Story in the Bottle : Laotian Benzoin Article

I have an article in the September 2013 issue of Perfumer & Flavorist magazine. It’s called “Story in the Bottle : Supporting Natural Ingredients Article,” and it’s about benzoin production in Laos. Benzoin is a vanilla scented resin used widely in fragrances and flavors, but its supply chain is extremely fragile. It’s mostly grown in the mountainous regions of Laos where small communities gather it to supplement their income. As the younger generation moves to the cities and other sources of income become more appealing, traditional activities like benzoin collection disappear. A loss of benzoin could have significant consequences to perfumers’ palettes.

benzoin

A similar story could be told about many other natural raw materials used by the perfume industry, and I take a look at the current situation and what is being done to support the producers. Perfumer & Flavorist is aimed at the professional audience, so the article is on the technical side. Still, if you’re curious about such topics, you might like to take a look.

“The northern regions of Luang Prabang, Phongsali, Houaphan and Oudomxay supply the bulk of the benzoin used in the perfume and flavor manufacture. Benzoin is a balsamic resin obtained from the genus Styrax. The Laotian resin, tapped from Styrax tonkinensis, is considered to be of the highest quality, given its unique blend of vanilla, cinnamon and almond facets. In perfumery, benzoin can be found all over the fragrance wheel, from citrus colognes to orientals. Classics like Chanel Égoïste and Guerlain Shalimar rely on its velvety accent, while the addictive richness of this balsamic note is important for the caramel and chocolate flavors in ice creams and pastries.”

The magazine is currently available at www.perfumerflavorist.com.

If you’re curious to read more about benzoin and other resins, please take a look at my post Perfume Vocabulary: Resins and BalsamsPrada Candy contains the high-grade Laotian benzoin, and it’s one of the most interesting benzoin dominated compositions on the market. Despite a  generous dose of this rich, warm resin, Candy has a luminous, bright quality. On the dark and brooding end of the spectrum, I love the layer of benzoin in Chanel Coromandel

Photography by Bois de Jasmin, benzoin tears.

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52 Comments

  • Martha: Your post makes me want to go on a world tour of perfume resource countries. However, that is not possible this week so maybe I’ll seek out Prada Candy. I had a large sample of Coromandel and it was very satisfying while it lasted. October 22, 2013 at 7:30am Reply

    • Victoria: My dream too! I’m going to wear Coromandel once I return home, and it’s going to satisfy some of my wanderlust. October 22, 2013 at 9:23am Reply

  • Anne of Green Gables: I’m looking forward to reading the full article. I had no idea that benzoin is also used in flavouring. I’m a little bit confused, Victoria. Do people extract single compound of benzoin (2-hydroxy-1,2-di(phenyl)ethanone) from the styrax resins and then this is what is used as ‘benzoin’ in perfumery? According to Wikipedia, the main component of benzoin resin is benzoic acid and it’s not to be confused with the chemical compound benzoin (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benzoin_resin). Is the information on Wikipedia wrong or have I misunderstood something? October 22, 2013 at 7:59am Reply

    • Victoria: In perfumery, benzoin resin is used. The resin extracted from styrax tonkinensis. Small incision is made into the trunk and the tears (photo above) are collected. Then they are further processed with ethyl alcohol to obtain benzoin resinoid.

      Benzoin (PhCH(OH)C(O)Ph) is not found in benzoin resin, it’s a completely different matter and smell camphor-like. The identical names do make it confusing though! October 22, 2013 at 9:22am Reply

  • Anne of Green Gables: I see. I also thought that it would be the resinoid or absolute, not a single compound, used in perfumery. I was confused because CAS#119-53-9 is actually PhCH(OH)C(O)Ph (http://webbook.nist.gov/cgi/cbook.cgi?ID=119-53-9&Units=SI) and I think you can’t have a CAS# for something that’s a mixture of different compounds. Please correct me if I’m wrong and I’m sorry to be fussy about it! Anyway, I love benzoin and other balsamic notes. October 22, 2013 at 10:01am Reply

    • Anne of Green Gables: I meant to reply to you but made a mistake. Could you please move it? Thanks! October 22, 2013 at 10:03am Reply

