Baked cherries, almonds, sweet hay, cloves, vanilla and caramel… The aroma of tonka beans, the seeds from the fruits of the Dipteryx Odorata tree native to South America, has a fascinating complexity and richness. An important note in a perfumer’s palette, tonka bean absolute (and its main component coumarin) lends fragrances a unique facet. The oriental genre in perfumery is inconceivable without the candied almond and vanilla note of tonka. It is a common note to nearly all classical Guerlain fragrances and is an important part of the accord that gives perfumes like Shalimar and Chamade their voluptuous, baroque aura.
On the other side of the olfactory spectrum, fresh and exhilarating fougères rely on the warm note of coumarin to offset the aromatic-citrusy sharpness of their top notes. The synthesis of coumarin, the main component that gives tonka bean its memorable scent, was a watershed invention that greatly affected the modern era of perfumery. In order to create a fantasy accord of fern (fougère in French), Paul Parquet added coumarin to the classical eau de cologne accord of citrus, lavender and geranium. The rich notes of amber, musk and oakmoss completed the composition of Fougère Royale, thus giving birth to a family of fragrances called fougère. From the legendary Houbigant Fougère Royale to Paco Rabanne One Million, tonka bean is an important element of masculine aromatic compositions.
Besides tonka beans, coumarin occurs naturally in hay, lavender, vanilla grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum), sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), mullein (Verbascum spp.), sweet grass (Hierochloe odorata), cassia cinnamon and clover. For this reason, tonka and lavender form a perfect marriage, as is exemplified by Caron Pour Un Homme. While many of my favorite oriental and chypre fragrances contain tonka bean or coumarin in one form or another, I particularly love its hay-almond effect in fragrances like Hermès Vétiver Tonka, Serge Lutens Fumerie Turque, Lolita Lempicka, Ormonde Jayne Tolu, Guerlain Tonka Impériale, Chanel Coco, Jean Paul Gaultier Le Male, and Cacharel Loulou.
While the USA has banned the use of coumarin as a flavor since 1953, many countries in Europe still allow it. In fact, when tonka beans or coumarin are described as tobacco-like, it has do to with the reverse association—tonka tincture has been used extensively to flavor cured tobacco leaves and pipe tobacco blends. In the course of my own experiments with tonka beans as a flavor, I find that the combination of tonka bean and chocolate is ambrosial, with the spicy almond flavor complementing the bitterness of cocoa. I also like to add a pinch of ground tonka bean to dishes containing cherries because it brings out their luscious aroma.
Photo credit: tonka beans, wikicommons.