Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Perfumery Material: Coumarin, Tonka Bean & the Fougere accord

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
Chemically, coumarin is a benzopyrone (1-benzopyran-2-one) which, apart from tonka beans, also occurs naturally in vanilla grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum), sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), sweet clover (Meliotus L.), sweet grass (Hierochloe odorata) and cassia cinnamon (Cinnamomum aromaticum) among other species. In short, it's rather sweet, as you might have surmissed by now, and evokes cut grasses. You'd be correct to assume both facts, but that's not all: Although coumarin in perfumery does add a certain sweet note of mown hay or freshly cut grass with vanilla overtones, it's really bitterish in flavour in high concentrations (its -now banned- inclusion in food would attest that). Therefore theorizing its plant origin one would assume it's produced by plants in order to defend themselves from predation. After all it's also present in cherries, strawberries, and apricots, prime targets for birds. You might have even seen it featured in your rodent pesticide: don't be alarmed (coumarin is included in miniscule quantities in foodstuff anyway), but now you know why!
  • History of coumarin discovery & synthesis
Natural perfumers used and continue to use tonka bean absolute and tonka in powder form, as well as deer's tongue, a herb with brittle leaves to render a coumarin note. But the story of coumarin is largely one of organic chemistry. The component was isolated by A.Vogel in 1820, but the laboratory synthesis of coumarin first happened in 1868 from coal tar by W.H.Perkin (who gave his name to "the Perkin reaction" used to produce it). It took another year to produce it in an industrial scale at Haarmann & Reimer. The consequent memorable inclusion of synthesized coumarin in Jicky (Guerlain 1889) and earlier in Fougère Royale (Houbigant 1882) was the kickstart of a whole new fragrance family: the fougère, thanks to Paul Parquet's composition for Houbigant. Fougère Royale contained a staggering 10% coumarin of the finished formula! How one can dream a bit while reading Guy de Maupassant describing this fragrance as "prodigious evocation of forests, of lands, not via their flora but via their greenery"...
  • The Fougere fragrance family
Fougère fragrances evoke the smell of ferns at least as we imagine them to be, as by themselves they don't have a particularly noticeable odour (Paul Parquet said that if they could, they'd smell of Fougere Royale). But the concept of a scent that is herbaceous, infused with aromatic lavender ~a popular material for both sexes at the end of the 19th century thanks to its propriety in the "clean" sense of the world~ and which leaves a malleable, soft, enveloping, yet discreet aura on the wearer was lacking: The era was still using the Victorian soliflores. Funnily enough, even those had their own categorisation; violets or roses for the respectable lady, jasmine and tuberose for the courtesan. Fougère scents were on the cusp between approved and revolutionary, creating a very desirable pull.
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 is a water-insoluble crystallized powder which has an odour that is pleasant, soft and warm, evoking cut grass or new mown hay, but it's more complex than that; it sometimes even veers into a smell of fresh paint! This is what gives Jicky its bracing almost "petrol" opening which alienates some people. Originally biosynthesized via hydroxylation, glycolisis and cinnamic acid cyclization, nowadays coumarin is produced via more sophisticated techniques.
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
Addict (Dior)
A*men (Thierry Mugler)
Amarige (Gievnchy)
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)
Brit (Burberry)
Chic for Men (Carolina Herrera)
Coco (Chanel)
Coco Mademoiselle (Chanel)
Contradiction (Calvin Klein)
Etoile de Rem (Reminiscence)
Fahrenheit (Dior)
Fieno (Santa Maria Novela)
Fougere Royal (Houbigant)
Florissa (Floris)
Gloria (Cacharel)
Jasmin Noir (Bulgari)
Jicky (Guerlain)
Joop! Homme (Joop)
Kouros (Yves Saint Laurent)
Lavande (Molinard)
L de Lolita Lempicka
Lolita Lempicka (L.Lempicka)
Le Male (Jean Paul Gaultier)
Musc (Molinard)
Navy (Lily Bermuda)
Pi (Givenchy)
Rive Gauche (YSL)
Samsara (Guerlain)
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


  1. I love your "education series"! I've been a fumehead for about a year and am just learning. As such, I've often wondered what this coumarin actually smelled like. Now I wonder, how is it different than galbanum, which I find to be green bitter and have seen others call is "cut grass."?

