If you take thick, sweet golden honey and pure vanilla, mix in a bit of elegant wood, pay special attention to the vanilla, and think about sunshine and trees you begin to get a feel for balsamic fragrances. Mellow, lasting, golden, sweet, always with honey and vanilla, these are the fundamental descriptors of balsam. Then, well, then you can find resinous versions, lighter versions, aged and oaky versions, spicy ones, or even unobtrusive versions that sit quietly in the background of a perfume adding a bit of sweetness and longevity.
The traditional balsamic fragrances are generally the product of resinous trees. This means that the balsam is produced as the tree grows and ages. This substance may be very thick or just slightly viscous. It may be pathological, a response to disease, or it may simply be a physiological product produced by the plant for other reasons, such as protection from injury. This means that to harvest these resins, the tree must be wounded to allow the resins to escape and harden.
Balsamic ingredients like benzoin are ancient fragrance ingredients and were often burned as pure incense throughout Asia and the Middle East. In fact, benzoin was thought to purify the air and was also used to deodorize a room. Ancient Egyptians used various balsamic resins in mummification and in cosmetics. However, the local environment was probably not suitable for growing most balsamic trees and Egyptians probably imported their balsams.
The strength of the balsamic fragrance, the presence of other notes such as wood, spice, or leather, the thickness of the product, the method of extraction, and the presence of any diluent, all affect the type of balsam that is right for your perfumery goal.
Benzoin (Styrax tonkinensis), also called Siam Benzoin or Gum Benjamin, in my experience, is a difficult one, both to understand the extraction and to get a true and consistent product. The most straightforward way is probably to purchase the solid resin or tears and make your own tincture.
Arctander recommends a tincture that is 20% tincture in 90 to 96% alcohol. The benzoin is nearly all soluble and gives a nice amber colored tincture with a true, light, fragrance. Such a tincture is excellent as a pre-fixative, providing a lovely light balsamic fragrance to your product. Arctander goes on to say that if heat is used during the alcohol extraction (producing a resin absolute), acids may be produced that will affect the odor (and skin-friendliness), causing it to differ from a ‘true’ benzoin. Extraction with hydrocarbons like benzene gives a more true and neutral absolute. However, it is very thick and difficult to work with.
In my experience, because of this thickness, vendors will sometimes sell benzoin diluted with a carrier. If it is ‘pourable’ it has probably been diluted and, if you are interested in a completely natural product, should inquire as to the nature of the diluent (information which can be difficult to get).
Benzoin is thought by many to be a skin sensitizer, although Tisserand indicates a low risk of sensitization and recommends a maximum dermal use level of 2%. It should not be used on hypersensitive, diseased, or damaged skin or on children under 2 years old. If one is sensitive to benzoin, there may also be a cross-sensitization with Peru balsam due to the similarity of constituents.
The aroma of benzoin absolute is sweet and light, vanilla with a bit of a wood or paper note and a very light honey as a backdrop. I have also a benzoin ‘heart’ note essential oil that is light-colored, pourable, and with a more delicate and pure benzoin note. It lasts as long as the benzoin absolute and actually seems a bit stronger after an hour or so.
Peru Balsam is found as an essential oil and has a moderate risk of sensitization (Tisserand 2014) with a maximum dermal use of 0.4%. The fragrance is also sweet and balsamic but with a more spicy, almost floral note. To my nose, it has a bit more complexity and interest than benzoin and may assert its personality in a blend a bit more strongly. I like it a lot.
Copaiba Balsam (Copaifera langsdorffii) is a more woody fragrance, not quite so balsamic, and is actually the pure resin. Arctander calls it one of the most ‘natural’ or unprocessed of the natural perfume materials. He says “It is used in perfumes exactly as it comes out of the tree, exactly as it occurs in nature.” And Tisserand indicates it has less potential for skin reactions.
Styrax benzoin (Liquidambar orientalis) may also be called Storax and is a natural balsam. This one is often recommended for leathery blends and I find it to, indeed, be slightly leathery but also balsamic and lasting. There is a nice, sweet, slightly spicy balsamic drydown.
Gurjan Balsam (Dipterocarpus tuberculatus) is woody and green, with a very slight balsamic note. For both the Copaiba and the Gurjan I would call the ‘balsamic’ aspect more of a woody balsamic instead of sweet and vanilla balsamic. It still has a certain smoothness but without the components that give it the distinctive ‘balsam’ odor. Interestingly, Tisserand notes that it may be used as an adulterant of patchouli oil.
A little bit of experience with even a few of these will give you a pretty good idea of the odor profile associated with the word ‘balsamic’. Which, by the way is not at all like the vinegar. Then, you can search for just the right one to complement your blend, to anchor it, and to keep it going on your skin.
Do you have any other words or descriptors for balsamic fragrances?
Are there any you love that I haven’t covered here?
Arctander, Steffen 1961. Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin. Allured Publishing Company, Carol Stream, Illinois.
Tisserand, Robert and Rodney Young 2014. Essential Oil Safety, Second Edition. Churchill Livingstone, Elsevier, Edinburgh.
Photos from Wikimedia Commons: Styrax benzoin Kohler’s Medizin al Pflanzen 133, Stamps of Indonesia 001 04, Liquidamber and Lizard Wellcome L0049863