Beeswax Absolute

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.

Apis mellifera

Apis mellifera

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.

Beeswax Absolute On a Stick

Beeswax Absolute On a Stick

The chemical constituents of beeswax absolute are many and varied, but the most important aromatic components are (in order of relative volume):

phenylacetic acid
linalyl acetate
benzyl benzoate
benzyl alcohol
benzyl cinnamate
phenylethyl butanoate
ethyl phenylacetate
methyl phenylacetate
terpinyl acetate

Abstract Honeycomb

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.


The idea of portraying an idea or concept, impression or emotion with a perfume rather than just a literal translation of something that smells nice is what modern perfumery is all about. Before the development of synthetic ingredients, the pallet of materials that could be used by perfumers did not allow much more than the reproduction and combination of smells that already existed in the environment. Some wonderful and functional perfumes were created, but it was the development of the first aroma chemicals such as vanillin, coumarin and so on and also the isolation and cheap manufacture of the aromatic components of flowers that allowed the blossoming of true artistic perfumery.

Chandler Burr, curator of the first museum exhibition dedicated to the olfactory arts The Art of Scent, 1889-2012 at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York city, has been quoted as saying that artistic perfumery started only with the advent of these materials.

Work on Aquarelle started with my experiments with the concept, the idea, of water.  What is it about water that can be translated into a smell, after all water itself doesn’t have a smell – only any impurities dissolved within the water impart any smell that can be detected. So descriptions of the smell of water include terms like ozone, weeds, algae, mineral, salty etc. But there are other more poetic terms we use such as fresh, clean, crystal, pure and blue -more ethereal, subjective concepts. I believe that to create a scent that would evoke the impression of water, a blend of both the down to earth, real components and the more subjective, ethereal impressions needs to be created. For example, ozone with fresh or salty with clean or mineral with blue.

So Aquarelle developed out of an initial short formula that was inspired by these ideas and combined a bright, airy, ethereal accord with a touch of marine, earthy notes.  All very well, and the result was like an earthy version of Cool Water (Davidoff). Nice, but I wanted to take the fragrance further and after adding more dihydromyrcenol and then some fruity and berry notes that provided an amazing balance to its marine and somewhat metallic nature. The end result turned out to be a wonderfully ethereal, slightly sweet and airy with notes of citrus, white florals, berries, cedarwood, ambergris and powder.

Then came some musks and a touch of cassis (blackcurrant) and even a touch of pineapple and lemon in the top note and I was finally happy with the result.

The final version of Aquarelle is somewhat more feminine than it started out and has moved away from the initial concept of pure water. Now it is water with floating petals and berries! It is certainly wearable buy the any gender and age and of course, I wear it frequently. It also is a versatile fragrance and suitable for the office or out-doors, summer, winter or whenever. I hope you enjoy it.



Evaporating Amber

I’m here trying to work on a deep, rich amber perfume, not the real fossilised amber as you would imagine the Amber Room in the Tsarskoye Selo palace in Russia would smell, but the fantasy amber accord that magically emerges from a combination of benzoin, labdanum, vanilla and a little patchouli.

The Amber Room

The Amber Room

Aromatics and fruity notes like pear and fig are currently in the top notes which are blending nicely into a little saffron, rose and spices before the baton is passed to the amber and leather base.

All good and well and the perfume is progressing nicely. But, do I really need to choose this particular day to work on it?  It’s the middle of an Aussie summer, the outside temperature in Adelaide is currently 44C and our air-conditioner has thrown in the towel. Not only is this a rich, sweet fragrance perfect for wintery weather, but if I turn my back for any amount of time without lidding the test vials, the liquid just evaporates. Sheesh.


Oakwood Absolute

Let it be known that I am officially enamoured with oakwood absolute.

I recently received a sample of this amazing material from French essential oils and natural extracts producer Biolandes. Having heard roumers of a rare and seemingly mystical essence romantically created from aged oak barrels discarded by French wineries, I came across a real-life reference to it as a newly released product in the October 2010 Perfumer and Flavorist magazine.

