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Vanilla: From Flavor Delight to Post-Pandemic Olfactory Relief

VANILLA’s journey from a rare Mexican orchid to a global fragrance staple is a testament to human ingenuity and the allure of its complex scent. Whether in its natural form or as a synthetic, it continues to enchant and captivate, holding a special place in the world of perfumery. With its comforting appeal, the vanilla note gained even more popularity during and after the Covid-19 pandemic, depicted in the most varied ways, evidenced by the unprecedented number of vanilla-rich fragrance releases.

 

Vanilla 2

 

ORIGIN & JOURNEY TO EUROPE

 

The vanilla orchid (Vanilla planifolia) is native to Mexico. Once it arrived in Europe, brought by Spanish explorers in the early 16th century, vanilla beans quickly became popular in cuisine, initially used to flavor drinks. By the 17th century, vanilla began to be used in perfumes, which were a privilege of the nobility due to its rarity and high cost.

To meet the high demand with greater predictability, French traders attempted to cultivate it in tropical climates similar to Mexico, such as the islands of Réunion, Madagascar, Comoros, and Mauritius. However, the specific pollinators, the Euglossini bees, were not found in these locations, keeping vanilla a precious and rare commodity.

Vanilla is one of the most versatile ingredients in perfumery. It has a complex and multifaceted scent profile: rich, sweet, boozy, powdery, and spicy, with woody and balsamic undertones, and facets of cacao and tobacco. Since vanillin, one of vanilla’s key compounds, can be found in breast milk and infant foods, its aroma is perhaps the closest to a universally appreciated scent, evoking care and warmth despite the diversity of individual tastes related to its specific use in perfume.

 

MANUAL POLLINATION & SYNTHESIZING

 

The course of the vanilla history changed in two main stages.

First, in 1841, a young enslaved boy named Edmond Albius on the island of Réunion discovered a method to manually pollinate the vanilla orchid – a breakthrough that subsequently allowed the plant to be cultivated worldwide and is still used today. His technique involves using a thin stick or blade of grass to lift the flower’s rostellum and then transfer pollen from the anther to the stigma. After pollination, the vanilla pods take about nine months to mature. They are harvested while still green and undergo a meticulous curing process, which includes blanching, sweating, drying, and conditioning. This labor- and time-intensive process can take several months and is crucial for developing the characteristic flavor and fragrance of vanilla. Natural vanilla can be processed into resinoid (by volatile solvents like ethanol and hexane), absolute (by the washing of the resinoid with ethyl alcohol), oleoresin (by ethyl alcohol extraction), and carbon dioxide extract (using high pressure to obtain a purer, higher quality aroma).

 

Plantation Madagascar

 

The second main stage relates to the laboratory synthesis of vanillin, which occurred in the late 19th century. Chemists succeeded in synthesizing vanillin, the primary component of vanilla’s aroma, from lignin in 1874, guaiacol in 1875, and eugenol em 1876 (it had been previously identified in 1816 and isolated in 1858). A more potent molecule not found in nature, ethylvanillin, was synthesized in 1894. These discoveries drastically reduced the cost, making vanilla more accessible in both food and fragrances.

Vanilla MoleculesVanillin & Ethylvanillin molecules

 

USAGE IN PERFUMERY

 

Vanilla’s ability to blend seamlessly with a wide range of notes and ingredients makes it a versatile and invaluable ingredient in perfumery. It is especially important for the composition of the amber accord, blended with labdanum and benzoin, sometimes with other resins and balsams. Without vanilla, the amber olfactory family (previously known as oriental) wouldn’t exist, with early examples being Coty’s Émeraude (1921) and Guerlain’s Shalimar (1925).

 

Lorigan Shalimar

 

An interesting fact supporting the argument that the scent of vanilla is possibly the closest to a universally pleasant smell is that the first perfumes embraced by the male public contained a reasonable dose of it, such as Caron’s Pour un Homme (1934), Dana’s Canoe (1936), and Shulton’s Old Spice (1937).

 

Caronph Canoe Oldspice

 

EXAMPLES OF OTHER FRAGRANCES RICH IN VANILLA

 

With so many nuances, vanilla can be successfully combined with other notes to create fresh or warm, soft or intense, elegant or sensual accords, depending on the perfumer’s intention. Below is a variety of fragrances with different scent profiles that demonstrate the most distinct uses of vanilla in perfumery.

Frédéric Malle’s Musc Ravageur, 2000 (musky, spicy, powdery)
Profumum Roma’s Dulcis in Fundo, 2001 (citrus)
Serge Lutens’ Un Bois Vanille, 2003 (woody, gourmand)
Montale’s Intense Tiaré, 2005 (white floral, coconut)
Guerlain’s Spiritueuse Double Vanille, 2007 (ambery, boozy, spicy)
Tom Ford’s Tobacco Vanille, 2007 (tobacco, spicy, fruity)
Xerjoff’s XJ 1861 Naxos, 2015 (lavender, honey, tobacco)
Parfums de Marly’s Layton, 2016 (fruity, spicy, woody)

 

Vanilla Fragrances

 

TRIVIA

 

At the end of the 19th century, thanks to cyclones that devastated the vanilla plantations in Réunion, Madagascar became the primary source, now responsible for 80% of global production.

A second species of vanilla, Vanilla tahitensis, native to French Polynesia and a mutation of Vanilla planifolia, represents less than 1% of the use in perfumery. It contains very little vanillin, imparting a more floral scent with fruity and anisic undertones.

One of the most iconic uses of vanilla in perfumery is found in Guerlain’s fragrances. Vanilla is an essential component of the “Guerlinade”, a signature accord that combines vanilla (both natural and synthetic) with bergamot, jasmine, rose, iris, and tonka bean to create a distinctive, sophisticated scent that is simultaneously classic and modern.

(text by Daniel Barros)

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DANIEL BARROS

DANIEL BARROS

Editor-in-Chief

DANIEL BARROS is Brazilian, based in São Paulo, and the author of  ‘1001 Perfumes: The Guide’. He has been collaborating with ScentXplore since 2021, contributing to content production and management, as well as organizing the annual ScentXplore People’s Choice Niche Fragrance Awards. In addition to his editorial responsibilities, Daniel is actively involved in mentoring niche brands and fragrance enthusiasts all over the world. Click here to send him a private message or report an error. Follow Daniel on Instagram @danielbarros_1001perfumes.

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