Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Perfumery Material: Galbanum, Bitter Green Claws

Galbanum is a material that has such an intense personality that like a memorable villain in a film it ends up casting its shadow so long that it might easily overwhelm everything else. If the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz had a scent, could it be this green raw leafy smell to match her greenish pallor?

The common fallacy about galbanum in perfume compositions derives from the fact that it is routinely mentioned as a top note; in fact galbanum is a sticky resin of plant origin, much like labdanum from rockrose, and forms part of the more tenacious ingredients in the formula in the heart and base. But it is its intense bitterness with green tonalities, like a super-concentrated coniferous elixir at some crazy alchemist's lab, which comes through, all the way from the bottom up front and is immediately tingling the nose with a clearing capacity that only ammonia salts can surpass.

The shock is to be expected. Take someone unaccustomed to perfumes and let them sniff the initial spray of Chanel No.19; high chances are they won't sit around for the drydown, such is the displeasure at the acrid, intense crack of the whip to the untrained nose. It's no coincidence that the plant it derives from owes its own etymology to the Latin ferule which refers to a schoolmaster's rough rod. A bitch slap it is and it imparts that cool, hard as nails quality to the perfumes it participates in. However it is also prized for its fixative qualities: like many of the heavier molecules with lower volatility, it aids to anchor down the more ephemeral ingredients and as it expands in a room you can feel the air sweetening and becoming comforting with balsam and wood nuances.

Galbanum oil is derived via steam distillation from the resinoid that comes from the trunks and roots of the Ferula galbaniflua plant, which historically grew in ancient Mesopotamia and later Persia. The flowering heads resemble those of angelica or fennel, with which it shares the force of character. The resin is naturally produced when the plant is wounded, in nature's coping mechanism to heal. Even within the same plant there are variations: the Levant and the Persian, with the latter being softer and more turpentine-evoking.


Smelling the thick, softly crumbling, yellowish paste and the clear oil produced off it is a revelation: acrid, stupendously green, a tornado of turpentine and earthy, peaty, almost chewy aroma which becomes muskier, more thickly resinous as time goes on. It is mercurial! In dilution in alcohol the "bouquet" opens up and one is reminded of crushed pine needles or pea pods with lemony overtones, very fresh, vegetal and sharp, like snapping the fresh leaves between forefinger and thumb.

The chemical constituents of galbanum are monoterpenes (α and β pinene), sabinene, limonene, undecatriene and pyrazines. The pure oil is, however, often adulterated with pine oil which may be why some batches and imports smell more of green, snapped pine needles than others. The fact that galbanum is so powerful translates as two significant considerations for perfumers: lightness and context. Naturally "greenish" smelling essences/reconstruction of the floral persuasion, such as lily of the valley and hyacinth or narcissus, pair exceedingly well with galbanum.

In Vent Vert (translating as "green wind") by Balmain, introduced in 1945, galbanum gained a starring role and introduced in earnest the mode for "green" fragrances; perfumer maverick Germaine Cellier, instead of using it to compliment other notes, made it the protagonist, giving it full reign and ushering thus a new wave of more "natural-smelling" fragrances. "Green" fragrances, you see, evoke the outdoors and nature much more than the sophisticated intimacy and animal-density of chypres. Nevertheless galbanum is also clearly present in many chypres and fougeres as well (the classic Ma Griffe by Carven, Parfum de Peau, the classic Lauder Private Collection, the vintage extrait of Miss Dior, vintage Cabochard, Bandit with its knife brandishing swagger, Givenchy III, the modern Private Collection Jasmine White Moss by Lauder) and woody florals (the above mentioned No.19, Fidji by Laroche, Deneuve by Catherine Deneuve, Patou 1000, Le Temps d'une Fête by De Nicolai, Bas de Soie by Lutens, Silences by Jacomo,  Untitled Marti Margiela), even florientals! (Just mentioning in passing Boucheron Femme, Comme des Garçons by Comme des Garçons, Givenchy Ysatis, Moschino by Moschino, and vintage Magie Noire). It'd be impossible to list them all!

collage via sandrascloset

 Chanel used to use a superior grade of Iranian galbanum which helped form the top note of Cristalle and of No.19. In the modern, more youth-oriented version of No.19 Poudre the bite of galbanum has been mollified in order not to scare the horses.

