Luang Prabang in northern Laos is a city of magnificent temples and old royal palaces. Although far from undiscovered by tourists, it still has a quaint ambience and a mellow pace of life. It stretches languidly along the Mekong, glittering with the numerous golden spires that grace its pagodas. Visitors are attracted here by Luang Prabang’s beautiful architecture and even more by its splendid cuisine, but I made the journey for the aromatic material called benzoin.
Laotian benzoin is a balsamic resin tapped from the Styrax tonkinensis tree. Redolent of vanilla and cinnamon, it’s a material with centuries-old history. Its uses for incense, pharmacology and cosmetics have been recorded since antiquity, while in perfumery it has always played an important role as a warm base note. Today it continues to be highly valued. In fragrances, benzoin can be found all over the scent wheel, from citrus colognes to orientals. Classics like Chanel Egoïste (£52 for 50ml EDT) and Guerlain Shalimar (£72 for 50ml EDP) rely on its sweet accent. It’s also used for scenting toothpaste, soap and a variety of other day-to-day necessities.
The Luang Prabang region, along with the provinces of Phongsali, Houaphan and Oudomxay, supply the bulk of the benzoin used in perfumery and cosmetics today. The high plateaus not far from the city itself are home to hill tribes who practise small-scale agriculture using traditional methods. Their role in the fragrance and flavour industry is profound, especially since the Laotian resin is considered to be of the highest quality. It has a velvety finish and a pronounced fruity note reminiscent of stewed Morello cherries.
At the market outside Luang Prabang benzoin comes in its raw form. The opaque ambery lumps look like caramel toffee and the lush, mouthwatering scent completes the impression. Raw benzoin can be burnt as a natural sweet incense, or it can be distilled into a rich essence, such as the kind used by perfumers today.
One famous example of Laotian benzoin is Prada Candy (£49.50 for 30ml EDP). The idea behind the perfume is to reinterpret caramel in a modern manner, bright and vivid. A large dose of benzoin is blended into an accord of musks and sweet citrus, resulting in an abstract gourmand fragrance.
Benzoin has a natural affinity with other sweet and rich notes like vanilla, balsams, leather and tonka beans, but it has a radiant quality that sets it apart. For instance, in Mx by Eris Parfums ($150 for 50ml EDP) benzoin is folded into a chypre vignette of sandalwood, patchouli, vetiver and saffron to create a luminous effect.
The note is equally successful paired with florals. Atelier Cologne’s Rose Anonyme Extrait (£110 for 100ml cologne absolue) uses it to create the illusion of a dark rose steeped in incense and agarwood attar. As improbable as it may seem for such an opulent material, benzoin can even play a part in a fresh cologne, like Carolina Herrera’s Herrera Confidential Neroli Bohème (£195 for 100ml EDP). In this composition it plays up the richness of Jasminum sambac and orange blossom, while supporting a scintillating citrusy top. One thing I quickly learnt on my benzoin route is that this material is always ready to surprise with yet another unusual facet.
Victoria Frolova has been writing her perfume blog boisdejasmin.com since 2005. Her explorations of fragrance touch upon all elements that make this subject rich and complex: science, art, literature, history and culture. Frolova is a recipient of three prestigious Fragrance Foundation FiFi Awards for Editorial Excellence and, since receiving her professional perfumery training, she has also been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher.