Star rating: 5 stars–outstanding/potential classic, 4 stars–very good, 3 stars–adequate, 2 stars–disappointing, 1 star–poor.
My sample of Le Labo Santal 33 has been sitting on my desk alongside several samples of sandalwood oil and synthetic sandalwood materials. For a perfumer, sandalwood is what chocolate is to a pastry chef: a creamy, dark material that can give a sensual, luscious twist to any composition. Sandalwood even behaves similar to chocolate: initially crisp and dense, the warmth of the skin makes it bloom and reveal its milky, sweet richness. Yet, not all sandalwood notes are made equal. Synthetic sandalwood materials, beautiful though some are, have the roughness of raw silk at best and the screech of nylon at worst. Australian sandalwood is medicinal and pungent, missing the delicious rose petals and cream facets of Indian sandalwood.
Unfortunately, the lack of availability of Indian sandalwood means that perfumers have to rely on substitutes to recreate the unique creamy sensation which is closer to a flower than to wood. The newest fragrance from Le Labo Santal 33 is a valiant attempt to create a woody fragrance by highlighting the natural facets of Australian sandalwood—medicinal, smoky, and leathery.
Frank Voekl, who has already collaborated with Le Labo on Iris 39, Baie Rose 26, Musc 25 and their Santal 26 candle, is the author of Santal 33. While it does not smell like a classical creamy sandalwood, Santal 33 explores a woody idea in a leather and amber register. In fact, Santal 33 has a clear masculine ring to me because it uses many of the common themes found in conventional masculines today—fresh, marine notes, dry woods, soft leather. Although it is built via several interesting accords (cedarwood-sandalwood, leather, spicy floral), the sum total is not that unpredictable. A strong emphasis on the fresh, marine notes places Santal 33 alongside many mainstream masculine fragrances.
Santal 33 has a remarkable diffusion and tenacity, and over time, it loses its cowboy bravado and settles into a smoky leather note, underscored by dry cedarwood. The creamy sandalwood character becomes apparent in the late drydown, though the dry, sharp amber notes also become more prominent. As a sandalwood fragrance, it reminds me of attempts to create chocolate out of carob beans; however, as a sophisticated woody-leathery composition, it works much better. Yet, since it is a niche launch from a company that prides itself on being a renegade, I really expect something more daring.
Santal 33 includes notes of Australian sandalwood, papyrus, cedarwood, cardamom, iris, violet, ambrox and leather accord. It is a part of the permanent collection. Available from Le Labo and Barneys as well as Colette in Paris, priced at 170 euros/100ml.
Sample source: Le Labo