Benzoin : Fragrant Resin From Laos

Luang Prabang, a town in northern Laos, is a city of magnificent temples and old royal palaces. Although far from undiscovered by tourists, it still has a quaint ambiance and a mellow pace of life. It stretches languidly along the Mekong, glittering with the numerous golden spires that grace its pagodas. Visitors are attracted here by Luang Prabang’s beautiful  architecture and even more by its splendid cuisine, but I made the journey for the aromatic material called benzoin.

Laotian benzoin is a balsamic resin tapped from the Styrax tonkinensis trees. Redolent of vanilla and cinnamon, it’s a material with centuries old history. Its uses for incense, pharmacology and cosmetics have been recorded since antiquity, while in perfumery it has always played an important role as a warm base note. Today it continues to be highly valued. In fragrances, benzoin can be found all over the scent wheel, from citrus colognes to ambers. Classics like Chanel Égoïste and Guerlain Shalimar rely on its sweet accent. It’s also used for scenting toothpaste, soap, and a variety of other day-to-day necessities.

The Luang Prabang region, along with the provinces of Phongsali, Houaphan and Oudomxay supply the bulk of the benzoin used in perfumery and cosmetics today. The high plateaus not far from the city itself are home to hill tribes that practice small-scale agriculture using traditional methods. Their role in the fragrance and flavor industry is profound, especially since the Laotian resin is considered to be of the highest quality. It has a velvety finish and a pronounced fruity note, reminiscent of stewed Morello cherries.

At the market outside of Luang Prabang benzoin comes in the raw form. The opaque ambery lumps look like caramel toffee and the lush, mouthwatering scent completes the impression. Raw benzoin can be burned as a natural sweet incense, or it can be distilled into a rich essence, such as the kind used by perfumers today.

One famous example of Laotian benzoin is Prada Candy. The idea behind the perfume is to reinterpret caramel in a modern manner, bright and vivid. A large dose of benzoin is blended into an accord of musks and sweet citrus, resulting in an abstract gourmand fragrance.

Benzoin has a natural affinity with other sweet and rich notes like vanilla, balsams, leather and tonka bean, but it has a radiant quality that sets it apart. For instance, in Mx. by Eris Parfums benzoin is folded into a chypre vignette of sandalwood, patchouli, vetiver and saffron to create a luminous effect.

The note is equally successful paired with florals. Atelier Cologne’s Rose Anonyme Extrait uses it to create the illusion of a dark rose steeped in incense and sandalwood attar. As improbable as it may seem for such an opulent material, benzoin can even play a part in a fresh cologne, like Herrera Confidential’s Neroli Bohème. In this composition it plays up the richness of jasmine sambac and orange blossom, while supporting a scintillating citrusy top. One thing I quickly learned on my benzoin route is that this material is always ready to surprise with yet another unusual facet.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

Do you have favorite fragrances with benzoin?

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23 Comments

  • Sandra: Thanks for explaining this note. I love Shalimar (in any form or flanker) and didn’t know it contained Benzion. January 9, 2023 at 10:02am Reply

  • Kimberly: You always seem to find such remote and beautiful locations on your explorations. It sounds like it was a lovely journey. I have been wearing Shalimar EDP daily for the last week. I love the interplay between the bergamot, vanilla and incense as it ocillates on my skin. I also wear Chanel’s Coromandel EDP. It is a favorite
    and I think it features benzoin. January 9, 2023 at 10:28am Reply

  • Dina C.: Doing a note search, I find that benzoin is in a lot of my favorites, like Prada Infusion d’Iris, Bulgari Omnia Crystalline, LouLou, Arpege, Bois des Iles, Apres l’Ondee, Iris Silver Mist, Seville a l’Aube, Chamade, Lubin Gin Fizz, and even couple drugstore favorites from my teen years: Jontue and Emeraude. I had no idea I liked benzoin that much, or that it was present in so many of my scents. January 9, 2023 at 10:35am Reply

  • Nina: I just love benzoin! And I was able to smell benzoin chips at sweet little Mandy Aftel’s museum in Berkeley. Even just the raw material makes me swoon. I definitely swooned the first time I sniffed Prada No. 9 Bejnjoin, which is drier and smokier than Candy, and I’m so happy I was able to get some. I also love PG Indochine and Sana Jardin Vanille Nomad, which to me smells much more like benzoin than vanilla after the initial burnt vanilla opening. All of these are less sweet than Candy, which seems well made but tends to go cloying on me. January 9, 2023 at 10:36am Reply

  • Akimon: Thanks for a great article, highlighting one of my favorite perfume ingredients. I don’t like vanilla because on my skin it turns too powdery, but benzoin is sweet and rich and hits all the right notes for me. I liked Prada Candy and I like how benzoin is used in Givenchy Pi, but one of my perennial favorite is an all natural perfume, Strange Invisible Perfumes Etrange, which combines benzoin with seaweed, resins, ginger and other spices to produce very strange, indeed, melange of foody notes that smells, to me, very comforting. It’s probably best for cold weather and it is one my winter staples. January 9, 2023 at 11:37am Reply

  • Ewan: Yesterday I mixed spices and essential oils and the last ingredient was Benzoin.