Finally Vol de Nuit (Guerlain) and Must de Cartier (vintage) both owe a lot to the accent of galbanum: the introduction of the green note in a classically oriental, soft focus composition is akin to daggers thrown on a supple and vulnerable female form at some olfactory circus; unmissable.

Ref: LAWRENCE, B.M; "Progress in Essential Oils" 'Perfumer and Flavorist' August/September 1978 vol 3, No 4 p 54 McANDREW, B.A; MICHALKIEWICZ, D.M; "Analysis of Galbanum Oils". Dev Food Sci. Amsterdam: Elsevier Scientific Publications 1988 v 18 pp 573 – 585


  1. Dearest Shrine
    I do adore it when you talk notes!
    And this is yet another precise and intriguing etymology (or some would have it in this case, pathology of a smell).
    But you know I've recognised galbanum ad, cold, cruel, domineering, sneering, aloof and sharp.
    To me she's cool, witty, intelligent, independent and wise and very, very sexy.
    She is to other greens as Deborah Harry is to Madonna, Picasso to Matisse, Virginia Woolf to Katherine Mansfield.
    And I love her.
    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

  2. Dina C.02:57

    Galbanum is my all-time favorite note. It shows up in an "uncredited role" in scents like Ralph Lauren's Safari, and Geoffrey Beene's Grey Flannel. When I first got into scents and fragrance as a hobby, I started researching the notes of all my lifelong scents. To my surprise, each and every one of them had galbanum in it. Nowadays, I can sniff it out immediately. Thanks for writing about it.

  3. Very well written Elena, xronia polla!

  4. i adore galbanum---it's in many of my favorite perfumes. i especially like it in chypres. to me, it's a deep, resinous scent, faintly pine-y, sometimes a tiny bit lemony (very subtly), but always with that clean, sharp, intense green quality. "vif", the scent of life itself, in some intangible way...

  5. What a wonderful description of this scent! I too love galbanum; have almost every perfume you reference and then some. I have both a sample of the new Chanel no 19 and the vintage. So it's the galbanum that was the big difference. The modern version has been tamed that's for sure. Is galbanum another one that is restricted? I guess it's probably just an "in style" thing with greens no longer packing that wonderful intensity? Are there any modern greens that have that wonderful resinous quality of the vintage perfumes?

  6. Wouldn't it have been interesting if the OZ witch in the book WICKED had worn galbanum for her personal scent? Hope everything is OK in your world, Ms. E.

  7. Miss Helitotrope02:26

    I do enjoy the educational entries - & a good many green scents.

    Thank you

  8. Loved it in the older Miss Dior - not too snappy for me ! LOL

  9. TPD,

    thank you :-)

    I love your comparison/analogy very much! (Katherine Mansfield is a rich, voluptuous amber; almost suffocating, just an inch from doing it, I suppose, LOL)

  10. Dina C,

    must be the reason why so many perfumistas single out Safari out of all the RL scents ;-)
    Cool on being able to sniff it out immediately! It's a wonderfully bracing note that adds a lot to compositions, especially greens.

  11. ION,

    thank you for the lovely compliment and the same to you too!
    (BTW< replied to your samples query on the entry you posted and posted a note at the Home page concerning the matter en masse).

  12. NFS,

    it's a great anchoring agent too, resinous as you say, with a sharp biting quality about it, I like the term "vif" you're using. It speaks of awakenings and energy, there's dynamism to it, much like galbanum fragrances themselves!

  13. NFS,

    it's a great anchoring agent too, resinous as you say, with a sharp biting quality about it, I like the term "vif" you're using. It speaks of awakenings and energy, there's dynamism to it, much like galbanum fragrances themselves!

  14. Stelma,

    glad you found it enjoyable :-)

    Yes, the classic No.19 is miles away in terms of bitterness and bite from the new (though I realize that the new is a credible offer for the generation brought up with laundry detergents and fabric softeners full of clean musks).
    I suppose that the mustiness associated with some of the vintages is what is considered "no no" in today's world; some of the oldies can turn into an ashtray sometimes, with that acrid smoke scent which we associate with smoking. Not coincidentally, since they were designed to blend with the smoke of the person wearing them. Today with so many anti-smokers, this is an irrelevant consideration, so perfumes have "cleaned up" so to speak.

