Continuing the Wednesday series on resins, today’s featured material is liquidambar, also known as styrax. The use of multiple names, like a lot of other perfume nomenclature, is confusing. Styrax is technically the species Styrax benzoin, but it also refers to Liquidambar styraciflua, the American sweetgum tree. These deciduous trees are common on the US East Coast, and have been planted as ornamental trees on the West Coast, where they flaunt their bright colors in fall and drop loads ofhard, spherical “gumballs” all over the park paths and city sidewalks.
The tree has been used for lumber and furniture building, and is now commonly used in production of paper products and particle board. The red heartwood of older trees has been used as a substitute for mahagony. The “gum” or resin is exuded from cuts made on the tree trunk. It has been used as incense, chewing gum, and for medicinal purposes as well as in flavorings and perfumes. I’m not sure why it is not commonly used in perfumery, but maybe it has to do with the fact that the tree is not well-respected in its native habitat and/or because the raw sap contains some compounds that may be irritating to the skin. The liquidambar essential oil that I use has had these potential irritants removed. Even though it’s been distilled, it’s still quite viscous, so I dilute it with alcohol before using it.
Liquidambar smells very sweet (it is, after all, called “sweet gum”) and has distinctly golden honey-like and resinous notes as well as some “industrial solvent”-like notes, probably due to the resin’s styrene content. If combined with other materials, these odd “industrial” notes disappear. The scent of the oil is much stronger than that of benzoin, tolu balsam, or many of the other resins, so it really adds a distinctive layer to any composition that uses it. I combined liquidambar with other materials to produce a resinous-honey note in Hamsa and in the fruit accord for Zoologist Bat. It would probably make a really nice addition to any amber formula. It’s not just a fixative, it’s a fragrance material in its own right.
[Photos from Wikipedia or a retailer's website]