    • george: Ah, Anne, I see your point now!: the CAS number is for the chemical benzoin and not benzoin resin- i.e. I think you are right, and Victoria has misquoted it as being for the resin. However, I can see the confusion, as even some of the chemical technical information sites state that benzoin resin and the chemical benzoin are the same thing. October 22, 2013 at 11:24am Reply

      • Victoria: Ok, I see what’s the matter now. That CAS# wasn’t in my original article, which is why I didn’t even understand the source of Anne’s confusion at first. I’ll look into it. October 22, 2013 at 11:55am Reply

        • george: Hurrah! and Phew! and all sorted! October 22, 2013 at 12:21pm Reply

          • Anne of Green Gables: Hurrah and phew, indeed! Thanks for more clearly stating where the confusion came from, george. I hope that the magazine will publish an erratum to prevent more confused people like me. October 22, 2013 at 1:53pm Reply

            • Victoria: Anne, the article should leave nobody confused, as I describe exactly what benzoin I’m talking about (anyway, for the perfumery & flavoring purposes, there is only one kind, the resin). But even so, I’ve asked the editors to double check on the CAS# they inserted. If it was indeed their mistake, they will surely make a note. October 22, 2013 at 3:35pm Reply

    • Victoria: I believe mustard oil has its own CAS#, but usually they are for specific molecules. October 22, 2013 at 11:48am Reply

      • Anne of Green Gables: I didn’t know that CAS# also exists for mixtures, alloys and DNA sequences. The whole terminology issue is very confusing and as george said, the terms are wrongly used in some websites which added to my confusion. But it was nice to learn more about benzoin (resinoid ;-)). Thanks for the clarification, Victoria. Now I can rest assured. 🙂 October 22, 2013 at 12:16pm Reply

        • Victoria: I hesitated for a moment to mention that there is also a styrax resinoid, but hey, I might as well risk confusing you further. 🙂 Styrax resinoid is obtained from Liquidambar Styraciflua L. (nothing to do with styrax tonkinensis, from which benzoin resinoid is obtained), and it smells leathery, sweet, warm, with a twist of cinnamon.

          A while ago I wrote this post on the balsamic materials (also my favorites), so maybe it might be useful. And I hope that all of this styrax-benzoin-balsam-resin business is not too confusing. 🙂 For all intents and purposes, they all smell rich and make terrific drydown notes.
          http://boisdejasmin.com/2011/02/perfume-vocabulary-tolu-balsam-benzoin-styrax-and-other-oriental-balsamic-notes.html October 22, 2013 at 12:44pm Reply

          • george: Funnily enough, I WAS confused by whether or not Benzoin resin was the same thing as styrax, and had already found the answer in the article you suggested!- but I didn’t mention it because of fear of creating further confusion. 🙂 October 22, 2013 at 5:50pm Reply

            • Victoria: And just because there is no end to this…. there is also a plant called styrax benzoin native to Indonesia. What does it produce? Yes, benzoin! But a different type from Laotian benzoin, and it’s usually referred to as benzoin Sumatra. It’s smokier, more incense-like, sharper than Laotian benzoin (often called Benzoin Siam) and is considered to be a lesser grade benzoin. Before I think of other twists in this long benzoin/styrax tale, I’ll stop right here. 🙂 October 22, 2013 at 6:50pm Reply

          • Anne of Green Gables: Thank you for the further information. Your post on balsamic materials was really fascinating. Things are much more clear now and now I only wish that I could smell all the raw materials and compare them. Just one more question, how do Siam benzoin and Sumatra benzoin differ in their smell? October 22, 2013 at 7:02pm Reply

            • Anne of Green Gables: Oh, you answered my question while I was writing my comment. 🙂 I’d better go to bed… October 22, 2013 at 7:05pm Reply

  • george: Looking forward to reading the article! October 22, 2013 at 10:43am Reply

    • Victoria: Hope that you like it. I didn’t realize how many key natural materials are entirely wild cropped. October 22, 2013 at 12:19pm Reply

      • Lindaloo: That may not continue to be true if the yeast generated molecules become the norm, according to the New York Times article referred to in Robin’s post at NST:

        http://www.nstperfume.com/2013/10/21/vanilla-saffron-patchouli/

        Just when many countries were starting up or returning to jobs and trade in these wonderful ingredients. October 22, 2013 at 5:48pm Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you for mentioning it. I read this article yesterday and found it very interesting. But I don’t think that this research means the death toll for naturals. It’s really one synthetic process vs another, and the debate will eventually center on whether you can call yeast generated compounds “natural.” Vanillin right now is already synthesized, and only about 1% of vanillin used in the perfume and flavor industry is natural vanillin (ie, produced from vanilla beans).

