that we could smell together. I bet, it would be so much fun. February 23, 2011 at 7:35am Reply

  • Victoria: You are most welcome! I started these little series for myself to keep track of my notes from smelling, studying raw materials and identifying commercial fragrances that use them. I am very happy that someone else finds it useful! February 23, 2011 at 7:38am Reply

  • Gitcheegumee: Speaking of the turn of the century fascination with Oriental exotica, I seem to recall that at one time there was a fragrance named Odalisque….but I can’t recall who made it.

    Any idea?

    BTW, does Tocade qualify as an Oriental?

    Thanking you in advance for any input you may have. February 23, 2011 at 10:30am Reply

  • Julie: I believe Parfums de Nicolai
    created a fragrance called
    Odalisque February 23, 2011 at 2:08pm Reply

  • Victoria: I think that you mean Odalisque from Nettie Rosenstein from the 1950s.
    Tocade is a floral oriental, a big orange blossom-rose on a warm amber base. One of my top favorites! February 23, 2011 at 3:04pm Reply

  • Victoria: You are right, there is that one too, a white floral. I think that G meant the classical oriental called Odalisque, very popular at one time. February 23, 2011 at 3:23pm Reply

  • Gitcheegumee: I had completely forgotten Nettie Rosenstein…I ALWAYS got her confused with Helena Rubenstein!

    (I may be wrong here, but I for some reason I associate Rosenstein with millinery…)

    I chanced upon Tocade,quite by accident(or Kismet) at one of my rare shopping mall runs. Got it on a discount table for under $10.

    There’s just something “je ne sais quoi” about those ethereal orange blossoms…. February 23, 2011 at 8:14pm Reply

  • Victoria: What a find!! Especially for such a wonderful fragrance as Tocade. Your description of it is spot on! February 23, 2011 at 9:38pm Reply

  • Olga: Thank you! Really enjoyed your description of Styrax- will need to try to identify it in Luten’s. Pity I never smelled the raw material so will have to rely on your description. February 25, 2011 at 9:14am Reply

  • Victoria: It is especially clear in the late drydown, balsamic, leathery, with the warmth of vanilla. February 25, 2011 at 12:20pm Reply

  • Rafael: Peru balsam is very efficient in the wounds skin treatment even with diabetic feet. It really works. Regards! March 22, 2012 at 12:52pm Reply

  • Ferris: This is a very informative article. I will never look at amber based scents the same again. I am awaiting my samples from luckyscent which have a number of those rich and wonderful balsamic accords. October 23, 2012 at 8:41am Reply

  • Brian: I LOVE the balsams! Along with spices, resins, and woods(florals too), they are one of my favorite notes. I could just enjoy them my themselves. However I think I would describe some of them a little differently than you would. For instance I don’t get any smokiness from either the balsam Peru or the styrax. For me I would describe the Peru as having caramel like notes, in addition to the usual vanilla like notes. I have both the essential oil and the liquid resin, and of the two I really prefer the resin, its rich and full and also has a buttery nuance, so it’s like vanilla, caramel, and butter. To me the essential oil is nice, but rather weak. I’ve always described styrax as smelling like a combination of hyacinths, cinnamon, and baby powder. I love it and use it a lot. The tolu I feel also has a floral note to it as well. I describe this one as smelling like vanilla, cinnamon, and flowers. Tolu is another favorite of mine, along with benzoin, which to me smells straight up like vanilla, a dry powdery, slightly less sweet vanilla, but vanilla nevertheless. March 9, 2014 at 12:49pm Reply

    • Brian: Oh, I do get the leathery quality to styrax too! Some say that it smells like rubber or plastic, and I get a bit of that straight from the bottle, but that disappears when diluted, diffused or blended. Hmmmm, leather and rubber; perhaps a base for a perfume for a fetishist? March 9, 2014 at 1:08pm Reply

      • Victoria: How about Bulgari Black? That would be close to leather + rubber. March 9, 2014 at 6:37pm Reply

        • Brian: Hmmmm, it’s been a long time since I’ve smelled that one but it sounds like it would fit the bill. I’ll have to get a sniff of that one. March 9, 2014 at 8:36pm Reply

  • Fogdew: Loved this post!❤️ December 3, 2014 at 7:29pm Reply

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