This raw material is highly valued in perfumery and increasingly well known today for its use in pastry making. It has always been a source of fascination because it is a multifaceted product with incredible olfactory aspects.
In reality the tonka bean is the seed of Dipteryx odorata Willd (it lies inside the fruit shell). The tree, which reaches 20–25 meters in height, with a trunk measuring up to 1.20 meters in diameter, grows mainly in the tropical South American forests of Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana. It can also come from two other varieties of Dipteryx: wild Dipteryx oppositifolia Willd and Pteropus Taub.
An adult tree produces about 15kg of seeds per year. Annual tonka bean production varies from 60 to 100 metric tons, depending on the year and very greatly on the climate.
Reaching maturity in winter, the fruits fall naturally and harvesting is done in spring, taking place in the forest. In Venezuela, the fruits are picked by indigenous people (Panares and Piaora tribes) or by villagers from the Caura region, and afterwards they are dried. The shell and meat are then broken to obtain the bean, which has brown skin and oily ivory-colored meat. After a drying phase in the shade, the beans are left to macerate in 65% alcohol for half a day. The alcohol is then decanted before the final drying phase, which is the longest step (lasting 5 or 6 days) and an important one, as this enables white coumarine crystals to appear on the surface of the bean.
The beans are treated on site thanks to volatile solvents. A resinoid is obtained (with yields varying from 25–45%) which, after rinsing in 70–80% alcohol, provides tonka bean absolute (10–15% yield compared to the bean). The resinoid and the absolute range in color from light amber to yellowish brown.
On site, locals are not great consumers of the product and only use it therapeutically to treat certain conditions. Tonka bean is reputed to be a tonic with anti-coagulant properties.
Initially it was primarily used to perfume armoires. In fact, when reduced to powder, the bean was sold is small sachets to place between stacks of linens. It was later used to scent snuff or pipe tobacco (a practice that is banned today) before its use in perfumery soared notably thanks to Guerlain. Very early on, it became one of Guerlain’s fetish materials due to its incredible olfactory qualities when the company used it in its famous Guerlinade (one of the brand’s fragrance hallmarks resulting from the blend of its favorite natural raw materials: bergamot, jasmine, rose, iris, vanilla and tonka bean. Originally Guerlinade was the name of a perfume created by Jacques Guerlain in 1921).
From an olfactory standpoint, tonka bean is very rich. Suave and multifaceted, it is primarily gourmand, with almond, vanilla and even caramel notes, but it is also rustic, herbaceous, with notes of cut hay and even blond tobacco.
It is also of great interest because of its main ingredient: coumarine (in botany Dipteryx odorata Willd is also called Coumarona odorata Aubl.). As we have seen, it appears naturally in the form of crystals during the final drying phase of the beans. Isolated from the tonka bean in 1820, coumarine was made synthetically for the first time in 1868 by the chemist William Perkin. In 1884, Paul Parquet was the first to use it in creating Houbigant’s Fougère Royale: thus was the fougère fragrance family born. Based on a bergamot-lavender-geranium-coumarine-oak moss accord, it is one of the seven listed fragrance families in perfumery.
Long considered a reference in men’s perfumery because of its lavender notes, the fougère family gradually evolved to adapt to legislative issues (for oak moss, for example). Also and above all, it evolved due to the need to modernize the note. Thus in the 1970s, the fougère accord took a fresh new turn thanks to synthetic molecules, finally undergoing many variations (amber-y, fruity, spicy, etc) that are still market leaders today: Le Mâle by Jean-Paul Gaultier (Floriental with a fougère facet) is one example, along with Hypnôse Homme by Lancôme (fougère floral amber).
What about tonka bean use in perfumery today? It is one of the most luxurious natural materials in perfumery. Is coumarine a competitor? What are the characteristics of each note?
Takasago senior perfumer Francis Kurkdjian answers these questions, explaining that coumarine is a highly interesting synthetic material. “It does a thorough job because it has many facets (mild, bitter, almond, powdery) similar to natural facets, but at a much lower cost. Tonka bean is made up of more than 80% coumarine. Also, depending on the fragrance cost/yield ratio, it is sometimes preferable to use coumarine. In effect, for a relatively small dosage of the tonka note – 2 to 3% – the tonka bean represents a very large part of a formula’s budget. Considering current market demand where perfumes must be increasingly effective in olfactory terms, and at lower cost, coumarine is preferred in a majority of cases.”
The current trend for quality, notably in niche perfumery, advocates a certain return to natural ingredients. Thus fragrances with no cost constraints for formulas and with significant creative requirements are the only ones that can allow themselves the use of tonka bean absolute. Mr Kurkdjian explains that in his own house (Maison Francis Kurkdjian Paris), some fragrances boast a tonka bean note: “If this claim is made, it is because the fragrance contains the note and in honorable proportions.” Whether for some this is a sales pitch and for others it shows real respect for creative demands, it all comes down to a question of proportion and ethics.
A good example of the recent use of tonka bean is the fragrance Tonka by Réminiscence-Paris, created in 2013. This perfume is a new player – the tonka bean ambassador – in the brand’s single note line, where one of perfumery’s noble raw materials is introduced for each fragrance. Tonka bean is enhanced here thanks to a honey note. This balsamic note with rock-rose and bitter almond accents balances the gourmand vanilla note provided by Venezuelan tonka, whose hay effect counterbalances in turn the sugary aspect of the honey.
Thus natural raw materials seem to be used increasingly in combination with synthetic molecules in order to enhance the note while limiting its cost. François Robert, perfumer at Quintessence Fragrances, explains that tonka bean “combined with coumarine provides a warmer, smoother, much more powerful aspect.” The addition of natural materials also makes it possible to round out certain synthetic molecules, and vice versa. Again according to Mr Robert, if coumarine can develop too much of a medicinal aspect in significant doses, the addition of tonka bean means you can adjust the note’s base.”
Tonka bean, whether natural or provided by coumarine, is again today the center of perfume creation. Witness to this is Tonka impériale from Guerlain’s Exclusive Collections, and also Fève délicieuse, the latest Christian Dior Collection Privée perfume. What makes it terribly interesting from an olfactory standpoint is that it oscillates between gourmand and bitter notes, more than ever providing a promise of wonderful fragrance discoveries or rediscoveries.
Sincerest thanks to Ange Zola, François Robert and Francis Kurkdjian, all three of whom are actively involved with the Osmothèque, for their contributions to this article.
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