How Balsams are Harvested for Perfume

Peru Balsam is one of the workhorses in a perfumer’s palette providing a solid base note and voluptuous drydown. It’s a resinous material that, depending on the extraction method and provenance, can smell either warm and ambery or smoky and spicy. When you enjoy perfumes like Hermès  Elixir des Merveilles, Serge Lutens Amber Sultan, or Yves Saint Laurent Opium, you’re admiring the complexity of this interesting note.

I have enjoyed experimenting with Peru balsam ever since my early days in perfumery school, but it was only last year that I discovered how it’s grown and collected. The process hasn’t changed much since antiquity and it’s fascinating. I had been meaning to write about it when I discovered something even better. A company, Nobs Naturals, uploaded a video on Youtube showing how Peru balsam is gathered and you can see for yourself what it’s like.

Nobs Naturals provided the following explanation:

“A piece of bark measuring about 36 by 6 inches is removed starting from the lower part of the tree trunk. The tree can be harvested at all heights of its trunk, which can have a height of over 30 meters. The exposed area is then burnt with a torch, and then a piece of dry cloth is placed on the wound to absorb the oleoresin produced by the tree in response to the treatment. After a month and a half the cloth is recovered and the oleoresin is extracted from it by boiling in water for many hours and then passage through a rustic wooden press. The bark removed from the tree trunk is subject to a similar process.”

Styrax, benzoin and many other balsamic-resinous materials are collected in a similar manner.

Extra: Tolu Balsam, Benzoin, Styrax and Other Oriental Balsamic Notes

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54 Comments

  • Nate: Wow, fascinating! It looks like lots of human work is involved, even if the process is low-tech. January 22, 2014 at 8:07am Reply

    • Victoria: Definitely low-tech as far as the gathering process goes. I agree, it’s very interesting to see how it’s done. January 22, 2014 at 11:27am Reply

  • Andy: How completely fascinating! It gives me a renewed interest in this rather humble, underrated resin. January 22, 2014 at 8:32am Reply

    • Victoria: Peru balsam is such a delicious resin, and its strong vanilla nuance is addictive. Some resinoids smell even chocolate-like, almost edible. January 22, 2014 at 11:29am Reply

  • george: Trying hard to not think of the woods of the self-murderers in Dante! Interesting article and video nevertheless: you sure can feel the force from that press. January 22, 2014 at 9:17am Reply

    • Victoria: Smart people like you, George, make such associations. I just think, “omg, this looks dangerous, I hope that he won’t fall down” and “mmmmm, the resin must smell amazing.” :) January 22, 2014 at 11:31am Reply

    • Rachel: I love your comments, George! :) January 22, 2014 at 12:37pm Reply

    • Solanace: :) January 22, 2014 at 1:24pm Reply

      • Cornelia Blimber: So do I! January 22, 2014 at 1:56pm Reply

        • Mel: I’ll throw my log on this fire! Awesome association, George! January 22, 2014 at 11:14pm Reply

  • Leah: I love this post Victoria! I do wish the fragrance companies/houses would focus a little more on education and a little less on celebrity nonsense. It would do consumers a bit of good to understand the effort that goes into making our favorite creations. My husband elected to wear Ambre Sultan this morning and it smelled even better than ususal after this post :) January 22, 2014 at 10:07am Reply

    • Victoria: I love these kinds of videos too, especially in case of this resin. One doesn’t often see that.

      Ambre Sultan is an irresistible fragrance. It’s really interesting how the heavy, sticky notes in it are balanced with fresh, bright ones to make a rich but still radiant perfume. January 22, 2014 at 11:39am Reply

      • Cornelia Blimber: This is such a beautiful description of my beloved Ambre Sultan! I wrote it down in my Black and Golden Perfume Notebook.
        I think it goes also for Shalimar. January 22, 2014 at 12:59pm Reply

        • Victoria: :) Black and Golden Perfume Notebook sounds wonderful. I have a stack of different notebooks, but my favorite is a little lavender-pink one that fits into any of my purses. I use it a lot. January 22, 2014 at 1:43pm Reply

  • Donna Kittredge: Amazing! Do you know if this is a sustainable process? As El Salvador is the only place Peru Balsam is harvested, I imagine it is. The Nobs Naturals website did not indicate. January 22, 2014 at 10:10am Reply

    • Victoria: Generally, most balsam trees grow wild or they can be planted like styrax along the fields to provide a source of income during the fallow periods (a sustainable practice, because it allows the soil to regenerate and doesn’t overtax the natural resources). But I don’t know if Peru balsam falls into that category. I can find out. January 22, 2014 at 11:43am Reply

    • Victoria: I contacted the company, and they replied back. “Peru Balsam is a sustainable practice. The forests are all natural historical forest that only exist in El Salvador. The burn is made in different heights of the tree in order to make sure it heals between seasons. The tree last more than 100 years and is then naturally replaced by the forest.” January 22, 2014 at 4:31pm Reply