Old CaskAs far as I can tell, Biolandes is the only manufacturer of this true oakwood (Quercus robur) absolute – please correct me if I’m wrong and you know of another.  It is actually made from new oakwood and not from used barrels but you would not guess that from the aroma and I had to confirm this fact with the Biolandes sales rep as I was unbelieving that such a richness could come from the new wood alone.

There are a few producers of an oak bark extract which is used to provide a whiskey or aged brandy note to alcoholic beverages and there is also an oak bark powder dietary supplement. The extract is created by seeping pulverised oak bark in hot water – a different process from the absolute and I imagine these products would not have the depth and complexity of the absolute.

I am at a complete loss as to why oakwood absolute is not being used more frequently by perfumers around the globe – particularly by the indie / artisan perfumers. It is not overly expensive and there are no particular safety concerns that I can find. Perhaps it just is not well known out there, being relatively new – hopefully this blog entry will go small way towards rectifying that.

The absolute is brown, viscous and opaque and is supplied diluted to 50% with triethyl citrate (TEC) – to make it more useable. When opening the vial and taking a smell of the pure material you are immediately transported to a wine cellar in the Bordeaux region of France, surrounded by the old casks and the fermented smell from years of red wine spilled on the stone floors.  There is a mustiness there along with woody notes and warm, sweet raisins and vanilla.  Smelling this stuff provides an immediate insight into the flavours and aromas that oak imparts to wine and why the type and quality of the wood used in the casks is so important.

Oak Tree

To delve a little into the chemistry involved, the main volatile compounds in oakwood that are present in the absolute and also impart their aroma and flavour into wines are:

cis- (and trans-) oak lactone – responsible for the majority of the  vanilla and coconut-like aromas. These lactones vary greatly between the types of oak selected and are affected by the seasons and differing growing regions.

Guaiacol and 4-methylguaiacol – these have a smoky / spicy / vanilla aroma and are created by and vary depending on the levels of toasting the cask staves are subjected to before the wine is stored. These chemicals are probably not actually present within the absolute as the Biolandes sales rep assures me that the oak used to produce the absolute is not toasted before-hand. But these ingredients are extremely important to the vintner.

Vanillin – Vanillin is the main flavour compound in natural vanilla and is also present in oakwood. The level of vanillin imparted into wines stored in oak barrels decreases over time as it is transformed by yeast metabolism during fermentation. Vanillin concentration can be reduced considerably if primary fermentation is carried out in the barrel.

The oak absolute has a nice vanilla / coconut note due in part to the vanillin content.

Furfural and 5-methylfurfural – once again, these sweet, caramel / butterscotch smelling materials are mainly a result of the toasting of oak and may not be important in the scent of oak absolute, but are obviously important to the vintner.

Syringaldehyde – has an aroma described as sweet, chocolate, woody, tonka, grape. Syringaldehyde  is interestingly used by some insects as part of their chemical communications system and plays an important role in the over-all impression of the oak absolute.

Biolandes’ oakwood absolute begins life as by-product oak chips that the company purchases from the famous cooperage firm Dargaud & Jaegle. The oak used has been felled under National Forest Office control, from October to April when the sap is down and has been selected from 17 selected stave suppliers from around the region. The volatile components are extracted from the wood chips using a light hydrocarbon (hexane, I believe) and further processed to arrive at the final thick, dark, viscous and fragrant liquid.

To DreamArtisan perfumer Laurie Erickson has used oakwood absolute to good effect in the Sonoma Scent Studio perfume named

To Dream where the oakwood plays a supporting role to the main floral theme.

I have been working on a perfume for Evocative Perfumes that instead moves the oakwood to centre stage supported by incense, rose, woods and a warm smoky ash.  The original concept for this perfume was to simply enhance and adorn the natural qualities of the oakwood and was inspired by my visits to the local cellar doors of the Barossa wine region here in South Australia with their huge old barrels, open fireplaces in the winter and long, polished counters.

As development has continued over the last couple of months however, the overall effect of the perfume has become progressively softer and warmer and my partner now says that it invokes more of a spiritual feeling in her, in fact the words Gregorian chant came to mind just this afternoon. It feels right, but it seems a little trite to use that expression as a name for the fragrance – I don’t know, we’ll see how it goes.

The Abbey in the Oakwood by Casper Friedrich

The Abbey in the Oakwood by Casper Friedrich