Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Raw materials and Haiti

In early September 2008, Haiti was hit by two hurricanes causing widespread flooding and landslides. The main vetivert producing area was hit badly. Haitian vetivert is superior to that produced by either Java or Sumatra. Being much lighter in colour and having a more delicate aroma makes it more suitable in fine perfumery work as a quality fixative. The landslides had already caused prices to rise to such an extent that it was more expensive than vetivert Bourbon, which remains the finest quality. The recent earthquake will effectively halt supplies for a considerable time. Companies which use Haitian vetivert in their products will either need find an alternative or re-formulate. Long term availability and price stability of raw materials are major factors to be considered when formulating products. We can expect prices of vetivert to start moving upwards shoot upwards once current stocks have been used up.

Amyris and vetivert are the most important aromatic crops to Haiti but smaller quantities of other aromatics are also produced, notably frangipani and gardenia. We had not so long ago taken delivery of some stunning frangipani from Haiti (referred to in earlier blog). This morning I was talking to a French colleague and he quoted figures that were double what we paid for our last shipment from Haiti. We still have stock but replacement of similar quality at a reasonable price may well be difficult.

The supply of gardenia from Haiti is restricted as it is produced under contract for a company that consume the entire production. We get our gardenia from China and again we have fair stock so in the short to medium term we will not be affected but prices may well move upwards before we re-stock.

The situation in Haiti is tragic and the irony of such a poor country producing raw materials for top-drawer perfumery is not lost on me. A line from a song comes to mind – ‘old black Joes still picking cotton for your ribbon and bows’. Compassion and gratitude are both needed to maintain a healthy relationship with this reality. I recently found out that if we have access to clean running water of drinkable quality that that puts us in the top 5% of people on this planet. If we have a home and a regular income too we are in the top 1%. Perhaps we should complain a little less?

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

The Humble Benzoin

It is said that a picture tells a thousand words. Here is a picture to explain my absence from work, showing the view from my kitchen door. We are not used to such persistent snow in the UK and to be prepared for the one-offs, millions would need to be invested for plant, salt etc. If councils had spent that kind of money and it hadn’t snowed then I presume the same people would be whinging. It is nobody’s fault.

For a recent project I needed some organic benzoin and it took some finding. Benzoin resin is a crude exudate from the tree styrax tokinensis. At room temperature it is absolutely solid and so is the oil, which is steam distilled from the resin. For this reason it is usually diluted so it is mobile. Cheapskates use DPG - aka dipropylene glycol - but better by far is benzyl benzoate, which is an alcohol that naturally occurs in the gum. Essential oil companies can sell benzoin in dilutions, which range from as low as 10% benzoin up to 40%. At Aqua Oleum and Essentially Me we have ours specially prepared as a 50% dilution – it is not available off the peg (chemists’ joke) in this strength. The best quality without question comes from Thailand and this is characterised by a much lighter colour and delicate aroma that it’s dark cousins from Sumatra or Java.

After a six week wait from placing the order it arrived. Organic oils are not necessarily better quality than non organic because it is possible during the extraction process to get it wrong. I mention this because I am not one of those people who will eulogise about an oil just because it happens to be organic. However, I am going to eulogise about this because it is without question the finest benzoin I have seen in the past 24 years. It also happens to be an absolute, which for me is another first.

It looks like a light coloured fudge and has a subtle, sweet, warm and delicate balsamic aroma. I can work it with my hand and as it warms up it becomes more pliable and starts to resemble the texture of clay.

Benzoin is such a useful base note and fixative and because it is relatively cheap it often gets overlooked. I am looking forward to working with this absolute as it has great potential. It will make a great foundation for delicate and subtle fragrances, which can be easily overwhelmed by heavier fixatives. I have just made up a batch of extrait which will be available for sale in three months. Until then it is available in its pure form.