  • Anne of Green Gables: Thanks for sharing! I find all balsamic and resinous materials/notes complex and absolutely intriguing. This might be a stupid question but I’m still confused with the distinction between balsams and resins. Is there an easy way to understand this? January 22, 2014 at 11:29am Reply

    • Victoria: Not a stupid question at all! Resin forms as the plant’s essential oils oxidize; they’re not soluble in water. Technically, balsam is an oleoresin (a mixture of oil and resin) that contains benzole or cinnamic acid. So, benzoin, styrax, peru balsam and tolu balsam are balsams. Not sure if it’s what I’d call an easy way to understand it. And it doesn’t help that “resinous” and “balsamic” aren’t always used correctly. For instance, frankincense is a resin, but it’s not a balsam. January 22, 2014 at 11:53am Reply

      • Anne of Green Gables: Thanks for the clarification, Victoria. It helps a lot! The fact the term “balsamic” is somtimes used in odour profiles of resins has confused me. So, resins and balsams refer to the composition whereas “balsamic” is used to describe sweet, warm, rich odour note regardless of the composition. Did I get that right?

        So,

        Resins: Frankincense, Myrrh, Opopanax, Elemi

        Balsams: Peru and Tolu Balsams, Benzoin, Styrax

        How about Labdanum? Is this a resin?

        Sorry for bothering you with questions again but I want to get it right once and for all. :-) January 22, 2014 at 5:18pm Reply

        • Victoria: Aha-ha, I didn’t talk about gum resins yet. :) If you want to be precise, Frankincense, Myrrh, Opopanax, Elemi are gum resins, because they combine some traits of gums (which result from the decomposition of cellulose in plant tissues) and resins. I don’t remember off the top of my head of labdanum is a resin or a gum resin. I think that it’s a gum resin, but I’d have to double check.

          Balsamic should describe the smell of balsams. January 22, 2014 at 5:34pm Reply

          • Anne of Green Gables: Thank you again, V. I’m writing everything down onto my notebook. Very interesting but quite complicated! I still remember all the terminology confusion from the last benzoin post.

            OK, I now get that the term balsamic should only strictly be used to describe the smell of balsams, But you see, even in the glossary of Scent and Chemistry book, it says “Balsamic Note is sweet, soft, and warm odor note of balms and *resins*, comprising cinnamony, vanilla- and chocolate-like elements as well”. January 22, 2014 at 5:54pm Reply

            • Victoria: No, not strictly. Balsamic can refer to benzoin, but it can also refer to a facet in a material that has nothing to do with balsams. It’s confusing when you try to ascribe the abstract categories. It’s best just to smell for yourself and draw up your own descriptions, rather than rely on what someone else says. Especially, since everyone will have their own opinion.

              Typically, “classical” balsamic notes are much sweeter than the resinous notes (ie, benzoin vs frankincense). January 22, 2014 at 6:19pm Reply

              • Anne of Green Gables: Thank you! If you ever start your own perfumery school, please take me on as your pupil. ;-)

                I’m slowly learning but coming up with my own odour descriptions can be hard sometimes. In my head, I know the smells but finding the right words to describe them requires another talent. You’re so good at doing that and I think it might be because you read a lot. I ought to read more! January 23, 2014 at 9:36am Reply

                • Victoria: It’s difficult for anyone, because we aren’t taught a vocabulary for scents, but by smelling more and coming up with descriptions (and revisiting the same materials again and again and again), you develop one for yourself. You seem to be doing a good job, IMO! :) January 23, 2014 at 11:37am Reply

                  • Anne of Green Gables: Thanks for your encouragements. I’ll keep trying! :-) January 23, 2014 at 4:48pm Reply

  • Tora: That was incredibly interesting!!! January 22, 2014 at 12:33pm Reply

    • Victoria: Glad that you liked it! I thought that it was such a nice, educational video. January 22, 2014 at 1:44pm Reply

  • Rachel: Thank you! I love learning about ingredients in my perfumes. January 22, 2014 at 12:36pm Reply

    • Cornelia Blimber: I agree! It brings more understanding of favourite perfumes. January 22, 2014 at 1:00pm Reply

    • Victoria: Me too. It gives me a new appreciation for them. January 22, 2014 at 1:43pm Reply

  • Ferris: Wow what a fascinating piece Victoria! Now I know the behind the scene story of one of my favorite perfume ingredients! I would love to see more of these types videos where they explore how other ingredients i.e jasmine, rose, orris root are harvested and processed. January 22, 2014 at 2:42pm Reply

    • Victoria: Knowing how much work is involved makes the materials even more special. Same goes for perfume. If I find other interesting clips or have a chance to make them myself, I will share. January 22, 2014 at 2:58pm Reply

  • minette: so we torture trees to make them weep? had no idea it was thus.

    will treat my antique bottle of balsam peru (mckesson’s brand) with more reverence. January 22, 2014 at 4:44pm Reply

    • Victoria: I suppose, torture for me is the devastation of natural forests, logging and pollution. This practice, on the other hand, maintains the natural forest and also supports local communities in a developing country.

