Sweetly scented of toasted almonds, amarena cherries, sun-warmed hay and vanilla custard, tonka is one of the most luscious and seductive in a perfumer’s palette. Ever heard of the good 'ole Tonka bean? Its one of the most common and important perfume ingredients today.
The tonka bean tree (Dipterix odorata), a legume also known as cumaru, may grow to be 1,000 years old in the tropical rainforests Central and South America where the rose-colored flowers produce a fruit that bears a precious single bean over an inch in length.
These trees rise over the dense tropical canopy as they yearn for sun where the fruits ripen in the summer. During this time, the tonka beans are gathered freshly fallen by indigenous locals of the tropical rainforest while older pods can be picked up through winter into early spring. The production of the “love bean” can vary widely, and exceptionally large volumes are produced every three to four years. These variating harvests are handled differently by the rural Amazonian families that depend on the crop, with gender roles taking turns, depending on the harvest.
In low yield years, women control the harvest and use the earnings to buy basic resources, such as food to support the family. In high yield years, men control the income and will spend the surplus cash on higher cost goods such as motorcycles and chainsaws. After harvesting, the beans are cured by soaking in alcohol, usually rum, for roughly 24 hours and then removed for drying.
Once dry, white crystals of coumarin form a frosting on the skin of each tonka bean. The beans are then shipped off for fragrance extraction.
The tonka bean experienced in perfume derives of tonka absolute. The way it’s obtained is from solvent extraction of the tonka beans and the solid, crystalline substance must be diluted to work with.
So what does Tonka bean smell like? I can only describe the natural perfection of tonka absolute as vanilla-like, spicy/balsamic, very sweet and rich, but also I get hints of caramel.
It’s not 1 for 1 a vanilla note, whilst it can be used to deepen, complete, or enhance vanilla notes. To me, tonka has a slightly less "foodie" accord than vanilla, yet it was used in edible recipes for hundreds of years.
I say this because vanilla notes in perfumes are normally sugary to the point where they're impossible to separate from their gourmand associations. But tonka (overall) has a slightly more neutral tone, more like a cinnamon spice or nutty aroma compared to the rich, creamy sweetness of vanilla.
I would describe it as having the gentleness and inoffensiveness of vanilla, with nuances of raw almond and a splash of crisp nutmeg. This is not an overwhelmingly spicy note, but it has the levelheaded spicy feel of fresh mown hay or dry, split wood with a vague tang that’s a bit like cherry.
And although it’s a beloved ingredient by French patissiers, master-chefs, and the perfume industry, these beans are illegal for consumption in the US. The tonka beans contain high levels of coumarin, a chemical that has been shown to be toxic in large quantities.
The vibe is rich, deep, and warm which is why tonka is so often used as a base note in perfumes. It not only brings the other ingredients together; it also becomes more noticeable as time goes one, which is particularly useful if you’re looking for a day-to-night fragrance.
For example, it’s often paired with:
Oud oil – which adds depth and a touch of exoticism
Fruity aromas – the tonka bean adds warmth and gives the fragrance more dimension
Smoky scents – tonka bean complements smoky ingredients, softening them pleasantly
Citrus notes – in citrusy perfumes tonka adds intensity and a powdery texture
Musk – tonka bean balances out the animalic dirtiness to add sensuality
In voodoo magic it may be used in mojo bags to draw wealth and is great for potpourris. In the 19th century tonka beans were used as an anti-inflammatory and a boost to the immune system. The bark of the tree is used today in a decoction to bathe fevered patients and the seeds fermented in rum make a great snakebite cure. The Miskitu people of eastern Nicaragua use the wood of the tonka tree for a large paste and pestle to prepare foods and grains including a popular drink made from boiled seeds mixed with water or coconut milk and sugar then the oil from boiling the seeds is skimmed off to use as a hair tonic.
Complex and sweet, soothing yet an outlaw, the many facets of tonka bean add depth and balance to Fougere, Gourmand, Floral and Oriental perfumes. Like many such things, it makes life that much richer and may just, perhaps, allow your fragrant wishes to come true.
To give you a chance to experience Tonka Bean we have generously offered to giveaway two 10ml Samples of Tonka Bean based perfumes. To enter, please leave a comment about what you learned from this article.