    I used
    Powders:
    Lemongrass, Mace, Indian Black Cardomon, Frankincense, Lavender flowers, Sage leaves and
    Essentail oils:
    Rose Absolute 5 drops
    Angelica 2
    Roman Chamomile 2
    and Benzoin 3 January 9, 2023 at 12:31pm Reply

    • Corina Lymburner: How fun to read you did this. (Sorry if you are known for creating blends, I’m obv new here.) …anyway, it seems like a beautiful, calming blend. How did you like it? January 10, 2023 at 8:05am Reply

    • Ewan: Hi Corina,

      it smells ok, nothing out of the ordinary, food-spicy, mellow though deep. I will have to find a way to put it on the skin, maybe with an oil or a paste.
      The idea wasn’t to create a ‘nice’ smell but just to experiment. January 10, 2023 at 1:02pm Reply

  • Sarah: I was first introduced to benzoin in Moschino’s Couture! as a teenager. It was being promoted heavily in Nordstrom when it was a new fragrance, and I got a bottle from my mom for Christmas that year. I still have the mostly-full bottle, and I still love the fragrance, though I rarely wear it since I know this bottle has to last me forever. Benzoin remains a favorite note in many of my best-loved perfumes. January 9, 2023 at 2:25pm Reply

  • Aurora: I always love your articles on ingredients, you have a way of telling their stories and I learn almost without noticing. It’s a coincidence I was wearing Midnight in Paris today which features the note, it’s a pleasing perfume with a baby leather and now I know that it’s benzoin which provides the sweetness, I remember it’s being very affordable, today prices for it seem astronomical. January 9, 2023 at 5:21pm Reply

  • Laurie Brown: I have an old bottle of Tabu with a small amount left in it and I swear that a lot of notes have dropped out with age (and poor keeping – it’s out in the light) but the benzoin has stayed and is right in front. It’s what I used after tonight’s shower, coincidentally enough! January 9, 2023 at 9:41pm Reply

  • Amanda M: One of my most favourite notes! (Sandalwood is top of my list.)

    Does anyone know why benzoin isn’t listed as a note in Shalimar eau de Parfum? I’ve checked both Fragrantica and Basenotes but it’s not there…I’m sure it’s in there!?

    I thought Shalimar had benzoin or has it been removed from current versions? It’s listed in the EDC version though.

    Love the benzoin in Coromandel edp, also LouLou and Tabu. All gorgeous. January 10, 2023 at 3:13am Reply

    • Amanda M: Ah, I’ve just done some more reading – is the benzoin listed as ‘incense’ maybe, in Shalimar edp? It’s just that some perfumes actually have the note listed as ‘benzoin’ but Shalimar lists ‘incense’ – they’re one and the same I think?
      Pardon my lack of knowledge on this! January 10, 2023 at 3:44am Reply

  • Corina Lymburner: I’m love reading your articles — so well written that they take me on a journey, sparking my curiosity & interest to learn more about & try new scents, while giving me a new appreciation for worldwide regions and people who provide them. Thanks so much! January 10, 2023 at 8:12am Reply

  • Lia: I like how benzoin smells but curiously I can’t not remember of when I started as a general surgery intern that we used to remove dressings glued on the skin with benzoin tincture (it was 2010 , not that ancient, LOL). January 10, 2023 at 10:34am Reply

  • Mireille: I stayed in Luang Prabang for a week several years ago and wished I had known about their benzoin. I went to visit their temples and Buddhist statues along the Mekong. Years ago, decades ago, I used to go to a hairdresser behind La Madeleine church in Paris and another patron wore a wonderful perfume. After several weeks I had the nerve to ask her which perfume it was and she said Shalimar, since then I wear it every winter. In French we call this résine, benjoin. Your note is very informative. January 10, 2023 at 11:06pm Reply

    • la_ninon: Same. I was there years ago on my honeymoon…my love for benzoin outlasted the marriage! January 12, 2023 at 1:32pm Reply

  • Nina Sundvall: PG Indochine! January 11, 2023 at 3:15pm Reply

  • Zazie: I love benzoin – thank you for providing interesting context information.
    I love many classic Guerlains, Shalimar above all – where benzoin seems very present. Also Chanel Bois des iles, le Lion and guerlain’s more recent Attrape coeur are favorites with a recogniseable benzoin note.
    But the most evocative of the note for me is Guerlain’s bois d’armenie.
    It allowed me to discover papier d’armenie – I now burn it regularly and with great pleasure. It does feel both purifying and comforting.
    The Santa Maria Novella version of the scented paper is out of this world – in scent and, relatively to its OG competitor, price. January 12, 2023 at 10:55am Reply

    • la_ninon: I adore Bois d’Armenie and ordered the papers after falling in love with it. They were…not what I expected. Perhaps I’ll give SMN’s version a try. January 12, 2023 at 8:55pm Reply

      • Zazie: Let me know how you like them!The PDA and SMN are similar but with different complexity, sweetness and heft – like fragrances on a same theme from different perfume houses.
        There is also another Italian version of the paper, called “carta d’Eritrea”… it is very similar, in price and scent, to the OG. But I had a lot of fun trying them all!!! January 13, 2023 at 6:50am Reply

  • Sebastian: Thank you for this article. I have so wanted to go to Laos for a while, and if I ever do, I will make sure to learn more about benzoin there, maybe visit the places where it’s produced.

    I like resinous notes a lot. Benzoin often works for me quite well, although I usually struggle with vanilla. As for perfumes in my collection that contain benzoin, Tabu, Witness (Bogart), Jicky and 19 Louanges Profanes (PG) come to my mind. The latter two I love very much.

    I have also looked up your article on balsamic notes in general, with information on benzoin vs. styrax. Very educational, thank you again. January 13, 2023 at 3:03pm Reply

    • Valentyna: I can’t thank you enough for pointing out Jicky in benzoin context! I would have never thought of it myself. And right now at the peak of my benzoin craving, I applied a few drops of my Jicky extrait and am in heaven! Thank you!
      PS: Guerlain extraits DO get better with time!! January 19, 2023 at 10:59am Reply

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