      I have a little bottle of very old balsam, and it smells amazing. It’s hard to believe that it’s more than 40 years old at this point. January 22, 2014 at 4:58pm Reply

      • minette: i agree those are worse… they are killing. but i don’t like hurting trees, either. sometimes sucks to be senstitive in this world. January 22, 2014 at 10:59pm Reply

      • minette: oh, and i haven’t opened my antique bottle of balsam! it still has the black wax seal on it. the liquid is very thick and looks dark inside the brown glass. it has a price of 40 cents written in pencil on the label. have no idea how old it is. looks like it came from an apothecary. January 22, 2014 at 11:02pm Reply

        • Victoria: I know that peru balsam was used for skin ailments, so maybe that’s why it was sold at a pharmacy. If you open it, I would love to hear what it smells like now. January 23, 2014 at 11:13am Reply

  • MontrealGirl: Fascinating! Thanks for the explanation. Having a sense of how unique the raw materials are and how challenging to collect just gives me a much greater appreciation for the human effort and ingenuity plus the quality and preciousness of the final products. With a drop of perfume one can be in awe of the diversity and richness of our natural world. January 22, 2014 at 7:01pm Reply

    • Victoria: Effort and ingenuity is a great way to put it. These materials are all the more precious, because next to the cash food crops, the production of perfume materials is tiny. It’s a miracle that many of these producers still survive, since there is always pressure to move into another more lucrative occupation or leave the village for the city. Which is why out of the magnificent rose fields in Grasse, there is only a small fraction survives. January 23, 2014 at 11:04am Reply

  • Ramona: Great post! I also really enjoy the education and information one can access in your articles. The actual experience of wearing and smelling a perfume is made much richer and more meaningful when the wearer knows and understands the disparate ingredient’s life story!
    Ramona January 22, 2014 at 8:41pm Reply

    • Victoria: Such a nice way to put it. I also feel the same way. January 23, 2014 at 11:05am Reply

      • Alessandra: Same here!! January 24, 2014 at 5:59pm Reply

  • Elena: Is there a link (scentwise, or otherwise?) between this kind of Peru balsam and balsam fir (which also happens to be one of my favorite scents in the world)? It seems unlikely, since the geography of the two is so far apart. I love this kind of stuff, too! Another vote for reaaaallllly geeking out on perfume! January 22, 2014 at 9:40pm Reply

    • Victoria: Not really, because balsam fir is a resin that smells very differently and it comes from a totally different plant. The scent of the resin is incredible; it’s complex enough to be its own perfume. January 23, 2014 at 11:06am Reply

      • Elena: Thank you, that was kind of what I was thinking. I ended up trying to look up the etymology of the word balsam and it seems that balsam (outside of the perfume world) can mean any number of pleasantly scented plant product which is a big vague! January 23, 2014 at 10:05pm Reply

        • Victoria: It’s like aromatic, which in perfumery means one thing (sharp, bright, camphor-like notes associated with herbs), while its standard definition is much more encompassing. January 24, 2014 at 7:43am Reply

  • Austenfan: I love these insights into the fragrant world. Oddly enough it reminded of a guided tour I once did on a cider producing farm in Normandy. All the apples were pressed without the use of any engine.It was all manual labour. Mind you the farmer, who showed us around, looked strong enough to be able to just pull trees out of the soil. Needless to say that the cider they made tasted wonderful.
    I love how some of these old traditions survive. January 23, 2014 at 4:14pm Reply

    • Victoria: Sometimes to be admired in France is the respect for local crafts and simply the local history. It’s really something that struck me during my visits.
      Oh, I finally got a chance to try cider from Normandy, which is sold at a local shop carrying mostly poultry but also an eclectic array of other delicious things. I would have loved to be on that tour! January 23, 2014 at 6:13pm Reply

      • Austenfan: It’s one of the things I most love in France, partly because in Holland that attitude doesn’t exist to the same extent.

        I am sure you would have loved that farm. They also made “confit de cidre” and “gelée de calvados”. Both sharing that sort of idealised taste of apple. Plus they fattened geese in a free range set up for Christmas. It was a local kind of goose that fed on grass,other greens and apples. Apparently their meat tasted slightly of apple. January 24, 2014 at 1:36pm Reply

        • Victoria: Yes, you’re describing my sort of fantasy! :) January 24, 2014 at 2:22pm Reply

  • Alessandra: Ffffffascinating!!! January 24, 2014 at 5:57pm Reply

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