The “Balm of Gilead”: The Most Expensive Perfume in History

The Balm of Gilead is one of the most noble, rare and fascinating ingredients long used in perfumery and medicine, that is missing today. and is one of the precious ingredients in our Origin Oil Pack

Did you know?

“The word ‘perfume’ comes from ‘per fumum’, which means ‘through smoke’ and refers to the first uses of perfume, obtained by fumigation of woods and resins. Since Neolithic times, sacred and fragrant offerings aimed at pleasing, soothing and feeding Gods, but also at entering in communication with them and the deceased relatives. “

From the study “Forgotten Perfumery Plants – Part I: Balm of Judea

“Perfumes have always fascinated human beings. Unique material or fragrant composition, the perfume was considered as a sacred object, a drug or even a vector of an erotic pleasure. Through the ages, fragrances and ointments have been used during feasts, ceremonies, religious rites, funerals, for medicine and seduction purposes. These ancient perfumes, very different from the alcohol-based perfumes we know today, were exclusively made from natural raw materials, essentially vegetal (flowers, leaves, resins, wood, oil…). Over the centuries, technical and scientific improvements, combined with great geographical discoveries, have contributed to increase the number of available fragrant raw materials. With the development of organic chemistry from the beginning of the XIXth century, the world of perfumery has considerably changed, using more and more synthetic molecules.

Many plants, which were used in perfumery ever since antiquity, have been forgotten. Some noble and rare raw materials, even described as ‘extraordinary’ by some naturalists, remain mysterious.”

The Balm of Gilead is one of those mysterious fragrances.

“Balm of Gilead was actually more expensive than Frankincense, and the plant itself, in its entirety, was used for a variety of health remedies: as an essential oil, and as an industrial dye throughout the peninsula. Consequently, these plants were protected within their natural habitat and cultivated in farms and private gardens.” Source and photos

Balm of Gilead was sold at a price ‘twice its weight in gold during Middle Ages [476 AD to 1492 AD] and twice its weight in silver during the Roman period [753 BC to 410 AD]’. This high cost would have made of the resin one of the most expensive, valuable and precious agricultural product in human history.

Balm of Gilead, Balsam of Judea
Balm of Gilead, Balsam of Judea Hand-Atlas Medicinisch-Pharmaceutischer, 1884

The Influence of Fragrance

A fragrance consists of volatile chemicals with a molecular weight of less than 300 Da that humans perceive through the olfactory system. In humans, about 300 active olfactory receptor genes are devoted to detecting thousands of different fragrance molecules through a large family of olfactory receptors of a diverse protein sequence. The sense of smell plays an important role in the physiological effects of mood, stress, and working capacity.

In the last few decades, many scientific studies were conducted to investigate the effect of inhalation of aroma on human brain functions. The studies have suggested a significant role for olfactory stimulation in the alteration of cognition, mood, and social behavior. Source: Influence of Fragrances on Human Psychophysiological Activity: With Special Reference to Human Electroencephalographic Response

The Scent of Balm of Gilead

This resin was described as having a pleasant, attractive, suave and powerful odour, close to lemon essence with woody tones of turpentine.

The Roman author, a naturalist and natural philosopher, Pliny even noted that ‘every other scent ranks below balsamum’. Therefore, balm of Gilead entered into the composition of many ancient perfumes, among the most expensive, noble and popular.

“The famous Parthians’ Royal Perfume, strictly reserved to the Parthian kings and described as the height of refinement by Pliny, was composed of this balm, amongst twenty-two others aromas and three different excipients.

Foliatum, a perfumed oil composition designed for rich women, was both used to perfume and to sweeten the breath, using inter alia balsam.

In the Bible, only two recipes of holy perfumes are given: the altar of the Temple and the holy anointing oil. (Bible, Livre de l’Exode, 30)

Balm of Gilead would have been one ingredient (stacte) of the altar of the Temple, also known as the altar of incense, an incense composition made of stacte, onyx, galbanum and incense.

This perfume, used twice a day for the devotions at the temple of Jerusalem, is the symbol of the alliance between God (fragrant smoke) and the Human being (flavouring material). The second one, the holy anointing oil, or holy Chrism, is the only perfumed consecrated oil in the Latin and Catholic Church.

Exclusively reserved for baptism, confirmation and ordination (priests and bishops), it symbolizes the descent of the Holy Spirit. In western civilization, holy Chrism was traditionally composed of Judean balsam, the ultimate and sacred fragrant material, and olive oil.

During the time of the Bible (Josiah’s reign), kings were even anointed solely with this balsam and the Balm of Judea would have been the only sacred ‘balm’ mentioned in the Bible (Genesis, Chronicles, Jeremiah, Ezeckiel).

Why Did The Balm of Gilead Become So Rare?

“In the studied Balm of Judea’s productions of Israel, the harvest yield is estimated at a few grams or 7 mL per tree per year. In comparison, production of myrrh and frankincense is much more worthwhile and economically viable, estimated at a few kilograms per tree per year.

In this type of production, the gatherers cut pieces of the trunk bark and then let the resin flowing and drying. Only after a period of one week, up to ten days, the resin becomes hard and is collected in a large quantity. Unlike the frankincense and the myrrh, the balm of Judea resin behaves differently: most of the resin is very volatile. The very little amount of dry resin that remains is odourless and useless for perfumery. It had to be quickly collected and sealed to limit volatile compounds loss.

The production of the balsamon resin requires lots of workforce and working time, explaining its very high price. In a context of productivity research, balm of Judea rapidly appeared to be too expensive and too rare to be developed on an industrial scale. This probably constitutes the main reason why the balm of Judea was so expensive, regularly adulterated.” (1)

Commiphora opobalsamum
Commiphora opobalsamum Cartes et figures du Voyage en Nubie et en Abyssinie, 1792

Photo: Cartes et figures du Voyage en Nubie et en Abyssinie, 1792

Resources:

Forgotten Perfumery Plants – Part I: Balm of Judea
Authors: Xavier FERNANDEZ, BOUVILLE Anne-Sophie, Guy Erlich,
and Stéphane Azoulay

P. Faure, Parfums et aromates de l’Antiquité, Fayard, Paris, 2007.

A. LeGuérer, Parfum (Le): des origines à nos jours, Odile Jacob, Paris, 2005.