          Here is the NYT link for those who would like to read the full article:
          http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/21/business/whats-that-smell-exotic-scents-made-from-re-engineered-yeast.html October 22, 2013 at 6:42pm Reply

          • george: Maybe one day a suitable and complex blend of genetically modified yeast types will be produced which will mean you could have a never ending supply of shalimar in your kitchen. October 22, 2013 at 7:01pm Reply

  • nikki: So interesting Victoria! MFK makes a benzoin candle for Papier d’Armenie and his Absolue pour le Soir has a lot of benzoin in it. How amazing that this ingredient can be so sparse and is still hand picked.
    Thank you for the info! October 22, 2013 at 10:47am Reply

    • Victoria: Kurkdjian loves that note, I think. I notice it in many of his perfumes.

      Also, Guerlain’s Bois d’Armenie is another great benzoin showcase. Have you tried it? October 22, 2013 at 12:24pm Reply

  • zari: Mmm, Shalimar. I need to go home and put some of that on. 🙂 October 22, 2013 at 11:49am Reply

    • Victoria: The late drydown is my favorite part. The combination of amber, vanilla and resins makes it so suave and seductive. October 22, 2013 at 12:04pm Reply

      • zari: Oh my goodness, yes. I love that part too. Only part I am not very fond of is the first few seconds after a spritz. There is a latexy scent my nose picks up. October 23, 2013 at 10:08am Reply

        • Victoria: I agree. The very top note feels too sharp to me, especially in the current version. But thankfully it mellows down almost instantly. October 23, 2013 at 3:27pm Reply

  • Austenfan: I love this kind of technical background, thank you for providing it.
    And you have reminded me that I need to resniff Candy and put Coromandel on my sniff list. When I tried a lot of Exclusifs in March I somehow missed out on Coromandel. October 22, 2013 at 3:22pm Reply

    • Victoria: The interesting thing about Candy is how transparent benzoin seems in it. Granted, it’s not a sheer, weightless perfume, but it’s surprisingly luminous (and it uses a large quantity of benzoin).

      The benzoin tears in my photo also smell delicious. I sometimes mix benzoin with frankincense for burning, which makes for a sweet, soothing scent. October 22, 2013 at 3:44pm Reply

  • Maja: You’re my fragrance encyclopaedia, I have learned so much here. Thank you so much. I think I am in love with benzoin since I adore Coromandel and I like Candy. 🙂 October 22, 2013 at 3:52pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, I still need to learn so much more myself. But in the course of researching such topics, you discover so much fascinating information about the materials we encounter almost daily. Benzoin, for instance, is used a lot in commercial flavors, in toothpaste, in household products. It’s also used in the Orthodox church incense, which is why the Eastern European churches smell differently from the French, Spanish or Italian ones. My mom noticed Serge Lutens’s Ambre Sultan on me and said that it smells like church during the Easter services. 🙂 October 22, 2013 at 3:59pm Reply

      • Maja: You’re right! 🙂 I’m Orthodox and I can definitely smell similarities with the type of incense used in churches. Orthodox churches, by the way, are physically more perfumed than Western ones with priests using the censer heavily. It can become even heady sometimes. 🙂 October 22, 2013 at 4:33pm Reply

        • Victoria: Yes! Occasionally you can’t even see the altar for the clouds of smoke. 🙂 I love how my clothes smell after a mass. October 22, 2013 at 5:06pm Reply

  • Jillie: I’ve been thinking about benzoin ever since I read this yesterday, and an old memory kept – bobbing around in my head = I could see the words “Tincture of Benzoin” on a label, and I was trying to work out what that meant. This morning I remembered: when I was a child we were given pastilles for sore throats which contained this!

    I’ve just had a look at the net and discovered that this benzoin comes from the styrax kind, and has been traditionally used for all sorts of skin/mouth/breathing problems. Then something else fell into place for me; I’ve been wearing (and loving) Caron’s Parfum Sacre for the last few days, and couldn’t help being reminded of Friar’s Balsam – a liquid added to boiling water for steam inhalations (a form of torture we were subjected to as children when we had coughs). Well, I guess there must be a benzoin in the Caron!

