The tonka bean, one of my favourite perfumery ingredients, looks unprepossessing – a shrivelled black pod covered with suspicious-looking white bloom. However, its scent of toasted almonds, amarena cherries, sun-warmed hay and vanilla custard is one of the most luscious and seductive in a perfumer’s palette. What’s more, the tonka bean was responsible for a revolution in modern perfumery.
Tonka beans, the seeds of the Dipteryx Odorata tree native to South America, contain a component called coumarin. It’s present in many herbs and plants, including lavender, figs and cherry leaves, but tonka beans are so rich in this aromatic that it crystallises to the surface of their skin. Indeed, the very name coumarin comes from a French word for the tonka bean, coumarou. Coumarin was first isolated from tonka beans in the 1820s, and in 1882 it became the first synthetic material to be used in a perfume. To create a fantasy accord inspired by ferns, perfumer Paul Parquet added coumarin to the classical eau de cologne blend of citrus, lavender and geranium. Notes of amber, musk and oakmoss filled in the rest of the composition and Houbigant’s legendary Fougère Royale was born. Along with it, came a whole new family of fragrances called fougère, which in French means “fern”.
Fougère Royale is still around, albeit in a modernised version, and the fougère family remains one of the most popular. Yet the tonka bean, with its complex sweetness, can lend an interesting nuance to a wide range of fragrances, not just the herbal-citrusy ones. For instance, the baroque plushness of perfumes like Cacharel Lou Lou, Caron Pour un Homme and Chanel Coco is inconceivable without the modest black beans and their opulent aroma. When Chanel released a new variation on the classical Coco, Coco Noir (£118 for 100ml EDP), the house aimed for a more transparent but rich composition. It has added a fruity accord, a warm backdrop of patchouli and swapped white musk for the heavier animalic variety. Nevertheless, the caramelised cherries of the tonka bean remained, playing up the brightness of grapefruit in the top notes.
A fragrance that explores the many facets of tonka beans is Guerlain Vétiver (£68 for 100ml EDT). Vetiver contains a hint of fresh hazelnuts, a nuance that blends harmoniously with the almond accents in tonka beans. Guerlain’s Vétiver uses the contrast between warm and cool to create a striking character. The drydown is enveloping and velvety, and yet the composition retains a radiant, shimmering effect.
The natural tendency of tonka beans to evoke dark, burnished spices is used to an advantage in Ormonde Jayne’s Tolu (£160 for 120ml EDP). The scent of tolu balsam – reminiscent of vanilla, cinnamon and smoked almonds – is baroque enough to match the tonka bean. Ormonde Jayne’s perfume, however, is based on the contrast between the freshness of clary sage and juniper and the warmth of frankincense and amber. The tonka bean and tolu, joining together to create an impression of vintage leather and praline almonds, add a seductive twist. It’s delicious enough to invite a kiss.
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, has also been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher.