Raw Materials Galbanum: Green, Acrid Bitterness

Galbanum: Green, Acrid Bitterness

07/02/13 05:15:36 (17 comments)

by: Elena Vosnaki

What do the bracing and crisp overtures of such classic fragrances as Chanel No.19, vintage Vent Vert by Balmain, Piguet Bandit in eau de parfum and Chanel's own Cristalle have in common? Galbanum, 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?

Unlike the witch, galbanum is not well known among perfume lovers. What is it? What isn't it? What does it impart and how? 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 being 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.

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.

BOTANY AND HISTORY

The 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.

Nowadays ferula plants grow in Turkey, Lebanon, Afganistan and Southern Russia, even around Cape of Good Hope, alongside modern Iran of course, providing for the huge demand made from the perfumery business. But in ancient times galbanum resin was among the most prized substances in incense mixes, that old ritual of communicating with the gods. In Hebrew lore its acridness symbolizes the bitterness of guilt of the perpetual, unrepentant sinner; yet it is included alongside sweet spices, stacte and onyha, in the Lord's incense blend. In Egyptian ceremonies where galbanum was imported and paid for dearly it represented a benevolent entity. It was mentioned in "metopium," as attested by Greek writer and herbalist Dioscorides in his De materia medica. Greeks viewed the material with a practical eye, thanks to its medicinal properties; the father of medicine, Hippocrates, recommends it for a pleiad of ailments, from muscle aches to respiratory difficulty.

SCENT ATTRIBUTES AND PERFUME COMPOSITION

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 resin persists for eight hours or more.

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: 1. They should dose it with a light hand; 2. They should mix it preferably with less complex and prettier or fresher ingredients (such as hesperides or rose) to yield the best result. Naturally "greenish" smelling essences/reconstruction of the floral persuasion, such as lily of the valley and hyacinth or narcissus, pair exceedingly well with galbanum too.

FRAGRANCES WITH GALBANUM TO CAPTIVATE THE SENSES

Nevertheless, expert perfumers, like the likes of Jacques Guerlain who used it as a mysterious green heart note in the oriental Vol de Nuit, can couple galbanum with voluptuous and heady essences (such as ylang-ylang, jasmine, tuberose, cardamom or frankincense) or in Sous le Vent where it lends much of the freshness. The tension in the classic parfum version of Must de Cartier lies in the juxtaposition of the inedible greeness of galbanum (aided by narcissus, which shares an oily green facet) with the powdery warm heart of fluffy resins (opoponax, benzin, labdanum and vanilla).

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), even florientals! (Just mentioning in passing Boucheron Femme, Comme des Garçons by Comme des Garçons, Givenchy Ysatis, Moschino by Moschino, and vintage Magie Noire)

Other fragrances which highlight its green character are Fresh Galbanum Patchouli, Bill Blass Nude, Ralph Lauren Safari, Chloe Eau de Fleurs Capucine, Issey Miyake A Scent, Fleur du Matin and Terre de Bois, both by Miller Harris, Infusion d'Iris by Prada, Roma per Uomo by Laura Biagotti, Borneo 1834 by Serge Lutens and Blue Jeans by Versace.

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

 

Elena Vosnaki

Elena Vosnaki is a historian and perfume writer from Greece and a Writer for Fragrantica. She is the founder and editor of Perfume Shrine, one of the most respected independent online publications on perfume containing fragrance reviews, industry interviews, essays on raw materials and perfume history, a winner in Fragrantica Blog Awards and a finalist in numerous blog awards contests.

Her writing was recognized at the Fifi Awards for Editorial Excellence in 2009 and she contributes to publications around the world.

 



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Militza
Militza

Very interesting review, and well balanced with history enriching one's overall knowledge, as well as one's grip on chemistry. I find most any perfume that has galbanum one that I am attracted to wear, and it seems men also attract to it. Galbanum is as sensual as green eyes.

Jul
03
2013
Ouch!
Ouch!

