With a history dating back more than two thousand years, sandalwood (botanical name: santalum) has been one of the most sought after and sacred natural materials due to its wide range of use, such as ancient medicine, religious rituals, construction, and of course, perfumery.
You could write a book on this natural gem with its scandalous history of exploitation, smuggling (Google: Operation Cocoon and Veerappan) and its complex yet intimate scent that is second to none. However, one has to mention the specific species/varieties when talking about raw materials of mother nature. This article is primarily focused on the santalum album variety (yes you guessed it right) which is native to India, as it’s considered the holy grail of sandalwoods. For other native sandalwood species, check out Pacific sandalwood (santalum austrocaledonicum) and Australian sandalwood (santalum spicta).
Important to note; Besides their native Australian sandalwood (santalum spicta), Australia has become a main player today for Indian santalum album plantations, and I read good feedback on the quality of the first harvests after 30+ years, rich in santalol content.
Unfortunately, our generation is missing out on this amazing material due to the scarcity of sandalwood around the world, especially since the Indian government placed a smuggling ban on the oil in the early 80s. The reason why it will not be easily accessible & affordable anytime soon is due to the long maturing time plus the complex requirements for plantation. It’s estimated that until 2050, sandalwood will remain scarce and therefore ridiculously expensive. To give a price approximation, in the current retail market, high-quality sandalwood oil from India, Mysore (from 50+ years aged trees) is sold for around €15 for 1ml. It’s safe to say mass-produced fine fragrances don’t include natural sandalwood oil anymore, that would be rare even for niche/prestige categories.
One of the primary reasons for its scarcity in the near future is that sandalwood trees require a minimum of 30 years to produce oil of adequate quality. Ideally, it’s suggested to maturate for 70-80 years, a case of the “the longer the better”. Not only is maturing time a problem, but the tree can only grow alongside certain other trees and plants in order to consume the necessary nutrients carried by them. Needless to say, it’s dependent on certain climate conditions.
As a perfume note
No surprise that such a treasure is one of the most popular perfume notes in history. Due to the heavy molecule structure both in natural and synthetics, sandalwood is certainly a base note – slowly evaporating and tenacious. It’s often used to give perfumes more body, longevity, richness, velvety woodiness, creamy-milky softness and fixative properties. Contrary to its lasting power, it’s a delicate note which may not be easily recognizable in perfumes.
In modern perfumery
Sandalwood is a prime example of how synthetic creations can come to the rescue of perfumers and even better, can do more good than bad for the environment in the context of perfumery. If you research a bit, the information you would find on the enormous costs involved in labour and nature to produce sandalwood oil is simply mind-blowing!
Yes, natural sandalwood oil can’t be matched by synthetics yet, but science is getting there.
Talking about synthetic sandalwood recreations, aroma-chemicals like:
Givaudan’s Javanol, Sandalore, Sandela, Ebanol, Pashminol (captive, not available to public),
Firmenich’s Polysantol, Firsantol, Dartanol etc.
IFF’s Bacdanol, Santaliff, Sanjinol, Sandiff,
Symrise’s Brahmanol, Mysore Acetate,
Takasago’s Hindinol, are enabling perfumers to be able to replicate the sandalwood smell in the way they desire, and I must say some of these ingredients smell heavenly regardless of their accuracy. Usually used in combinations with each other, the possibilities are endless. All that while helping sustain the natural sources. Go science!
Smell sandalwood in:
Escentric Molecules – Molecule 04
Featuring only the mighty Javanol, one of the strongest aroma chemicals out there with an odour threshold of 0.02 ppt (parts per trillion) or 0.02 nanogram/Liter, Molecule 04 possesses an eternal sandalwood experience. Such a low odour threshold means a couple of things: Its smell will fill rooms and buildings, it’s resistant to the wash so you can still smell it on your clothes after several wash cycles and your nose will get fatigued in seconds if smelled directly. That’s why this amazing perfume is discarded by many, thinking it smells like hair spray/alcohol – even if they are not completely anosmic to it.
With Javanol, Molecule 04 radiates alluring facets of sandalwood – creamy, woody, citrus-bright, at times rosy-floral. I suggest Molecule 04 be smelled outside of perfume stores, preferably with a tester at home in a neutral smelling environment and away from your neck/nose. It’s best appreciated when the applied source is a couple of meters away.
Tom Ford – Santal Blush
A must-try sandalwood interpretation from Tom Ford, featuring lactonic and creamy facets of the Indian Mysore sandalwood, with spicy nuances. In my opinion, this is as close as you can get to the natural oil within convenience.
Comme des Garçons – Wonderwood & Wonderoud
Featuring Javanol and Pashminol from Givaudan, these 2 can be considered as brothers, similar but also different. (We can even add their sister, CdG – Floriental, into this family). The similar part in all is what we are interested in, and that’s sandalwood. Here are 2 great interpretations of sandalwood, accompanied by cedar, black pepper, Cashmeran, cypress, vetiver, oud – yielding a contemporary experience, scents of urban nature. Again, best experienced by giving time, smelling on others, smelling in neutral environments.
Serge Lutens – Santal de Mysore
This is yet another sandalwood fragrance deserving its place in the hall of fame. It’s boosted with Indian spices, hints of cumin, fenugreek mellowed with benzoin – yielding a butter-soft lactonic sandalwood experience and able to provide the quirks of the Mysore sandalwood.
Guerlain – Samsara (EDP)
And how can we not mention Samsara when talking about sandalwood? The original formula (1989-1990) is said to include an approximate 30% Mysore sandalwood oil, in combination with Polysantol and it’s safe to say that the current formulation will not be anything near that amount – if any natural Mysore sandalwood is used at all. The original formula can still be found on online sellers, though the current formula is still a great sandalwood example in combination with classic French floral style, roses and jasmines in the most bright and powdery fashion.
In fact, there are more than we can mention. For more interpretations of sandalwood, some other options to discover from my personal choices:
- Orto Parisi – Bergamask: Another Javanol galore, one of the favorite aroma chemicals of perfumer, Alessandro Gaulteri – here the sandalwood is brightened and amplified in combination with a tangy bergamot and human-skin-smelling musk.
- Diptyque – Tam Dao: Though not a dominant sandalwood, it gives the creamy-cedarwood facets of sandalwood/incense, evoking the smell of serene Buddhist temples.
- Acqua di Parma – Sandalo: Here we find sandalwood hidden deep down in the classic barbershop cologne-aromatic type, which would be a very familiar experience to anyone.
- Floris – Santal, Etro – Sandalo, Geo F Trumper – Sandalwood Cologne can be included in this category too.
- Elie Saab – Essence No:8 Santal: Another good option to experience a solo elegant Indian sandalwood interpretation, from Francis Kurkdjian.
- Guerlain – Santal Royal: Sandalwood taking a turn to the East, partnering with oud and rose.
And there’s one perfume which features the word “Santal” in its name, but I prefer to describe it as a “false sandalwood” perfume – that is, Le Labo – Santal 33. I wanted to mention this in case there are some of you who register a sandalwood note from Santal 33. For those who are familiar with the brand, you’re most likely not surprised because most of their offerings are strangely named. Santal 33 is a violet-leather-papyrus-cedar (Iso E Super) perfume before anything else. Although it features Australian sandalwood according to the brand, it’s not the prominent element.
Have you thought about your sandalwood favourites? Let us know in the comments below!