My first whiff of real sandalwood came from a necklace my aunt’s husband sent her while he was working abroad. As fate would have it, he had to leave for the Middle East just as they got married, and his letters and gifts were always a big event for us. As my aunt read one of his passionate love letters, the necklace was forgotten on the table, and I came closer to inspect the small carved beads. Tan brown and small, they didn’t look like much, but their perfume of roses, warm milk and incense was so vivid that today, more than two decades later, I can recall it perfectly.
This early romantic and exotic association with sandalwood inspired my love for this materials. When I look at the notes I took during my perfumery training, the part on sandalwood covers about 10 pages. Although classified as a wood, sandalwood smells of cream and flowers. It has none of the raspy sharpness of rosewood, the pencil shaving bite of cedarwood or the earthy or damp tang of vetiver. Sandalwood is reminiscent of something one can enjoy in a dessert sprinkled with candied rose petals, and in some parts of India sandalwood flavors milkshakes and sweetmeats.
Unfortunately, the tree Santalum album, or Indian sandalwood, is on the list of threatened species. The oil is harvested from the wood of the branches, trunk and the roots, and usually the whole tree has to be chopped down before the wood is steam or water distilled for oil. Because of overharvesting, the prized sandalwood groves in the Mysore region of Karnataka are today a sorry sight.
The good news is that efforts are underway to regenerate South Indian sandalwood production and save the trees from extinction. In Western Australia, for instance, Indian sandalwood took up successfully, and it’s now grown alongside the Santalum spicatum, a sandalwood species native to Australia. Sandalwood is one of the slower growing trees, and the quality of the oil increases with age. In the past, trees younger than 40 or 60 years were never felled, but today the age of the tree before one goes into production is 8-16 years.
Unless you come across vintage fragrances, you won’t find Indian sandalwood in anything new on the perfume market. Even Guerlain Samsara which at one point was purported to contain around 40% sandalwood was reformulated years ago. But I don’t mean to paint a depressing picture, because you can still discover a wide range of sandalwood fragrances and enjoy the sultry and comforting perfume of this precious material.
Names like Javanol and Santanol may not mean much to the average fragrance consumer, but they are among the excellent sandalwood aroma-materials that have been used widely to replace the rare sandalwood oil. You can find the effect of these notes in Tom Ford Private Blend Santal Blush, an elegant and polished perfume. Australian sandalwood oil is another material that has been used to replace Indian sandalwood. It smells crisp and sharp, with a distinctive pencil shavings note, but in the hands of a talented perfumer, it can shine. In Donna Karan Black Cashmere, a pairing of cedar and Australian sandalwood creates a multifaceted effect, warmed up by incense and spices.
The sweetness of sandalwood lends it to gourmand interpretations. I’m currently addicted to Olfactive Studio Lumière Blanche, in which sandalwood is wrapped in luscious notes of milk, cardamom and tonka bean. Serge Lutens Jeux de Peau contrasts sandalwood with the toasty darkness of caramelized bread and apricots. Another Lutens beauty, Santal Blanc, is liberally garnished with cinnamon, rose and musk. In contrast to this high-calorie confection, Hermessence Santal Massoia is a delicate vignette of sandalwood drizzled with coconut syrup. True to the style of its creator, Jean-Claude Ellena, it remains transparent and light.
If I don’t have a taste for anything overly sweet, I reach for Annick Goutal Sables. Here sandalwood is the tall, dark and handsome stranger that makes this simple blend into a sultry fragrance. Serge Lutens Santal de Mysore is another bombshell, with cumin lending it an animalic growl. Chanel Égoïste is likewise sensual and brooding. Diptyque Tam Dao and 10 Corso Como are somewhat less dramatic, but are among the best perfumes exploring the woody theme. The sandalwood is blended with plenty of amber, cypress and cedarwood to create a nuanced impression, while the dry finish feels sophisticated.
The challenge with using a rich dose of sandalwood is that it tends to overtake the composition completely, but even more subtle accents can create memorable effects. I love the creamy layer of sandalwood in the drydown of Bvlgari Omnia, where it gives the crisp amber and tea accord a pleasing softness. The dark roses of Caron Nuit de Noël are given an exotic twist thanks to sandalwood. It’s amazing how much difference it can make to give a fragrance a full, rounded character. One of my favorite illustrations is Elizabeth Arden Red Door. Spray it on the blotter at your local mall, take a quick sniff and forget about it until the next day. Then take a deep inhale. After the bling of the aldehydes, ylang-ylang and rose in the top notes of Red Door, the creamy darkness of sandalwood feels unexpectedly rich and glamorous.
More sandalwood reviews can be found at my perfume note directory, under sandalwood. I touched upon only a few, so please share your favorite sandalwood fragrances.
Image: crushed sandalwood. Photography by Bois de Jasmin