Found in the humid Filipino jungle, few of us have heard of this resin extracted from a wild tree by incision of its trunk. Just like the more popular Incense or Myrrh, Elemi or Manila Elemi (Canarium luzonicum) has been used by Man for centuries as a component in ointments and plasters, and later in the making of paints and varnishes.
Pronounced “e-lə-mē”, the word comes from latin “elimi”, itself derived from the Arabic phrase « al lāmi » meaning « above and below », and referring to its usage as a curative compound in ancient European cultures.
In the scentful world of perfumes, it is a spicy top-heart note with peppery, lemony, and incense-like facets used to bring freshness to fragrances just like Autoportrait.
Uncover the mystery of Elemi, with a fragrance that carries on the magic of the holiday season, as it has the ability to take us amidst nature’s finest woods and tropical resins (without even having to step outside), and envelop us in a soothing fragrant haze.
Let’s slow down in this too fast of a world, take the time to breath new raw materials, and channel your inner-self with Olfactive Studio’s perfume of the month.
WHAT HIDES BEHIND THE INTRIGUING ELEMI?
Belonging to the Burseraceae family, alongside its aromatic resin cousins Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) and Incense (Boswellia carteri), the Elemi essence comes from the Elemi resin, itself extracted from the Canarium genus and luzonicum species. This tree originating from Southeast Asia grows in the Philippines, explaining the appellation “Manila Elemi” also used to mention Elemi as a perfumery ingredient (the capital of the country being Manila).
These evergreen trees can grow up to 30 meters. From January to June an incision is made once a day during one week on the bark, consisting in a method named “tapping”. The secretion obtained is a white gum which becomes yellow after being in contact with the air. Up to five kilograms of gum can be extracted from one tree over a year.
Harvested by local farmers while still white, this gum is then stored in warehouses and sent to Europe where the hydrodistillation process (steam distillation) happens to obtain the Elemi essential oil. In addition, Elemi resinoid can be obtained when using a volatile solvent extraction.
Moreover its Arabic and Latin etymology, the word Elemi has been around for centuries, in fact when it comes to its use, the word was already employed in the 17th and 18th centuries to describe different resins.
It initially referred to the resin obtained from Boswellia carteri (Frankincense), and Boswellia frereana, a Somalian species part of the same genus as Incense and for the record, also called “Coptic Frankincense” because of its popularity among the Egyptian Coptic Church. Both of them were popular amongst ancient Egypt and Europe.
Later on, Elemi was employed to describe the Brazilian Icica genus trees’ resin, from the Burseraceae family. Sounds familiar? Indeed, it belongs to the same family as the Elemi resin used in the perfume industry nowadays.
Other resin producing trees from genus such as the southern American Protium (Burseraceae family strikes again) and Amyris, have also received the denomination Elemi in the past.
Nowadays, the common usage of the word Elemi refers to the Canarium genus trees grown in the Filipino archipelago. The pleasant fragrant resin they hold within their bark is the one that enchants curious noses in modern perfumery.
ELEMI IN OLFACTIVE STUDIO PERFUMES
What’s better than the comforting scent of a chimney fire, exotic spices in your hot wine, or even of that perfumed candle you got for Christmas?
We’ll tell you what’s better: a familiar scent you cherish, either your mom’s best apple pie recipe from when you were just a child, or an unknown scent begging to be part of your olfactive library such as Elemi-friendly fragrances! It could be that teenage fragrance you wore to prom, your best friend’s all-time favorite perfume, or this new fragrance that fits you like a glove you’re dying for!
At Olfactive Studio we have the fragrances that will add the final touch to your outfit of the day or that will plunge you among your sweetest memories! And the ones containing the spicy Elemi essence might just do the trick…
In Autoportrait we meet Elemi in all its splendor, surrounded by ingredients that bring out its most interesting aspects. In the perfume's discreet and subtle opening, we can distinguish the zesty facet of Bergamot essence (Citrus bergamia) and the peppery-fresh facet of the Elemi essence (Canarium luzonicum), a spicy raw material whose woody and resinous facets can be sensed already.
The structure of Autoportrait allows the woody-balsamic heart and base to reveal itself very quickly.
The spicy facet persists in the heart of the perfume with the Benzoin Siam (Styrax tonkinensis), which also possesses a spicy-cinnamic aspect. As for the gourmand facet of Benzoin, with its vanilla and caramel accents, it wraps us in a warm and sweet haze. We also perceive the Incense (Boswellia carterii), with its powerful woody facet, it feels resinous and reassuring.
This rich woody aspect of Autoportrait is highlighted in the base of the fragrance by several raw materials. Cedarwood (Juniperus virginiana) in all its naturalness with its woody-dry side reminds us of pencil lead, the elegant Vetiver brings a refined smoky note and an earthy facet.
The Oakmoss Absolute (Evernia prunastri) with its woody-mossy facet and its earthy aspect accompanies the Cedar and Vetiver (Chrysopogon zizanoide) while giving a chypre dimension to the fragrance. As for the Musks, they bring a smooth creamy effect.
