Friday, November 23, 2012

Perfumery Material: Peru Balsam & Tolu Balsam ~warm, majestic, plush notes

Tolu and Peru Balsams distinguish themselves among perfumery materials thanks to their refined and soft ambience, incandescent like the flick of a candle, a golden honey drop abandoning itself into a pool of hot liquid. The fragrances which contain them exude a warm, majestic, plush character, inviting and comforting, with a heft that corresponds to their dark, caramel-like thickness. Both of these materials have a gentle tone, while at the same time they're softly enveloping and have a pronounced character. They fix flowers into lasting longer and thanks to their properties when used in large quantities produce the Semi-Orientals or "Florientals" (i.e. in conjunction with rich floral essences).

Origin of the two balsams: the Myroxylon tree
Peru balsam comes from the Myroxylon tree, literally "fragrant wood" in Greek, (or else known as Quina/Balsamo), which also produces Tolu balsam, as you will see further on; the latter differs mainly in production methods and in its odor profile, being a little sweeter and fresher than Balsam of Peru. The species is also known as Myroxylon toluiferum HBK (which is mainly used for the production of Tolu balsam as its name suggests), M. balsamamum (L.) Harms and Myroxolon Pereirae (i.e. from Peru, which is mainly used for the production of Balsam of Peru, naturally).
The plant is mainly cultivated in the South America and the West Indies, although it has spread to other part of the world as well. Today El Salvador is the main exporter of Peru Balsam. The name of Balsam of Peru is a misnomer, however, since it was originally assembled and shipped to Europe from the ports of Callao and Lima, in Peru, even though the species is not indigenous to Peru. In fact Tolu balsam owes its name to the name of the native precolumbian people  (Tolú singular and Tolúes plural) who used to be the inhabitants at the same place where now is located Tolú, a small town and municipality in Sucre Department, northern Colombia (South America) by the Caribbean sea!

Odor Profile & Production
Tolu balsam is comprised of 3/4 fragrant resinous compound, containing approximately 15% free cinnamic acid and benzoic acid and about 40% of the benzyl and related esters of these free acids. A volatile oil is present in small amounts (from 1.5% to 7%). Traces of styrene, coumarin and vanillin are also present, giving the warm, lightly spicy character. The Tolu resin is tapped from the trunk of the tree through incisions into the bark, trickling yellow-brown semi-fluid or near solid material in thick "drops" and collected. The cold material fractures like flint and is stored for use in pharmaceuticals and perfumery. The dry resin has a complex aroma consisting chiefly of cinnamon and vanilla, while at the same time it has a floral aroma that is inviting and soft.
Peru Balsam on the other hand is a dark brown, thick liquid also with cinnamic and vanillic facets but with a gentle green olive base note that is earthier and bitter. The process of producing it from the Myroxylon tree differs: The balsam in the bark is obtained by boiling. Following removal of strips of bark from the tree, the exposed wood secretes balsam. The material soaks into rags wrapped around the tree, which then are boiled in water. The naturally heavier balsam sinks to the bottom and the water on top is thrown away.
vintage Youth Dew via pinterest

Fragrances featuring Tolu balsam :

Aqua di Parma Blu Mediterraneo Mandorlo di Sicilia
Ayala Moriel Finjan
Donna Karan Gold
DSH Perfumes Cafe Noir
Esteban Baume Tolu 
Estee Lauder Youth Dew
Estee Lauder Cinnabar
Jean Desprez Bal a Versailles
Kenzo Power
Lanvin My Sin
Ormonde Jayne Tolu
Parfum d'Empire Cuir Ottoman
Piguet Fracas
Reminiscence Eau de Patchouli
What we do in Paris is Secret A Lab on Fire
Yves Saint Laurent Opium
Yves Saint Laurent Opium pour Homme

Fragrances featuring Peru balsam:

