Open any perfume guide with fragrance "notes" or any online discussion or blog post on perfume description and you're bound to stumble on coumarin; one of the most common materials in many fine fragrances but also several body products, cosmetics and functional products. Its rich history goes back to the beginnings of modern perfumery in the late 19th century, bringing us right at the moment of the nascent concept of perfumery as a mix of organic chemistry and nature's exploitation. Coumarin as such is a synthesized material in most perfumes, but it's also found in abundance in natural products, such as tonka beans (Dipteryx odorata) where it is the principle aromatic constituent (1-3%). In fact the name derives from "cumaru", an Amazonian dialect name for the Tonka bean tree.
- Origin & function of coumarin
- History of coumarin discovery & synthesis
- The Fougere fragrance family
The other principle constituents in the accord are lavender and oakmoss: It was only natural; lavender by itself contains coumarin in its aromatic makeup. Thus the triad comprising the main accord of the rising fougère (i.e.lavender-oakmoss-coumarin, played together like a musical chord) made coumarin itself quite popular: many classic or influential masculine colognes owe their character to it, starting of course with Jicky and continuing with Azzaro pour Homme (1978), Fahrenheit by Dior (1988), Dolce & Gabanna pour homme (1994), and Gucci pour Homme (2003).
From there coumarin infiltrated its way into many modern fragrances belonging in other families. But it was its pliability and usefulness, like a trusty Swiss knife, which made it the perfumers' darling: Are there more contrasting fragrances than the icy aldehydic Rive Gauche (YSL 1970) and the intense floral Amarige (Givenchy 1991)? Perfumers tell me that coumarin ends up in some degree in 90% of all fragrances; and in concentrations exceeding 1% it accounts for over half of the fragrances in the market!!
- The odour profile of coumarin
Coumarin conjures warm notes of tobacco (useful in masculine formulae) and because it also has caramel overtones, alternatively it can be married to vanillic components (such as vanilla, benzoin or some of the other oriental balsams, such as Tolu balsam or Peru balsam, as well as ethylvanillin) in order to play down and sophisticate their foody aspects: see it in action in orientals such as the discontinued Venezia by Laura Biagotti, Lolita au Masculin(Lempicka) or Casmir by Chopard.
In dilution coumarin projects with soft hazelnut or almond facets underneath the hay, even licorice; smell Lolita Lempicka (1997). But in higher concentration it also has spicy fresh and herbaceous facets, no doubt reminiscent of its primary role in different grasses. In combination with vanillin and bergamot, we're veering into chypre territory: Elixir des Merveilles is a no man's land with its chypre tonalities and gourmand facets.
Its versatility and its ability to "fix" smell and make it last longer allows coumarin to enter amber or woody blends (witness Samsara or Vetiver by Guerlain) as well and even heighten the appeal of spicy materials: in fact it marries very well with cinnamon or clove. Pi by Givenchy is a sweet spicy woody with lots of tonka bean, or smell L de Lolita Lempicka by Maurice Roucel. Usually, indeed coumarin is mentioned in the form of tonka beans in the traditional lists of "notes"/pyramids for fragrances (see this Index for more ingredients contributing to which "note") but it can also hide underneath grassy notes, clover, lavender, or tobacco. Modern perfumers pair it with synthetic woody-amber notes such as Kephalis and Iso-E Super to surprising results. A wonderful material indeed!
- Fragrances featuring discernible amounts of coumarin
A*men (Thierry Mugler)
Angel ~all concentrations, esp. extrait de parfum(Thierry Mugler)
Angel Sunessence (T.Mugler)
Angel La Rose (T.Mugler)
Antidote (Victor & Rolf)
Azzaro pour Homme (Loris Azzaro)
Azzaro Elixir Bois Precieux (L.Azzaro)
Blue Jeans (Versace)
Bois des Iles (Chanel)
Chic for Men (Carolina Herrera)
Coco Mademoiselle (Chanel)
Contradiction (Calvin Klein)
Etoile de Rem (Reminiscence)
Fieno (Santa Maria Novela)
Fougere Royal (Houbigant)
Jasmin Noir (Bulgari)
Joop! Homme (Joop)
Kouros (Yves Saint Laurent)
L de Lolita Lempicka
Lolita Lempicka (L.Lempicka)
Le Male (Jean Paul Gaultier)
Navy (Lily Bermuda)
Rive Gauche (YSL)
Tonka Imperiale (Guerlain)
Venezia (Laura Biagotti)
Versace pour Homme (Versace)
Related reading on Perfume Shrine: Perfumery Materials one by one
source of coumarin pic via The Health Nut Corner, ad for Houbigant via Punmiris and Jicky collage via Perfumesbighouse