  2. Great!! A question! I know it's confusing when people talk in that standard talk of how everything is supposed to smell, "aldehydes are sparkling", "cumin is sweaty", "tuberose smells creamy and rubbery" blah blah blah. This is mainly why I started dissecting each material, tired of reading & hearing "formulaic" answers, because obviously things are not that simple or clearly cut as that.


    Galbanum is a resinous material which has a distinctly bitte-green note, but it's bracing and quite "green" rather than sweet-soft. It's sharpish, rather minty, and produces refreshing properties when smelled, like green salad or freshly sliced green peppers: see it in action at the top note of Vent Vert, especially the vintage version. You might also detect it in No.19: it's the bitter stuff that has many wrinkle their nose when it's first sprayed.

    In contrast coumarin is a soft, pliable note, it's reminiscent of how it smells when you mown the lawn, sort of; it even has a coconut tinge under the vanillic-grassy: it's a rather sweet smell, mainly, rather than green ("green" would be snapping lemon tree leaves, compare and contrast the two, they're easy references). Think of a field of clovers: they don't smell bracing green, they smell sweetish. Go get some Miracle So Magic and smell it: they list "clover", it's actually coumarin.

    You have certainly smelled coumarin many times in body products because it's very often used in their "bouquet": for instance I have a body wash that lists two types of lily of the valley synths and coumarin and the effect is...orchid! (the bottle does depict an orchid too). Think of Angel as well: it's reminiscent of sugared almonds there.

    Hope I helped a bit!

  3. Thanks so much. I've sniffed many galbanum scents, I don't really care for it (I'm being polite here). But I love the scent of cut grass. So I just coumarin is the note for me. Sprayed on some Elixer since you mentioned it...:)

  4. Lang,

    you're welcome. I know lots of people love the smell of mown hay/grass (I do as well), hence the popularity of the material.
    Enjoy the discovery!

  5. I had the possibility to smell the coumarine on an olfactory course and I think it's a piece of story of perfumery, but how many of the smell of tonka bean is in the coumarine?
    I ask this because in niche I see a new tonka bean's trend, I think to Tonka Imperiale by Guerlain and the last limited edition of Guillaume, Tonkamande.It's a revival of coumarine or it's the real Tonka Bean?

  6. Your information is very informative it helps me a lot, thanks

  7. Giovanni,

    you know well then how it is! Good!
    I believe the compositions you state put the coumarin in a context that brings out the full spectrum of the bean: the caramel nuances, the woodiness, the spiciness and the nuances of nuts...A material isolated can never reveal what it can do in a context of other ingredients: this is evident even if you just mix essential oils; the whole becomes something more than its parts.

  8. Taffun,

    thank you, it's very gratifying to hear so.

  9. Thanks as usual for your very informative posts. And serendipity again - this is the week!

    Just yesterday night, after reading your article, I happened to read a divulgative science book which at one point described the history of how one went from coumarin to rat poison to anticoagulant drugs (cows and attempted suicides were involved in the process). Fascinating material indeed.


  10. Cacio,

    I'm very pleased that there's serendipity in the way of things: Indeed coumarin has a fascinating history. Apart from anticoagulant (which is good), there is also the matter of toxicity (which is less good) and the inclusion in cigarettes which was outright revealed in a famous case immortalised by the film "The Insider" (If you have watched it, you must remember the scene in which Russell Crowe as Dr.Wigand explains on 60 Minutes how they put coumarin in cigarettes to enhance the flavour and the "fix" you get from them...If you haven't, go rent it, it's an excellent film!)