Autoportrait is an elegant, deep, truly carnal fragrance with a mesmerizing trail.
Still life or the most in motion of still lives! Elemi (Canarium luzonicum), is the key spicy ingredient in the top notes of Olfactive Studio’s fragrance of the month.
The head of this perfume is adorned with a Yuzu accord (Japanese lime) that stands out, clearly identifiable by its component notes (bergamot, mandarin, hedione), and whose freshness is increased tenfold by the four spicy/peppery notes: Black pepper (Piper nigrum), Szechuan pepper (Zanthoxylum ritum or bungeanum) an ingredient obtained from the shell of a fruit of a tree belonging to the Rutaceae family (such as citrus), Pink Berry (Schinus molle), and Elemi (Canarium luzonicum), which is the gum from the trunk of a southern Asian tree.
These last ones bring an undeniable freshness to the fragrance while each having their own features: the first one confers an aromatic and woody facet, the second one is particularly floral, such as the third one which also gives a fruity aspect to the ensemble, as for the last one it is known for its Incense facet.
In the heart, Galbanum (Ferula galbaniflua) is perceived, a very powerful green note which has a terpenic facet as Elemi (scent often compared to paint due to terpenes). We perceive the vegetal green facet, which perfectly marries Star Anise's (Illicium Verum) aromatic facet. This incredible spice also brings a spicy aspect, bonding the heart of the fragrance to the base as Dark Rum possesses a spicy side as well.
Still Life's base features Dark Rum absolute, a very expensive raw material resulting from the distillation of dark rum (also called amber rum), in order to retain only the fragrant compound by completely eliminating the alcohol. This one brings a spicy-vanilla note to the base, allied to the eternal Cedarwood, with its earthy and woody notes, and to Ambroxan, also woody-cedar, and naturally ambery. This raw material adds substance and depth to the fragrance.
The Rose in Rose Shot, is dressed with many raw materials that adorn her with elegance and highlight all her facets.
The head of the perfume is also aromatic with a strong peppery side given by the essence of Elemi (Canarium luzonicum) and Pink Berry (Schinus molle), both spicy raw materials with a lemony facet due to their component limonene (also present in citrus raw materials).
In Rose Shot, we also have very fresh, acidulous start, typical of citrus. This one is particularly lemony, thanks to the essence of Bergamot (Citrus bergamia). We feel immediately the Turkish rose (Rosa damascena) in this complex rose “soliflore” (perfumes olfactively built around a main floral raw material). We encounter a fresh rose, belonging to the "rose essence" type, with a fruity lychee/pear facet and a little artichoke aspect. Lychee and artichoke are representative of natural rose essences and absolutes, unlike synthetic rose recompositions, which do not offer these facets.
Rose essence like the one present in Rose Shot, has more rosy alcohols that are top notes (mainly citronellol and geraniol), while rose absolute is composed mostly of heart notes (phenyl ethyl alcohol). This explains the singular freshness of the rose essence when compared to rose absolute.
In the heart, the White flower lactones are associated with the rose to enhance the floral dimension of the fragrance, and bring a creamy-lactonic aspect.
The base reveals itself gradually, following the freshness of this top noted rose. Atlas Cedarwood (Cedrus atlantica) is recognizable thanks to its milky-sandalwood facet. This one underlines the lactonic white flowers found in the heart. Guaiac wood (Guaiacum sanctum) intensifies the woody base of Rose Shot while offering vanilla and smoky facets, which make it so recognizable and pleasant! Finally, the Tree Moss Absolute (Evernia furfuracea) adds a woody-mossy touch with a slight leathery facet, providing depth to the fragrance.
NOW, SPOTLIGHT ON MANILA ELEMI
A FILIPINO KNOW-HOW
Since the end of the 1800s, Philippines is the only country worldwide where important quantities of Elemi are found. Hardly cultivated, it is mainly found flourishing in its natural environment.
Farmers know from experience that an overdemanding activity can lead to the tree's death if the tapping occurs too often, or if the cuts are too deep.
Traditionally, after the incision is made the resin is harvested a few days to a week later. Just like many natural raw materials Elemi's supply chain involves actors such as middlemen and export or processing companies. The tree can be exploited all year long thanks to its constant resin production, even though July to December are considered lower producing months.
Taking from 8 hours to a full day, the length and yield of the distillation process depends on different factors like the infrastructures, and the untransformed raw material. Not only essence but also hydrosol (the aqueous product of hydrodistillation) can be collected.
As mentioned earlier, two species have the monopole of Elemi production : Canarium luzonicum and ovatum. The first one is more appreciated for its harmonious, mellow scent whereas the second's spicier and sharper facets make it more singular and harder to compose with.
RESIN OR GUM?