    Thanks, Victoria, for writing about this, even if my poor brain has struggled to understand it all! October 23, 2013 at 3:24am Reply

    • Jillie: Sorry for the typos – too excited by the subject, and also coping with large cat licking my face and standing on keyboard! October 23, 2013 at 3:25am Reply

      • Victoria: He was only trying to help you. 🙂 October 23, 2013 at 7:27am Reply

        • Jillie: Probably he was! He adores perfume and licks it off my wrist. My other cat hates it and wrinkles his nose in disgust when he cuddles me. October 23, 2013 at 8:38am Reply

          • Victoria: Cats are funny creatures! 🙂 October 23, 2013 at 3:11pm Reply

    • Victoria: When I was researching materials for the article, I had to make a benzoin cheat sheet to keep it all straight. But you’ve figured it all out and connected the details perfectly. I love discovering these links too, because sometimes my likes or dislikes can be explained by scents or tastes I remember from my childhood. Our strongest scent memories are created when we’re quite young.

      Does it mean that you dislike Parfum Sacre? October 23, 2013 at 7:26am Reply

      • Jillie: No, that’s the weirdest thing, I actually love it! Maybe, in spite of hating having to breathe the spicy steam into my lungs, the association I must have with that smell is probably more about the loving care and attention I was getting from my mother while I was poorly, rather than what seemed to be an alien odour.

        I think also that my tastes have changed in the last few years, and I suspect I would not have loved PS so much a little while ago, when I was more of a fan of florals and aldehydes. In the height of Opium and Cinnabar mania in the 90s, I didn’t care for those heavily spiced fragrances – I stuck to my Eternity. Although, come to think of it, even that is spicy in a carnation sort of way, so the seeds were there. October 23, 2013 at 8:36am Reply

        • zari: Eternity – my third grade teacher wore this in the early 90s and I remember I associated warmth (of the classroom), comfort (her), and beauty (her) with that smell. 🙂 October 23, 2013 at 10:02am Reply

          • Jillie: That’s so lovely, Zari. October 23, 2013 at 10:21am Reply

        • Victoria: You know, I totally relate. I had a very similar experience with anise flavored cough drops I used to drink as a child, and while I should have hated anise anything, it turns out that it’s one of my favorite notes. I also love eating it, and one of the happy discoveries is that chervil, one of my favorite anise flavored greens, is the most common herb here in Belgium. Sambuca is another liqueur I now love. 🙂 It puzzled me for a while, but your explanation that we associate these scents with care and love makes perfect sense. October 23, 2013 at 3:11pm Reply

  • Aisha: Candy and Coromandel. Yum. 🙂

    I’ve always been curious … with such a finite supply of various natural ingredients, how much time is spent creating a similar scent in a lab? How difficult is it to do that? October 23, 2013 at 7:08am Reply

    • Victoria: Do you mean a scent similar to a natural material? Say, like a recreation of the smell of natural rose or benzoin? October 23, 2013 at 7:30am Reply

  • Aisha: Yup. 🙂 October 23, 2013 at 7:49am Reply

    • Victoria: Quite hard! The modern technology can figure the main components of natural oils, but the main character is given by materials present in such trace amounts that the machine may not even pick them up. Which is why the research on such precious materials like sandalwood, ambergris and musk has been going on for decades with no apparent discovery of anything that smells exactly like the real thing. Of course, as a consequence of research and development, other interesting materials to be used in fragrances are discovered or created along the way. October 23, 2013 at 7:56am Reply

  • Aisha: Oh wow! Decades? I image material suppliers are trying their best to follow conservation/reforestation practices. Frankly, I’m surprised perfumes aren’t even more expensive than some of them already are. Of course, I’m thankful that most remain within reach of my budget. 🙂 October 23, 2013 at 8:48am Reply

    • Victoria: It takes a long time for new materials (synthetics) to be approved once they’re discovered, and the discovery process itself is a long affair. I wonder the same thing sometimes, but in the end, the perfume oil is such a small part of the total cost of perfume. The brands spend much more on packaging, advertising and distribution. October 23, 2013 at 3:13pm Reply

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