Thanks for a great article. I recently studied Galbanum for my course and boy..it certainly is a very unusual smelling ingredient. I thought it smelled like carrot skins and sweet vegetables haha.

Love this article! :)

Jul
03
2013
9-na
9-na

Huge thanks for the article. Galbanum is one of my big loves as far as scents go.

Jul
03
2013
sherryberry
sherryberry

Great post!! I just love galbanum...Chanel #19 and Cristalle are my all time favorites!!

Jul
02
2013
Yourfoxiness
Yourfoxiness

Loveliness! My favorite note, & maybe moss. Dioressence it is today! I've been craving green! Always...

Jul
02
2013
50scents
50scents

As usual another splendid job by Elena, who explains the science behind the scent! Thank you for this. Now I'm off to go sniff my favorite galbanum scents!

Jul
02
2013
psfaggiano
psfaggiano

Interesting article!! For galbanum lovers and for people that want to experience its green bitterness there is an accessible option on the market - ST Dupont Pour Femme - a classic green chypre of great projection and sillage.

Jul
02
2013
woodlandwalk
woodlandwalk

Beautifully written as always!
As someone who loves Chanel No 19 I adore the Galbanum note. Maybe it's all those forest walks in the Highlands growing up in Scotland - it reminds me of happy times outdoors, and paired with oakmoss I'm reminded of the scent of a log fire. Lovely!

Jul
02
2013
mimikins24
mimikins24

Thank you for this wonderful article. Galbanum is one of the notes I was only able to appreciate after 'educating' my nose more in the past year --- before it was too pungent and sharp for me and I was not patient enough to wait for the drydown --- just as you described!

Jul
02
2013
NebraskaLovesScent
NebraskaLovesScent

The perfumes mentioned in this article include many of my past and present favorites. I wore Ma Griffe today after this gentle reminder. :-)

There are certainly some galbanum scents I have not been able to love, Private Collection chief among them. Proof of what a complex and varied note galbanum truly is. Thanks, Elena, for this informative article!

Jul
02
2013
Francop
Francop

Very informative indeed!

Thanks very much :-)

Jul
02
2013
sweetiepea161616
sweetiepea161616

Thank you for that fascinating article! I recently had the opportunity to try Vol de Nuit for the first time and I was curious to learn more about galbanum, so the timing of this article is perfect! Very informative. Thank you!

Jul
02
2013
AbBlue
AbBlue

Thank you for the article.
I love galbanum, I would add Oriental Dream, by Angel Schlesser to the list.

Jul
02
2013
chayaruchama
chayaruchama

What a lovely post , Elena !
I love galbanum- no conflict here ;)
My well-sealed bottle of Iranian galbanum can be smelled even through bubble wrap !!!
It never fails to thrill me.

Jul
02
2013
spidola
spidola

Thank you for this beautiful article!!!
Galbanum is one of my favourit ingrediens. I love Prada Infusion d iris and Fidji. Tere is a lot of galbanum also in Maison martin margela untitled and Van Cleef & Arpels un air de first....these are just so relaxin scents!

Jul
02
2013
*sophi*
*sophi*

Lilith by Gallaghan!

Jul
02
2013
HeidiLynn
HeidiLynn

I love galbanum, but I'm learning that she does indeed have many faces.

I love the warm, resinous galbanum that develops with time on skin; I find this in some of my favorites, like Cartier's Must, Imari by Avon (the original Imari) and a bit in Ellen Tracy. This face of galbanum is rich, incense-like and plays well with sandalwood and other woody notes.

I also am starting to enjoy the cooler, green, side of galbanum--such as in Jacamo Silences. This galbanum is complementary to spring flowers like hyacinth and lily; it brings a wet-rock scent that, in Silences, reminds me of a walk through a graveyard in spring.

Thank you for an in-depth, well written, and informative article on this fascinating note! I feel more informed about a favorite.

Jul
02
2013

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