For a newbie in perfumery, the citruses and flowers are probably the most familiar and intuitive. Orange, anyone? How about rose or jasmine? The herbs, too, shouldn’t be far out of the comfort zone, thanks to the popularity of aromatherapy in myriad formats—keep calm and breathe in some lavender—and uses in cuisine. One of my favorite gelato flavors was rosemary and goat’s milk. Mmm…
When it came to resins, I was lost. I didn’t know anything about them. I would learn the names of some materials, be vaguely satisfied that they came from a plant, and only later wonder: what kind of plant? and which part? In my defense, these are relatively obscure compared with other categories, say, the woods. And some do exude from woods.
Now, I realize that lining up a “resins sniffing” is probably as disingenuous as a “florals sniffing” would be, given how unrelated different resins are. However, I currently have only 6 of them, so figured why not.
Olibanum (boswellia frereana/boswellia carterii)
Also known as frankincense, the essential oil of this gum resin smells fairly mild and somewhat medicinal in a mentholic way. It’s hard to associate this cooling, purifying scent with that of the “incense” note typically found in perfume. It has more of a spicy-citrus characteristic.
This is a fraction of the essential oil from canarium luzonicum, the tree known as elemi. It smells distinctly lemony—but not juicy—with a background of astringent, light woodiness. Like a precious drawer in a well-kept dresser that one opens only for special occasions. One of my favorite aromas among perfumery ingredients.
Sometimes known as sweet myrrh (while its cousin, true myrrh, is called bitter myrrh), this is a gum resin that I find to possess one of the most divine smells. Softly woody, yet sweet like dried fruits—once it triggered the olfactory association with an Asian fruit known as dragon eye (roughly transliterated to lóngan in English), I could never unsmell that. Yet, it remains magical for me: I have waxed poetic about opoponax, and built an experimental perfume blend on it, which I dubbed Opossum Tries to Relax.
My other half, who didn’t look at the labels before sniffing each material, thought it smelled like pine tar.
I was surprised to learn, while searching it for fun on the excellent, new-ish “collaborative perfumery raw materials classification” resource ScenTree, that opoponax falls under Oriental Ambery > Balsamic > Leather > Mushroom. Mushroom?! But smelling it again single-mindedly to either confirm or deny this, I can imagine the likeness.
Bonus factoid: all of the above gum resins are from plant members of the Burseraceae family!
Peru balsam (myroxylon pereirae)
As its name suggests, this is a balsam from a tall hardwood tree. It’s supposed to be the closest thing to mother’s milk that the plant kingdom can provide, and a substitute for vanilla in perfumery. However, it’s quite overpowering, and to my nose somewhat harsh, with a sour undertone that discourages me from getting too close. More like an enforced healing ritual than any kind of creamy, gourmand decadence.
Labdanum (cistus ladaniferus)
Rock rose is its more romantic moniker, but I personally don’t find this note romantic at all. To me, it’s another mentholic, bitter, sweaty ingredient that needs others to smooth it out. I have a hard time imagining it as the purported substitute for ambergris. The body odor–like part of the aroma is probably what works well with leather scents. Labdanum and vanilla combined are what make a classic amber, and I have yet to find an amber that I love.
Galbanum (ferula galbaniflua)
Bitter, green, woody, herbal, balsamic-spicy… a bit like glue? It makes me think of the color gray and the concept of resilience. This is the icy essential oil of the gum resin from an umbelliferous plant that looks like a bigger version of dill flowers. To my nose, it’s quite fleeting when I spray Chanel N°19, in favor of the powdery floral heart notes.
An interesting observation is that with the exception of galbanum, I could not easily find synthetic substitutes for these resins. Apparently mainstream perfumery prefers galbanum decatriene or Spirogalbanone and Dynascone. Otherwise, resins seem to have a good chance of preserving their integrity au naturel.