Perfumers often use the descriptor “thujone” to describe a particular note in fragrances. However, the odor of thujone itself seems to be inseparable from the character of the essential oils in which it is found. This article will examine the uses of thujone and thujonecontaining materials in perfumery, and describe some synthetic materials — old and new— that are intended to provide this note.
Thujone is a monoterpenoid ketone that exists in two major forms —α (1) and β (2)— as illustrated in Figure 1.
Both isomers are widely distributed in nature, and are generally found together. Thujones are particularly prevalent in species of Artemisia, most famously in Artemisia absinthium, from which wormwood oil is derived. The use of wormwood oil in the French liquor absinthe gave rise to many cases of poisoning, and as a consequence absinthe was banned in 1915. The attractiveness of absinthe to its devotees lay in the double intoxication effect: the alcohol acted as a sedative, and the thujone contained in the wormwood oil reportedly produced excitement and auditory and visual hallucinations. This became popular with many famous creative individuals, including de Maupassant, Rimbaud, Verlaine and Tolouse-Lautrec, but the effect on unstable personalities — as in the case of Vincent Van Gogh — led to tragic consequences.