Wood, You Take a Moment...
You’ve just sprayed your favorite scent, or maybe you’ve gotten the chance to pass some freshly cut trees, or maybe you’re a huge fan of vermouth, but you smell something - it’s woody, earthen, maybe a little smoky, medicinal, but oddly, wonderfully sweet all at the same time.
If you’re wooed by these whiffs, you’re not only not alone, but you’re a member of a huge fan club that hasn’t stopped growing since the very beginning days of fragrance alchemy. You’ve stepped into the sticky, wonderful world of resins.
Resins are natural fragrant materials that have been prized for millennia, all the way back to the ancient Egyptians - possibly even further back - that can be extracted from hearty plants and many trees by scoring, or stripping, their surfaces.
If you’re picturing sap coming out of a tree, you’re in the right neighborhood, but sap is a thinner, more aqueous substance that’s responsible for transporting nutrients around a plant. Resin, on the other hand, is part of a plant’s immune system, and ends up slowly oozing out, hardening at the site of injury, much the way our blood clots and closes over a wound when we’re cut.
As it seeps out, it often forms little teardrop shapes as it oozes and hardens, which is why some resinous materials are sometimes referred to as tears. This teary immune response contains a multitude of molecules that have indeed been found to be anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and/or anti-fungal, and thus, some resins have been effectively used in skin care for ages. These elements probably also help to lend a hand to the slight medicinal smell to so many resins too.
Resin can be burned directly to give off its fragrance, and after stumbling across a few different and deliciously scented ones, the ancients began making resinous blends for burning, which eventually turned into incense, as we know it now. And if you didn’t guess already, this artful resin and incense blending formed the very beginnings of perfumery.
Today, these chunks of crystallized materials end up wafting out of your bottles and vials because some of them, luckily, are soluble in alcohol – meaning, they dissolve in the main ingredient of perfume. For the ones that are a little tougher, the important components can be extracted through a solvent, that solvent is then evaporated off, and you’re left with a fragrant liquid or concrete (a waxy substance that some plants leave behind because of their composition, still containing all the important fragrant materials) that smells incredibly true to the material in its natural state.
Now that you know what resins are, let’s dive in and sniff around at some important ones.
Frankincense (can also be called olibanum) is often mentioned in the first breath when talking about resins because it’s arguably one of the most famous ones, having been used for countless centuries in fragrance, sacred rituals, skincare, and even medicinal uses.
This resin comes from the Boswellia tree, native to India, the Middle East, and Africa.
While it is a resin, and does have a soft, woody quality to its scent, it’s a pretty unique resin due to its distinctive and austere citrus-spice smell that tends toward an herbaceous quality rather than strong, woody notes that resins frequently give off. There’s also a sacred, smoky quality to good frankincense, but the smokiness is almost imperceptibly soft – some arguing that it’s not really smoky at all. Think old libraries, churches, and invigorating, aromatic lemony-spice, and you’ll have a really good idea of this note.
Frankincense can be found lurking in our October 2020 Collection along with its best friend myrrh, and multiple other treasured resins like oud and mastic, all within Hamsa, a glorious crash course in what resins can do, meant to symbolize a sacred harmony of opposites and protection – all symphonically conducted by award-winning perfumer Dr. Ellen Covey.
Another resinous rockstar is Labdanum, a resin from the shape-shifting plant of many names such as cistus, rockrose, and Rose of Sharon. This is another millennia-old resin used in medicine, food, and perfumery, to this day. Mala by Henny Faire Co. and No Perfume by The Zoo give you labdanum in two distinct and utterly magical ways.
Remember the vermouth mentioned in the beginning? Yes, it’s actually in there, too - hiding all along in your Manhattans and Negronis. It’s also a core player in the accord we know as amber, and one of the central components of an entire perfume category known as Chypre (pronounced SHEEP-ruh, but swallow the ‘r’ into the ‘p’ just a little bit if you want to get extra French about it).
Labdanum is probably so popular because of its stunning complexity in being fruity, earthy, woody, smoky, leathery, sweet, floral, musky, and balsamic-vanilliac simultaneously. If that was a mind-blowing sentence to read, one whiff makes your nose do backflips too.
Due to this complexity, perfumers can manipulate labdanum’s notes in many ways like in Mala where its woody sweetness makes you feel like you’re smelling fruit right on the tree .
On the other side of the resinous coin, there's No Perfume playing up the leathery, musky, animalic elements to heighten the depth and daring, labdanum’s scent being as much of a shape-shifter as it’s mother plant’s name .
So now that you’re well-versed in the resinous realm, and a few highlights within it (but we’re just getting started), raise your glass of vermouth, crack open your bottles of resinous liquids and have a warm, woody, sweet, and sacred evening for us.
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