Commonly named “gum”, Elemi is actually a resin. The first kind usually oozes out of stems and is water soluble but not alcohol soluble (acacia, arabic gum), whereas resins usually oozes out of bark, is hydrophobic but alcohol soluble (elemi, benzoin, copaiba). Nevertheless, in both cases trees secrete gums or resins in response to environmental stress or an injury.
Gums can be colorful and are found on the exterior of plants: exudate gums come out of the plant and accumulate on the outside. This explains why most people mistake them for resins (and vice versa), and to make this simpler some plants secrete both resins and gums simultaneously: the gum-resins! The latter possess both substances' properties as they are a mixture of the two (Incense, Myrrh).
More specifically, Elemi is an oleoresin, meaning a semi-solid extract composed of resin and essential oil (oleo from latin oleum meaning olive oil). Oleoresins are highly concentrated substances that appear in liquid form. Elemi is a bit special because given its hardening when exposed to air, it doesn’t come out as a liquid substance.
Despite only the resin being harvested, the tree blooms beautiful small white flowers, eye catching, but not nose catching as their scent isn’t strong enough to be exploited.
A lonely Canarium tree would have been strange, as all botanical families are big! The genus has many cousin species, which unlike the luzonicum, are barely used to obtain fragrant resin. These include another species endemic to the Philippines, Canarium ovatum (the second most exploited), Guinea and Cameroon’s Canarium schweinfurthii, Australias’s Canarium muelleri, and Madagascar’s “ramy” or Canarium madagascariensis.
Locally, the two species harvested for their gum bear the names "piling liitan," malapili", "sahing," and "pagsahingin".
WHAT GRANTS IT SUCH A UNIQUE SCENT?
Its main components are terpenes: the widespread D-limonene (50-55%), alpha-phellandrene (15%), paracymene and alpha-pinene. In addition to these, Elemi essence contains synthetic molecules only found in its essential oil: elemol (15%) and elemicine (4%). Their names do give you a little hint to identify them! The essence also holds 3% of the very aromatic eucalyptol.
Limonene being an allergen, Elemi essential oil is regulated and cannot be used excessively in fine fragrance. The presence of methyl eugenol, another common synthetic molecule among its composition, has it regulated by the IFRA organization as well (The International Fragrance Association).
ELEMI’S PLACE IN THE WORLD OF FRAGRANCES
In terms of volatility, Elemi is a top/heart note which doesn’t surprise us given the proportion of terpenes it offers (very volatile group of molecules).
Belonging to the spicy olfactive family its scent can be described as peppery, lemony (due to its main component limonene) terpenic (in reference to terpenes whose odor is found to resemble that of paint by many), and reminiscent of incense.
Its balsamic incense-like facet has made it into a reference for incense notes and accords, making it a widespread incense substitute.
In contemporary perfume compositions, it’s combined to other spices like Pepper (Piper nigrum), Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum), and Pink Berries (Schinus molle). It’s commonly used to replace the latter, given its expensive price. Elemi can bring freshness to fougère and spicy notes, and is quite interesting when used along balsamic raw materials such as incense.
It also acts as a fixative, meaning it retains other more volatile raw materials. Used in coniferous, amber notes, and in soaps as well, we can affirm Elemi is used all around in the industry.
Not too costly of an ingredient, its price per kilogram ranges from 20 to 30€.
AND HEALING PROPERTIES
In aromatherapy, elemi is basically a granny’s remedy. It can heal your skin’s wounds, reduce scars, and treat coughing and bronchitis. It even helps with digestive, respiratory and nervous atony.
Overall, it acts as a very efficient herbal medicine to cure more things you could probably think of from anti-inflammatory to analgesic benefits! Already recognized for its therapeutic value by our ancestors, its spiritual dimension has made it a long-time friend of meditation.
ELEMI PERFUMES WORTH THE SMELL
Do you know any famous fragrances containing Elemi out there? You might have heard of « Nu » by Yves Saint Laurent, created by iconic perfumer Jacques Cavallier in 2000, this spicy women’s perfume allies Elemi to Incense and Musks in its base, Vetiver, Vanilla, and Cardamom in its heart, and is topped with Begamot.
You definitely came across « Dior Homme Sport » composed in 2008 by François Demachy, a spicy yet extremely fresh masculine fragrance, where Elemi is surrounded by Nigerian Ginger at heart, three classical woody raw materials in the base which are none other than Vetiver, Sandalwood, and Cedarwood, and citrus along the aromatic Lavender and Rosemary to burst the start!
In the oriental perfume « L’instant de Guerlain pour homme » (2015), it adds a refreshing note to head composed of pepper and bergamot. Combined to Jasmin and Patchouli, the result is a very seducing men’s fragrance.
In niche perfumery, Diptyque’s « Eau Duelle » and Francis Kurkdjian’s « Oud Maison » are two more Elemi-enthusiasts on the market.
Hop-on aboard the spicy train on this first month of 2022 and let Elemi’s charm operate!
Anna Grézaud-Tostain for Olfactive Studio