Delicious Scents : Tonka Bean

The tonka bean, one of my favorite ingredients looks unprepossessing—a shriveled black pod covered with suspicious white bloom. However, its scent of toasted almonds, amarena cherries, sun warmed hay and vanilla custard is one of the luscious in a perfumer’s palette. What’s more, the tonka bean was responsible for a revolution in modern perfumery.

Tonka beans, the seeds of the Dipteryx Odorata tree native to South America, contain a component called coumarin. It’s present in many herbs and plants, including lavender, figs, and cherry leaves, but tonka beans are so rich in this aromatic that it crystallizes to the surface of their skin. Indeed, the very name coumarin comes from a French word for the tonka bean, coumarou. Coumarin was first isolated from tonka beans in the 1820s, and in 1882 it became the first synthetic material to be used in a perfume. To create a fantasy accord inspired by ferns, perfumer Paul Parquet added coumarin to the classical eau de cologne blend of citrus, lavender and geranium. Notes of amber, musk and oakmoss filled in the rest of the composition and Houbigant’s Fougère Royale was born. Along with it, came a new family of fragrances called fougère, which in French meant “fern.”

Fougère Royale is still around, albeit in a modernized version, and the fougère family remains one of the most popular. Yet, the tonka bean with its complex sweetness can lend an interesting nuance to a wide range of fragrances, not just the herbal-citrusy ones. For instance, the baroque plushness of Cacharel Loulou, Caron Pour Un Homme and Chanel Coco is inconceivable without the humble black beans and their opulent aroma. When Chanel released a new variation on the classical Coco, Coco Noir, the house aimed for a more transparent but rich perfume. They’ve added a fruity accord, a warm backdrop of patchouli, and swapped white musk for the heavier animalic variety. Nevertheless, the caramelized cherries of the tonka bean remained, playing up the brightness of grapefruit in the top notes.

A fragrance that explores the luminous facets of tonka beans is Guerlain Vétiver. Vetiver contains a hint of fresh hazelnuts, and this nutty nuance blends harmoniously with the almond accents in tonka beans. Guerlain’s Vétiver uses the contrast between warm and cool to create a striking character. The drydown is enveloping and velvety, and yet the composition retains a radiant and shimmering effect reminiscent the play of sunlight on water.

The natural tendency of tonka beans to evoke dark, burnished spices was used to an advantage by Ormonde Jayne’s Tolu. The scent of tolu balsam is baroque enough to match the tonka bean. It smells of vanilla, cinnamon and smoked almonds. Ormonde Jayne’s perfume, however, is based on the contrast between the freshness of clary sage and thyme and the warmth of cinnamon and amber. The tonka bean and tolu, joining together to create an impression of vintage leather and praline almonds, add a seductive twist. It’s so delicious that it invites a kiss.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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18 Comments

  • Caitlenn: You know, Victoria, one of the things I love most about you is how exceptionally well you convey knowledge about perfumery in general – and components-formulations in particular. Now I finally get the role tonka bean plays in formulating perfumes.

    We are so lucky that you tirelessly keep sharing your gift of communication with us.

    Thx ever so much! August 4, 2023 at 12:52pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m so glad to hear it! I really enjoy writing these articles. August 9, 2023 at 5:53am Reply

  • Gabriela: I absolutely love tonka beans. I had no idea of its role in perfumery. Do you know of any recipes using tonka beans? I have tried it in chocolate, its wonderful! August 4, 2023 at 12:59pm Reply

  • Nina Zolotow: Thanks so much for this article! Tonka beans/coumarin is something I don’t know much about. Reading the beginning, from your description of the smell, I thought this was a note I would love but I wondered: do I have any perfumes with this note? I remembered loving Tonka Imperiale but I never bought it because it was so expensive. Then you mentioned Tolu, a perfume I do own and wear quite frequently. Yes, it is beautiful.

    Then I realized I did have a fougere that I love and wear very frequently (have used up a bottle already): A Taste of Heaven from Kilian. I checked the notes and sure enough tonka was in it. I find this very beautiful and also very calming due to the lavender, but it has been discontinued. (For some reason, the Caron Pour Un Homme, which theoretically I should like, just doesn’t work for me.) August 4, 2023 at 2:36pm Reply

    • John Luna: Hi Nina,

      Have you tried Molinard’s Lavande? I have not had the opportunity to sample it, but it is often compared to Caron Pour Un Homme…perhaps it would be a better fit for you than CPuH? August 8, 2023 at 1:58am Reply

    • Victoria: Tonka bean can be used in minute quantities to add a warm, sweet twist, and sometimes it’s hiding in the most surprising accords. August 9, 2023 at 5:51am Reply

    • Klaas: A Taste of Heaven is glorious!!! I’m very sad they discontinued it. It smells like Mistral wind blowing over a lavender field in Provence…..

      I have a refill that I keep in the fridge for posterity!

      Sample Bron de Réglisse by Hermes if you can, it’s very different to AToH but one of the best lavender fragrances in my book. It’s subtle, so don’t expect Kylian powerhouse 💪 August 11, 2023 at 5:22am Reply

  • Alityke: Tonka is present in Guerlainade, so most classics have a Tonka note.
    A recent memorable addition is the limited edition Shalimar Millesime Tonka. Stunning, silky soft smoky Shalimar without the “baby poop” opening.

    Last winter our local gastropub had a luscious Tonka rice pudding with Tonka confit prunes. It was the most perfect version of traditional pudding. August 5, 2023 at 9:13am Reply

    • Victoria: Tonka bean goes really well with anything milky and also with rice. I also like to use it in rice puddings. August 9, 2023 at 5:50am Reply

  • Aurora: Thank you so much Victoria, I appreciate your article on perfume notes so much.

    You list Coco, Coco Noir and Loulou, some other favorites I have with this note are Angels’ Share and A*men Pure Tonka and Shalimar Millésime Tonka which others have mentioned was such a lovely surprise when it came out last year.

    I have been listening to a series on French Radio, on Simone de Beauvoir, in five parts and recommend it to all those understanding French, it can be accessed on the Radio-France website, look for Face à l’Histoire, Simone de Beauvoir (Un Voyage en bourgeoisie, Itinéraire d’une Jeune Fille rangée). August 5, 2023 at 10:57am Reply

    • Victoria: The series must be fascinating. I just looked it up and I will be listening tonight. August 9, 2023 at 5:49am Reply

    • Klaas: Wow! I’m going to look it up. Thank you Aurora ☺️ August 11, 2023 at 5:25am Reply

      • Aurora: Thank you for telling me Klaas, I hope you will enjoy it. August 11, 2023 at 10:28am Reply

  • Jacquelyn: I just want to say I love your blog. Floraiku has a lovely woody tonka fragrance called Sound of Ricochet. It exudes warmth and comfort. August 7, 2023 at 8:06am Reply

    • Victoria: Oh, thank you so much! August 9, 2023 at 5:49am Reply

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