Animal derived materials have been used throughout history to provide an incredible depth, naturalism, erotic funkiness and fixation to perfumes. Most of these materials cause harm to the animals when ‘harvested’ and so are not ethical to use by today’s sensibilities. Synthetic equivalents do a good job, however when used in a fragrance they don’t impart the gut response, the stimulation of the primitive parts of the brain that the real thing can. A large part of the fascination of vintage perfumes is due to the real musks, civet and castoreum used in them.
Luckily, there are a few real animal derived materials that can safely be used in perfumery without harming the animal in any way. One of them is beeswax absolute, others are ambergris (from the sperm whale) and hyreceum (from the hyrax).
The smell of beeswax absolute is nothing short of intoxicating with notes of honey, wax, dried fruit, hay, tobacco, vanilla and an animalic muskiness. The wax that is used in its creation is taken from hives that have been occupied for at least 5 years and so it retains the scents of the bees themselves and is rich in honeyed pheromones.
The major countries producing beeswax absolute are Spain, France and Morocco and as you can imagine, the scent and quality of beeswax absolute is highly variable depending on the region, climate, production methods, season, species of bee etc. The actual flowers that the bees visit within each region you would think would be a cause of variability as well, however when the beeswax is collected, the wax from different hives is all melted together into large blocks, ready for transportation, thereby cancelling out any floral variation within that region.
When using this material in perfumery, it is a good idea to try out as many different varieties as possible, sourced from different suppliers and regions. Although the effect of a little beeswax absolute in a blend may not be dramatic, try running tests with absolutes sourced from both France and Morocco and you will end up with two noticeably different perfumes.
Similar to botanic absolutes, beeswax absolute is created by extracting both aromatic and waxy molecules from the honeycombed wax and propolis of Apis mellifera – the honey bee. The resulting concrete is then dissolved in ethanol and the more volatile molecules are then extracted from the concrete by evaporation, resulting in the completely ethanol soluble and mostly wax free absolute. The final yield is around 1% of a thick and gooey, dark, golden brown substance.
The chemical constituents of beeswax absolute are many and varied, but the most important aromatic components are (in order of relative volume):
I have been experimenting with these materials in various proportions (with the addition of various others) and have come up with a luscious, rich base that I can use as an adjunct to the real absolute – the real stuff is very expensive, after all!
In fact honey bees are under serious threat from urbanization, overuse of pesticides and especially the deadly varroa mite which has been spread by poor beekeeping practices. So far, Australia is the only country completely free of this deadly parasite. As a result, this wonderful perfumery material can only become harder to obtain and more expensive in the future and its use will become limited to only the artisan fragrance houses for whom the cost of materials is not so much of a consideration.