  11. Thank you for a very interesting and informative article. I enjoyed reading it an will probably read again after smelling perfumes mentioned in it (well, not all but those that I have in my collection).

  12. thomas05:35

    Very interesting set of articles on perfume ingredients.

    One note: coumarin is not an anticoagulant. It's turned into an anticoagulant, dicoumarol, by fungi, and that process, in clover, has poisoned cattle. The bans for use in food are due to concerns over liver toxicity, not anticoagulation.

    The best-known related rat poison is warfarin, trade name Coumadin, and there are also derivatives of 4-hydroxycoumarin used this way, but not coumarin itself (though it is toxic to rats, who metabolise it differently than humans).

  13. Thomas,

    that's fascinating info!! Thank you. And also thanks for the nice words on these raw materials articles. :-)

  14. There IS a fern that smells like coumarin! In Hawaii it's known as the Lau'e fern, I believe elsew'ere it's known as 'Hare's Foot Fern" or 'Wart Fern', it's a creeping, sometimes vining fern with really thick, coarse leaves(not feathery like most ferns). I've heard the scent described as 'vanilla spice cookies', or 'vanilla tobacco'. It is indeed sweet, and 'fuzzy' in nature. It grows here in Miami, in fact beds of it were just planted along a live oak lined walkway through a local park. I am assailed with the sweet scent every time I cut through the park. I've taken to 'cutting' through the park quite often nowadays.
    I've never smelled the isolate or aromachem coumarin. I do have tonka bean absolute however, and although I do get how it could be construed as 'herby', as illustrated above,and take a walk in any Midwestern meadow and that sweet 'fuzzy' scent is very apparent, to me it's always had a more confectionary character. The first time I smelled it I thought; 'maple and brown sugar!", although nowadays I describe it as smelling like pralines and coconut macaroons. It blends very well with coconut, and sometimes it does remind me of 'coconut' scented things.

  15. Goblinboy,

    that's amazing about the coumarin smelling fern! (Lau'e fern you say, noting it down!).

    You're correct. Coumarin smells more like almonds and hay (it's very almondy to me, personally) isolated from tonka beans (tonka beans do have a very confectionary note). I believe it's the fougere that has the inedible quality. Thanks to the total of the chord rater than the coumarin alone. It's one of my favorite notes, though coconut alone is not. But it does blend wonderfully with most dessert-leaning things.

    Thanks for the very interesting comment!

  16. Yes, as a matter of fact I walked down that fern-scented pathway today.
    I had always heard of the fougere combo of coumarin and lavender and to my mind coumarin/tonka is very sweet, so I found it sort of confusing as why that would be the basis of so many men's scents. Well I was fooling around a bit with my essences and I mixed lavender, tonka, and oakmoss, (and a bit of bergamot later) and was surprised at how fresh it really smelled, sweet, a bit, yes, but very fresh too.

  17. Goblinboy,

    fresh is always a good thing in perfume, it's just that the "freshness" perceived changes with the vogues/times. Fougere is that inedible freshness that we associate with grooming (shaving cream & retro barbershop). I personally love that association! (being a woman).

  18. Great post. Thanks for the history. Would helichrysum itallicum be aromatically similar to coumarin? I want to re create a basic fougre. What ratio of lavender oak moss and coumarin equivalent would you suggest?

    1. Thanks :-)
      Helichrysum would be toastier I believe than the more almondy coumarin. It's a quite dense note and would need extra mastery at handling it.
      I suggest you consult either Mandy Aftel's Essence and Alchemy book or Karen Gilbert's Perfume for recipes on how to go on making your own perfumes; they offer insightful notes and practical tips with ratios etc.
      Hope that helps!

  19. I am a newly budding perfume enthusiast (fumehead. Love it.)
    Tonka bean, coumarin, coumarex, hay absolute... They are among my favorite scents. I've always gotten more of a vanilla bean/warm caramel type feeling from coumarin. Now I'll be looking at it with a "fresh nose" trying to find the grassy side.
    Love this site!
    John Pal


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