Labdanum used to be one of those notes used in perfumes that I was completely unfamiliar with. Whilst I was aware that it lends a rich, resinous quality to perfume, and is favoured for use in chypres in particular, I hadn't any olfactory acquaintance with the scent in its purest form. It remained a bit of an enigma until I did a little reading on the subject, and managed to source some raw labdanum from a passionate European supplier.
Labdanum is produced across parts of the Mediterranean - mainly Spain and Greece - as a by-product from shrubs of the Cistus variety - more commonly known as rock rose. For centuries, the plant has thrived and grown abundantly in rocky outcrops near coastal areas, and is known to secrete a thick, sticky sap when the sun is high overhead and summer temperatures are at their fiercest. In ancient times, local goat herders whose animals had been grazing around the cistus trees, found that the animal's fur gradually became matted and soaked with a thick tar-like substance. The fur was profoundly aromatic; imbued with the resins and oils from the shrubs, and their pelts became widely sought after.
The beards of the animals were clipped regularly and sold, traded and bartered across the Mediterranean. In Egypt, pharaohs and royals attached plaited strands of labdanum-rich goats hair onto their chins as a perfumed symbol of leadership. This appendage is clearly visible in ancient Egyptian art; a prime example being the long chin protrusion seen on the famed golden funerary mask of Tutankhamun.
Now, many thousands of years later, labdanum is still revered as a desirable component in perfumery, and perhaps more astonishingly, is still being harvested in a traditional fashion by very dedicated families living in the Mediterranean basin.
The Niktaris family of Sises in Crete are one of only a tiny handful that still use traditional non-destructive tools and methods to preserve this millennia-old tradition. Armed with little more than a protective hat to ward off the blazing sun, and a ladanestirio (a primitive tool made from a wooden frame and leather straps which has changed very little over the ages), the family set out to collect the resinous liquid by thoroughly raking the dewy cistus shrubs. The fluid sticks to the long cords of the ladanestirio, which is then left in the sun for several days for the secretion to congeal. Once dried, the straps are then scraped clean one by one with a small metal instrument. The labdanum forms a semi-solid bead with an overwhelming fragrance that is both earthy and balsamic, but also hints at soft rose and green leaves.
Pieces of this dark, tacky resin can then be broken off and burned over charcoal discs to fill a room or outdoor space with wonderful tendrils of perfume, or tinctured for use in perfumery.
I feel richer for having understood more about this precious commodity and more so for having sampled the fruits of this Cretian family's labour. The next time you see labdanum included in the olfactory pyramid of your favourite perfume, give a moment of pause to recall the process required to harvest this exceptional raw ingredient. I have the greatest respect for these families; for their impassioned efforts to conserve sustainable plantations and to pass on the tradition from one generation to the next.