    There ARE some greens around, such as A Scent by Miyake (a decent effort), though I'm not sure they're doing that well commercially to justify their market share, but anyway. There's the Margiela Untitled, too (as depicted) or Safari.
    I think you would find more of this genre in niche: I'm thinking of all naturals Annette Neuffer for instance, the up till 2011 at least Bandit edp was quite good for that, Silences (if that's considered "modern"), Le temps d'une fete, Une histoire de Chypre Molinard for Aedes (as well as Chypre d'Orient by Molinard)...
    Even Infusion d'Iris is directly inspired by Chanel No.19, so the influence is there, though the effect is much subtler and airier. Do try EL Jasmine White Moss as well, I always recommend this one as a modern equivalent to the older chypres cleverly created WITHOUT oakmoss (but smelling like an ace!).

  15. JW,

    I like the way you're thinking!!
    Everything is fine, though I took a bit of a vacation, hence the less frequent posting and the delay in replying to all your delightful comments.

    *basking a bit in the sun and lapping the waves is good for the soul*

  16. MH,

    thank you very much for saying so, I'm glad you're enjoying. Green scents have an energy about them that can't be beat.

  17. Dear M,

    I wouldn't have immediately pegged it so, but you're right: MD in the vintage is a great scent to showcase the aloof but charming bite of this. Thanks for the mention!

    Hope everything is going well in your world! :-)

  18. Just a quick thanks for those recommendations! I have a few of them but have not tried most, so that will give me something to do, right? I really like that photo of "Untitled", looks like the model was throwing porcelain clay on the potters wheel. I'm familiar with that look, lol. Wonder how it relates to a green scent though....

  19. Stelma,

    you're very welcome and I am very pleased that they provide welcome distraction and adventure! (isn't that the very best?) Eager to learn which catch your fancy, if you care to share with me, later on!

    I also very much like that photo of Untitled; in a way it's both clean and dirty and it although the naked breasts would imply "something sexy" (duh*) they also don't, exactly because of the placement of the hands, the clay, the bottle etc. It's a very accomplished composition on the part of the art director, in my opinion. To my mind what related it to a green scent is that the clay is soil, the bed on which green things grow, but also a primitive, natural force (man's first ware and all); pottery and clay have something of the arcane to them, more than metal-smithing for instance. Do I make sense here? :-) ;-)

    *though come to think of it, it does bring something of "Ghost" to mind, which Agree?

    How nice for you to be able to do pottery! Last time I indulged I must have been a teenager. I don't know why I never took it up as a hobby, as it did give me pleasure to make things with my hands.

  20. Anonymous17:46

    Do you sell the perfumes stacte, onycha, galbanum and pure frankincense for making incense?

    1. Nope, this is an educational site.Sorry about that and thanks for your comment.

  21. ellina16:33

    I love galbanum, Love it. Before I started testing and testing like crazy, that is before my tastes evolved, I used to hate it. I had once spritzed my hand with no. 19 and thought it had turned, it smelt so bad to me! And now I don't like no. 19 because the initial galbanum blast is too short-lived!

    1. Sounds like a very nice evolution in your appreciation of "difficult" notes!! Galbanum certainly is an acquired taste; you're not alone. In fact, you very reaction you shared with us (thanks!) is the default reaction I witness each and every time an unfamiliarized customer picks a No.19 tester on the counter. They recoil in horror wrinkling their noses. If only the waited for 10 minutes or so.

  22. Anonymous13:16

    perfect explanation,I really thank you for the time you devoted and confirm all your admiration for galbanum cause it deserves it all.I'm sniffing it right now in its wild nature.its woww.

  23. I realize this is an old post, but I have a question about the mustiness/ashtray comment you made regarding vintage fragrances containing galbanum. Is it the intention of the perfumer to use galbanum in frags to specifically smell musty/smokey on purpose? Or is it simply that the galbanum note has become musty or ashtray with the passing of time?


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