Estee Lauder Youth Dew
DSH Perfumes Arome d'Egypte
Etro Heliotrope
Guerlain Chamade 
Guerlain Vol de Nuit
Guerlain Shalimar Eau de Cologne
Hermes Elixir des Merveilles
Hermes Parfum des Merveilles
Jean Desprez Bal a Versailles
Montale Oriental Flowers
Patricia de Nicolai Sacrebleu
Patricia de Nicolai Sacrebleu Intense
Santa Maria Novella Potpourri
Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan
Serge Lutens Fumerie Turque

Related reading on PerfumeShrine: Perfume term: Resinous & Balsamic


  1. Many years ago I worked for a doctor who had a bottle of balsam. Thick dark and blacky brown . He used it very rarely and darn - can't remember what he did with it! I do remember the smell.
    Medicinal and resiny - you would not like it on its own but I can see it holding a perfume down if you know what I mean.

  2. It's odd... There are a number of fragrances on your list here that I love - Donna Karan Gold and Chamade, for example, and I like Fracas and Bal a Versailles - but I absolutely cannot stand, cannot STAND Youth Dew, Opium, Cinnabar, DSH Cafe Noir, My Sin, OJ Tolu, and Vol de Nuit. Didn't like Ambre Sultan, Fumerie Turque, or Sacrebleu either.

    I really struggle with those balsamy notes, which do not seem golden and rich to me; instead they seem both dusty and cloying. Instant nausea for me. Not sure why, when so many people love them.

  3. Anonymous13:16

    Great article for a newbie like me who is just plunging into the details of perfumery =)
    Thank You!

  4. Anon,

    thanks! You're very welcome and hope these posts prove useful. Planning on doing more of them.

  5. M,

    it's very interesting that the doctor was using it. Did you catch which one it was? These things are indeed very dark and thick, like molasses!

  6. M,

    wow, what a difference it makes! Very interesting!

    I suppose based on your likes that the minute inclusion of these balsams to anchor floral notes and floral aldehydics works while a full blown oriental where they star in all their glory is too much? This is totally reasonable! Everyone has a finite threshold with some "notes" (mine is petrol-like and mothballish ones; I can stand them to a certain concentration, beyond that my stomach reches, it's involuntary ~luckily it's usually beneath perfume concentration, such as in medical balms with camphor etc.)

    Your dislikes are all deep spicy orientals (Bal is more powdery than those). Telling and easy to bypass. ;-)

  7. PBlaha15:34

    Dear Elena, i love your reviews on perfume materials (well actually all reviews), many thanks. The two materials are wonderful and mysterious. Unfortunately both are restricted by IFRA, Peru Balsam is completely prohibited, but not its destilates extracts (they are limited to 0.4 % in the finished product according to the ever helpful Good Scents database) and Tolu Balsam depending on its levels of the restricted cinnamic alcohol, cinnamaldehyde and eugenol. Sigh............

  8. Pete,

    thank you for your comment, I appreciate it.

    Had hinted at something along the prohibitions (without such accurate attention to detail, for which I thank you very much) when writing about them someplace else, but it was such a sad thing dwelling on these restrictions I decided not to "rain one people's parade". It should be noted however for those who are buying new bottles of fragrances, after 2010-2012 I mean.

  9. Video on Peru Balsam extraction in El Salvador: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZeZkE3337CM

  10. Helen17:22

    Thank you for this post. I'm frequently confused between Tolu Balsam, Peru Balsam and vanilla. What is the best way to distinguish them?

  11. helen,

    the very best way would be to grab hold of the essences and smell in isolation.
    The next best option would be to sample (in this succession) DK Gold, Fracas and Cinnabar to see Tolu at play. Then do the same (again in this order) with Chamade, Elixir de Merveilles and Sacrebleu for Peru.
    That way some of the nuances and commonalities might become more apparent.
    Vanilla is simple as you can grab vanilla pods at a good deli and the vanillin used in perfumery is the same thing more or less you use as whitish crystal dust for cooking (I'm told at the coffee aisle sector in the US supermarket, while on the baking materials aisle in Euro supermarkets).

    Hope this helps!


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