It’s time to get back on track with Materials Wednesday and finish up the series on resins. I’ve written before on myrrh and mastic, but somehow missed one of the important resins, benzoin. This material is used extensively in perfume, mainly as a fixative; it is also used medicinally, and burned as incense. In other industries, benzoin is used to enhance and fix food flavorings, especially vanilla, as a chewing-gum base, and to flavor tobacco. It is sometimes used in the manufacture of varnish.
Benzoin is the gummy resin obtained from trees in the genus Styrax, mainly Styrax tonkinensis, which grows in Southeast Asia. Benzoin is also known as “styrax” “storax” or “Siam benzoin”. The raw material is harvested in much the same way as other resins, by making cuts in the trunk of the tree, waiting until the sap runs out and solidifies, then scraping the “tears” off of the tree.
Because benzoin is an important commercial product, efforts have been made to study and improve methods for its cultivation and harvesting. There are now Styrax plantations, so benzoin is not in as much danger as some other materials that are still harvested from the wild.
The scent of benzoin resin is mildly sweet and, of course, resinous, and bears some similarity to vanilla. Because the scent is mild, it is a little hard to pick out of a perfume mix, but it does lend its own subtle signature to a blend. A lot of my perfumes contain benzoin in various concentrations.
Benzoin resin comes as a solid, which can be burned as incense or tinctured. When burned as incense, a magical transformation occurs and the smoke creates a powerful scent that is very different from the raw resin, absolute, tincture, or other preparation for use in perfumery. The beautiful, characteristic scent of benzoin used as incense is especially startling the first time you burn it, if you are used to smelling the tinctured or otherwise treated resin. It is unlike any other form of incense, and is one of my favorites.
For perfumery, benzoin can also be obtained as an “absolute”, which is generally pre-diluted with alcohol. Although this dilution makes it pourable, it is still dense and sticky, and cleanup is not fun. The hassles of working with benzoin aside, it is a useful material that I like having in my main selection of basic perfume-building blocks.
[Benzoin resin on tree trunk from Givaudan website, although it seems to be a cropped version of a photo from Accademia del Profumo, or from a website on “securing the future of benzoin in Laos”, or from some other ambiguous source. It seems to be very popular. Benzoin resin clump from an essential oil vendor’s website; Styrax trees image from an Indonesian commerce promotion website, Styrax flowers and botanical drawing from Wikipedia.]