The Arabs call benzoin Luban Jawi, meaning frankincense of Java, which shows how highly it was esteemed by these early master perfumers. It has to be said that for perfumery, benzoin from Thailand is superior to that of Java. It is softer and has a more rounded balsamic odour so it provides the much needed fixative properties without adversely affecting the odour of even the most delicate floral or citrus notes.
Following recent discussions amongst natural perfumers regarding the preparation and use of benzoin in perfumery I thought it might be useful to summarise the possible options. It seems that some people really like working in a very basic way including using substances from the garden. Climate would prevent many of us from producing home grown benzoin. Further, unless we had native wild benzoin trees in the garden, our grandparents would have needed sufficient foresight to plant some on our behalf many years before we were conceived.
The first option is to obtain a crude lump as illustrated. In order to make a tincture we must first powder it. I suggest putting the lump into a vice and using a cheese grater. After the grater has been ruined, move on to using a file. Once you have reduced most of the lump to powder wrap the last piece in a tea towel, place on workbench and attack with a hammer. Collect all the powder and put in a bottle before filling with alcohol. Seal and shake. Leave at room temperature in the dark for three months. It is important not to measure anything otherwise you will interfere with the natural alchemy and only pride would suggest that our precision could improve on nature. After three months it will be ready to use - irrespective of the result, rave about it endlessly. If you favour the cloudiness in natural perfumes remember not to filter it before use so that you have that authentic natural cloudiness.
If we want a more concentrated tincture of benzoin we could buy some essential oil. This is very viscous and not at all mobile at room temperature. A pure absolute is also produced in small quantities. Commercially available benzoin is most frequently sold in dilution. The most common concentrations range from 10% to 40% in castor oil, DPG (di propylene glycol) or the best option – benzyl benzoate, an alcohol which occurs naturally in benzoin and in many other essential oils.
Adding the essential oil of benzoin or benzoin absolute to alcohol is much more efficient. According to Guenther the yield of essential oil from Asiatic benzoin is between 0.5 % and 1%, which means that in order to make a litre at 20% dilution in alcohol we would need between 20 and 40 kilos of crude benzoin. Even when this is powdered it still won’t fit into a litre bottle. This inconvenience combined with my mum not letting me use the grater any more were the two factors that persuaded me to use the essential oil or absolute.