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Labdanum resin for perfume and beard dressings

Over time I get many of the same questions from customers about the products I sell in the shop.  I love helping people and end up spending quite a bit of time answering them individually which isn’t the most efficient use of my time. So, I’m going to get better organized and post some of the answers to the most asked questions here. A link that can be shared and answers that are easily Googled. So here we go.   Dan…How do I process this lump of Labdanum resin into a perfume ingredient or a grooming product?

wpid-babylonian-sun-god-shamash.jpg.jpeg

Well. Labdanum resin has been used for perfume, incense, medicine and beard grooming for literally thousands of years. The recipe for the Temple incense, “Ketoret”, of the ancient Jews is thought to incorporate Labdanum under the name “Balm of Gilead”. The tightly coiffed and curled beards depicted on Gods and noblemen in ancient Mesopotamian stone art are believed to be based on the use of Labdanum resin.

BabylonianBeard Wax
Babylonian Gods

It is thought that in the distant past sheep and goats were driven through the sticky bushes to accumulate fragrant Labdanum resin which could be collected from their coats.

The depictions of these beards are so stylized, it led us to theorise our ancestors stuck pieces of this aromatic animal hair on their faces.  In my opinion, they were much more sophisticated than we assume and easily processed the pure Labdanum resin out of the leaves or the animal’s fur with warmth, hot water or warm oils to create products that were not only sensuously aromatic but allowed them to create intricate and artistic designs with their facial hair.

Labdanum,  like many other resins, acts as a perming agent and when applied to hair will set it and keep it in the desired style long after the resin is gone.

In royal tombs of  ancient Babylon, Sumer, Assyria and Akkad were found combs, bits of ribbon and wire that are believed to have been both decorative elements and tools for shaping the beards.  Sleeping with a beard braided with a bit of Labdanum at night will give one beautiful tight ripples for days after the braid is opened. Even after washing and combing. The danger is, of course, one will accidentally sleep with the beard tucked up behind one’s ear and spend those next days trying to straighten it out.

There are two main types of Labdanum available on the market.

Cistus flower-Labdanum
Cistus flower-Labdanum

Cistus Ladanifer from Spain which comes as a resinoid, a thick liquid resin, and is made by solvent extraction with Benzyl benzoate and Cistus creticus from the island of Crete who’s leaves sweat beads of fragrant oleoresin in the heat of summer that is collected and formed into tarry black slabs that look pretty much like Hashish. (Which is why it is shipped in boxes covered with descriptions of the contents in 4 different languages so there are no misunderstandings with customs or the DEA.)

Fresh Labdanum oleoresin. Wild harvested with traditional tools in the hills of Crete
Fresh Labdanum oleoresin. Wild harvested with traditional tools in the hills of Crete

There are other “Labdanum” products such as Labdanum and Cistus essential oils but these contain no resin and are easy to use as fragrance ingredients I won’t address them here.

The Labdanum resin and resinoid have slightly different fragrance profiles, the resin being a little muskier, bolder, and spicier than the liquid resinoid which is a little  sweeter. Both contain resin and essential oils and both work well for beard grooming and shaping. I have heard Perfumer friends give detailed descriptions of the scent of Labdanum resin, finding in its fragrance the scent of Mediterranean Sea breezes, the aroma of the summer-hot Cretan soil, hints of nearby wildflower essential oils, pollen and stray butterfly wings that are all drawn to the sticky leaves on the hottest of days.

How to process Labdanum

If you have the liquid resinoid of Labdanum, it is simple to dissolve it in alcohol for perfume use and in oil for other applications. Warm oil tends to work best.

If you purchased a lump of Labdanum resin from Crete, it is also simple to process but requires more warmth.

An oil infusion of Labdanum resin

For this I suggest a water bath. A simple Bain Marie could consist of a pot of water and a mason jar clamped to the inside and suspended halfway in the water. Hardware stores offer a variety of suitable spring clamps. It is important to use a water bath and not direct heat or a microwave oven. These offer little control over the temperature. Besides the issue of flammability and flash fires, the smallest amount of burnt material will spoil the whole batch. The water bath is an ancient piece of technology and a reliable thermoregulator that works just as well now as it did a thousand years ago. Again, the ancients were much more sophisticated than we like to think.

 

Weigh your lump of Labdanum, place it in the jar and add an oil of your choice at 3-10 times its weight. A 1-10 ratio will give you a fragrant but less potent oil and a 1-3 a stronger smelling product. You can always start with 1-3 and add oil till you have the strength of fragrance that suits you.

Bring the water to a boil, stir the Labdanum and oil till the Labdanum is completely dissolved. Remove when you are satisfied the Labdanum will break down no further.

Some people let this mix sit 4-6 weeks to extract all the fragrance compounds from the resin, others simply let it sediment well and pour off the liquid. Your choice. You can pass the liquid or the sediment through a pillowcase with a tight weave to rescue any oil left in the spent resin.

