Sunday, March 20, 2016

What's That Smell? TONKA

In the "What's That Smell?" series,  I'll explain some of the less obvious perfume notes that crop up in many indie perfumes. Keep in mind my descriptions and comparisons are based on my own experiences and your impressions may not be the same. Perfume notes are NOT ingredients. They can be natural essences, artificial isolated compounds that imitate the natural substance, blended accords, or a combination. Therefore, the note you like in one perfume may be unrecognizable in another. As with all sensory, subjective things, your mileage may vary.



Tonka is a tropical plant that yields beans, like cacao or vanilla. Its beans have a sweet, smooth scent reminiscent of vanilla. The characteristic smell comes from a chemical isolate contained in the bean called "coumarin." Coumarin can be described as sweet, powdery, and it's a very versatile perfume note, though it's commonly associated with Oriental fragrances.

Tonka is not 1 for 1 a vanilla note, although it can be used to deepen, complete, or enhance vanilla notes. To me, tonka has a slightly less "foodie" feel than vanilla, although it was used in edible recipes for hundreds of years. I say this because vanilla notes in perfumes are usually sugary to the point where they're inextricable from their gourmand associations. But tonka (in general) has a slightly more neutral tone, more like spice or a nutty smell than the rich, creamy sweetness of vanilla. I would describe it as having the lightness and inoffensiveness of vanilla, with nuances of raw almond and something like nutmeg. This is not an overwhelmingly spicy note, but it has the natural spicy feel of fresh mown hay (also associated with the coumarin scent compound) or dry, split wood.

Tonka can be used to add sweetness and smoothness where vanilla would be too "obvious" or too jarring. It works as a natural partner with deeper wood and spice notes. It can be a great companion to fresh or green notes, which need depth and richness without added sugariness. It adds another layer of depth and interest to a fragrance with multiple gourmand notes, especially ones that already contain vanilla.

Perfumes featuring tonka:

  • Alkemia Trick or Treat: This is an example where tonka adds more depth and spiciness without tipping the character of this already-sweet scent into cloying territory. In fact, the tonka works with both the candied fruit and vanilla notes and the earthier patchouli and wood notes to marry them without contributing more to one side or the other. The result is a balanced perfume that's both masculine and feminine, sweet and earthy. 
  • Solstice Scents Cameo: This perfume is unapologetically gourmand and sweet. It has fruity-floral, almond, and cake notes, but the tonka does double duty here. It completes the yellow cake note, giving it a realistic earthy toothsome feel (if you've had yellow cake, you'll know it's heartier and richer than white cake), but it also grounds the whole scent so that it doesn't float off into powdery sugary fantasyland, where too many badly-formulated gourmands end up. This scent may be entirely foodie, but the earthy tonka makes it both realistic and complex enough to smell all day long without feeling sick.
  • Sixteen92 Grimm: While this scent features chocolate, it couldn't really be classified as a gourmand. This perfume is more of a wet, damp green scent, where the chocolate and tonka are earthy modifiers that create a pleasant dirty scent. Here, vanilla would be too obvious and smell like a cupcake dropped in a forest clearing. Tonka is sweet enough to keep the chocolate company, dark and earthy enough to balance the wet and fresh notes. 

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