This beautifully aromatic oil can be used in oil-based perfumes and skin care products though it can be applied to the hair and skin directly and is one of the most attractive fragrances I know of for facial hair. Literally. It seems to draw people in. Like a people magnet hidden in your beard. If you chose an oil with hair or skin nourishing qualities that is great. If not, your Labdanum oil can be blended with other hair or skin nourishing oils or with a bit of Lanolin or beeswax, (In the water bath), to create a beard balm. Depending on the oil you used this product will keep anywhere from 2 years, (Olive oil) to indefinitely, (Jojoba, Fractionated Coconut Oil).

Water-soluble gum after the hot oil extraction
Metal mesh coffee filter works well for filtering hot resin/oil blends.

 

An alcohol tincture of Labdanum for perfume

To use Labdanum in an alcohol-based perfume use 95%-96% alcohol at the same ratio as above. To make a more concentrated tincture I suggest a twofold tincture rather than trying to tincture the Labdanum with a higher ratio of  Labdanum.

A little warmth speeds up the dissolution of the resin in the oil. A gentle warmth is all that is needed. Again, some perfumers prefer to let this tincture of Labdanum sit for a few weeks before filtering. For an alcohol tincture, I use a paper coffee filter which removes most of the non-aromatic material. You can carefully pour the filtered tincture off the sediment once it has settled. Some perfumers will freeze the tincture before filtering to reduce stickiness in the final perfume product. I haven’t tried it with Labdanum myself

A Labdanum Moustache Wax

If you want to make a moustache wax with Labdanum resin, dissolve the resin in hot wax in the water bath and adjust the product’s hardness and texture by slowly adding small amounts of oil, cocoa butter, lanolin or other oil-soluble materials of your choice till it meets your satisfaction.  Have a plate or other clean room-temperature surface handy to do numerous drop tests to fine-tune the consistency and hardness of your moustache wax. When it is ready, you can pour the liquid wax/resin mix through a metal mesh coffee filter into a measuring cup and either reheat the filtered product in the water bath again for fine-tuning or pour it from the measuring cup into tins or jars for use.

And as always, remember to keep clear notes.

Your future self will thank you.

Dan

 

 

 

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Labdanum- Beard grooming Babylonian Style

Labdanum-Beard Grooming Babylonian style

 

Labdanum and Babylonian Beards
Babylonian Beard

 

Labdanum. Also called LadanumCistus or Rockrose, is a fragrant mediterranean shrub, rich in history, oleo-resin, and tradition, both medicinally and aromatically.

Cistus ladanifer #1
Cistus ladanifer #1 (Photo credit: J.G. in S.F.)

 

The use of Labdanum, Cistus Ladanifera, Cistus Incanus or Cistus Creticus from Crete, has been traced back thousands of years to ancient Egypt, the civilizations of Akkad, Sumeria, Babylon. It is believed to be one of the ingredients in the ancient Hebrews sacred temple incense, “K’toret”. Thus keeping privileged company with such esteemed fragrant oleo-resins as Frankincense, Myrrh and Balm of Gilead

Labdanum is the starting material for most, if not all “Amber” type scents. Since there is no naturally occurring material with this name and fragrance. If you come across anything purported to be “True Amber”, be aware it is a composite material.

Cistis creticus (Cistus) source of traditional Cretan Labdanum

 

The fragrance of Labdanum is musky, warm, masculine, mysterious, balsamic, woody, slightly spicy and sweet. It is a heady odour, rich, complex and long-lasting. To me it speaks of mystery and masculinity. Not aggressive or self-serving masculinity, as Mars’ energy can be at times, but the powerful and gentle, nourishing strength of  the Sun. The kind of warm masculinity I associate with wisdom, compassion, love and healing. Labdanum speaks to me of the mystery and magic that we, the not so fair sex, are bestowed with. The receptive side that most men often do not discover till later in life.

 

English: Adam and Eve
English: Adam and Eve (Photo credit: Wikipedia

 

Yes, men have a mystery too, an intuitive and sensitive side, a perspective and insight that only men can have. One of equal weight, but less obvious as the better known womanly mysteries. For in this reality of duality, there could not be one without the other. Nor can we respect and honour one without accepting the other as its equal and counterpoint . It can work no other way. Yin and Yang. It is a gift that all men can draw upon.

 

 

 

One symbol of masculinity that cannot be refuted is A beard.  They say a man’s beard covers his throat area, the seat of his emotions and vulnerability, hiding and protecting them. I can’t disagree. It certainly feels necessary at times. Believe it or not, it’s not easy being a man in our society.  But we also embrace and  care for our masculine nature by growing and grooming our facial hair.

 

Sumerian-Babylonian-Beard

 

My personal favourite beard dressing ingredient is, you guessed it, Labdanum. It has a warm comforting and familiar scent to it, as if carried through lifetimes and centuries, adhered to our spirits.  It does have an ancient and timeless quality to it, and as mentioned, it is persistent!             Persistent enough to stick to our memory and genes 2000, 3000 or 5000 years later?  Apparently.

Assyrian composite man/horse/bird with beard
Assyrian composite man/horse/bird with beard

Labdanum, as other oleo-resins, has an affinity with facial hair. If anyone has read my earlier post about mustaches, Waxing warmly over mustaches, or a recipe for solid mustache wax, you will know I find oleo-resins a great aid in training facial hair. I have not researched the chemistry of this effect, but the resin part seems to have chemical compounds that affect hair behaviour. Labdanum works just as well as Pine, Spruce and Fir saps in this regard. It helps shape my beard, training it to hold a form long after the Labdanum has gone from my face. It helps with stray hairs, cowlicks and in general keeps things in place without the use of extra waxes and gels. And of course, the warm Amber like scent that Labdanum imparts to my facial hair is reason enough to slather it on regularly.

 

Mesoporamian relief
Mesopotamian relief

Traditionally Labdanum was collected from the beards and thighs of sheep and goats. The animals would accumulate sticky gobs of resin on their wool as they rubbed against the plants while grazing. If anyone is familiar with the musky fragrance of goats, or the gentler odor of raw Lanolin, (from sheep’s wool), they may have an idea what a good match these animal essences can be to Labdanum.There is a wonderful muskiness to these smells that compliments the sweet woody balsamic notes of Labdanum. For this reason I often use Lanolin as a conditioning agent in my Labdanum based beard grooming products. When fragrance and function of materials work together naturally, it is always a joy.

 cretan goats, collect Labdanum as they brush against against Cistus while grazing

 

Nowadays Labdanum is either collected by thrashing the plants with an ancient tool called a Ladanesterion, (There are records of its use in the first century A.D.), or by harvesting the shrub and boiling it in water, often a water and alkaloid mixture. The separated residue is then processed with solvents to create resinoids, an absolute and eventually an essential oil. There are different grades of quality depending on which type of Cistus is used, where, when and how it is harvested, the methods of separation and extraction used. Gentler solvents and lower temperatures are of course preferred when a high quality perfume ingredient is required.

When one comes upon photographs of sculptures of ancient Mesopotamian kings and gods, or Akkadian, Babylonian, Sumerian and Assyrian men, we gaze upon some very ornate and stylized beards carved in stone reliefs and sculptures, steles and rock walls thousands of years ago. Sadly, very few of these magnificent representations of Mesopotamic masculinity remain intact. If they haven’t been defaced by conquering armies, then  religious zealots finished the job in their attempts to eradicate idolatry and any competition with their own gods and dogma. Maybe they were pissed off that someone else’s god had a more magnificent beard than their god.

..Stylized Babylonian beard

When I come across references that ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian figures may have pasted Labdanum soaked, sheep’s, (or goat’s), wool on their faces as part of their facial hair grooming methods, I always feel it is too tempting to underestimate  the sophistication of our ancestors and misinterpret the visual references carved in the ancient stone. These people were not as primitive as we like to assume. Labdanum, in my experience, is an ideal facial hair styling and grooming gift from nature, on its own or when combined with oils, waxes or resins.  When one learns of the elaborate beard grooming and shaping techniques employed in ancient Mesopotamian cultures, such as tying strings or ribbons, using hot  irons, curling and braiding a beard, weaving in beads and precious metals, dyeing the hair with henna or other coloring agents, and of course applying sweet smelling unguents to it,  it makes me question whether sticking patches of sheep’s wool on ones face would complement any of these techniques or grooming methods, or if it would be completely at odds with it.

Presumed to be a stone relief of a "Genie" performing blessings and sprinkling "Holy", fragrant water, (Labdanum and other odiferous materials??).
Presumed to be a stone relief of a “Genie” performing blessings and sprinkling “Holy”, or fragrant water, (Labdanum and other odiferous materials??).

 

 

 

On the other hand, incorporating fragrant resins and oils, especially those that would help with shaping and setting a beard, does seem a more likely complement to the established grooming practices of the times. In my mind, Labdanum would be a perfect aromatic accompaniment to all that beard training, styling, preening and fussing. Just as effective then as it is today.

 

That’s my take on it.   Whatever methods you use to groom and shape your facial hair, they are part of your own unique path of self-expression. If you want to explore making your own beard or mustache grooming products, have fun, and remember to always take notes! Your future self will thank you.

If you have any questions, comments, insights or suggestions, I would love to hear from you..

Dan

 

 

 

 

 

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http://archaeologistforhire.wordpress.com/2010/02/08/the-archaeology-of-beards/

 

 

 

 

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