Le Labo Santal 33 : Perfume Review



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



  • Janice: I love the “chocolate out of carob beans” comparison! I just tried my sample of this yesterday. I got lots and lots of violet from it, in addition to the smoke and leather. It lasted for hours–I could still smell it on my wrist this morning–and the drydown was just a comfortable sort of scent. May 5, 2011 at 10:32am Reply

  • Suzanna: “Screech of nylon” is the perfect description of some of those synthetics. Others attempt to quiet the screech with heavy musks and florals. I dread that type of sandalwood and in the past it has turned me off the note altogether.

    Joining Janice on loving the analogy to “chocolate out of carob beans.” This tells it as it is, in a way that is simple to understand. I won’t bother trying this one. It sounded like something I would enjoy, but sandalwood constructs are not much of interest to me. May 5, 2011 at 11:31am Reply

  • Krizani: Exactly when did sandalwood begin to be scarce?

    I have a nice 100ml bottle of Samsara that dates from the late 90’s, I’m thinking and I’m pretty sure there’s a hearty dose of the real thing in there.

    I got lucky and found it at a local shop that has been selling old stock for years it seems, and I’ve found some real deals there as a result – just as I started my dive into perfume love.

    Unfortunately the Chanels and Diors were cleaned out before I got there but I did score some Diorissimo shower gel for $10, along with a couple of others. Now I want the real Diorissimo fragrance (gnashes teeth). May 5, 2011 at 1:52pm Reply

  • Victoria: I like the drydown as well. It is as you say very comfortable. May 5, 2011 at 11:20am Reply

  • Victoria: I still love Samsara, even in its new version. It amazed me how well balanced that fragrance is, despite the fact that much of the Indian sandalwood in it has been replaced. Yet, the way it was done is very respectful of the original’s spirit.

    Diptyque Tam Dao and 10 Corso Como are not exactly as beautiful as they used to be with the natural sandalwood, but they are still very good. May 5, 2011 at 11:33am Reply

  • Carrie Meredith: Wow, Frank Voelkl is having quite a year, what with Esprit d’Oscar’s recent release, and now this. I must admit I’m wary of what you call the marine notes, those have never worked for me, but in general, Le Labo always seems to strike the right chords within me, so of course I’ll be getting a bottle. I’ll be surprised if anything can top Oud 27 and Patchouli 24 for me, though. May 5, 2011 at 12:41pm Reply

  • Victoria: I just find this fragrance a bit of a generic masculine, but of course, you should try it yourself. In fact, since you are a Le Labo fan in general, you will probably like it much better than I did. May 5, 2011 at 2:26pm Reply

  • Victoria: It has been getting more and more expensive over the past decade, but in the recent years, it is pretty much unavailable for any medium or large scale launch. My Samsara from the late 1990s smells great.

    Lucky you! What a treasure trove you found! May 5, 2011 at 2:28pm Reply

  • dee: Color me cured of my lemming! Not that it sounds at all bad, mind you, but I guess that the romantic idea I had in my head related to this fragrance has been knocked about—generic masculine was not at all what I had in mind for my Marlboro Man! 🙂

    Thank you for the review Victoria—you are always stellar, even if the ‘fumes are not 😉 May 5, 2011 at 3:03pm Reply

  • vanessa: I can also relate to “screechy” sandalwoods, specifically in reference to the latest incarnation of Samsara. I thought I might like this new Le Labo one, but your thorough dissection of its notes makes me think perhaps not. I like the creamiest of creamy sandalwoods, thank you, and hang the cost! May 5, 2011 at 7:31pm Reply

  • Ceci: As a perfumista and an environmentalist, I have to wonder: do you think the transition to synthetic sandalwood can have a positive impact for natural sandalwood reserves? Do perfumers think the protection of natural sandalwood is worth the decrease in perfume quality? Big questions, but just curious on your thoughts as someone plugged in to that world. May 6, 2011 at 12:20am Reply

  • Victoria: D, thank you, you always have such lovely things to say!

    Yes, I know what you mean. I also had a very romantic idea of this fragrance, based on the story. May 5, 2011 at 8:53pm Reply

  • Victoria: I do not mind the sandalwood base in Samsara for some reason, but in some other fragrances, I find it unbearable (especially when there is a strong woody amber present.) Here, the sandalwood is not at all screechy, but it does not even smell much like sandalwood. I also love my sandalwood as creamy as chocolate mousse. May 5, 2011 at 8:54pm Reply

  • jcparodi: Mysore Sandalwood is quickly becoming endangered, therefore it’s being regulated, some think a little too late. Mysore Sandalwood is no longer considered ECO friendly. May 6, 2011 at 1:41am Reply

  • Ubar: I’ve been wearing this since sunday non stop, it’s a calm scent with stealth sillage, I love all three stages of development, Sandalwood and Cardamon on the top, it’s very soothing, cooling, woody accord, be careful, it’s going to amplify once the violet and iris accord join in, i the dry down is black rubber, leather, petrol, Sandalwood, on me. I happen to be a huge fan, May 6, 2011 at 2:10am Reply

  • Victoria: Many perfumers have been refusing to use Indian sandalwood long before the prices became prohibitive. There are currently measures to cultivate sandalwood in a sustainable way, but of course, that takes time.

    Just one note on sandalwood synthetics–they are essential whether or not the natural is available and many are quite expensive. Natural sandalwood is a difficult material to use as it is very dense and heavy, while the synthetics can be used for interesting effects, esp together with natural sandalwood. Samsara is a good example of that.
    Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile May 6, 2011 at 7:51am Reply

  • Victoria: Yes, I visited that part of India, and I do not have high hopes. Illegal logging continues to devastate what precious little remains…
    Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile May 6, 2011 at 7:53am Reply

  • Victoria: Glad to hear that it works so beautifully on you!
    Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile May 6, 2011 at 7:54am Reply

  • Ceci: Very interesting, thank you so much for your insight! May 8, 2011 at 6:07pm Reply

  • Nathan Branch: Ditto what Dee wrote. I had much higher hopes for something coming out of Le Labo than “mainstream masculine with marine notes”.

    And yeah, “stellar”, that’s a good word. May 14, 2011 at 12:31am Reply

  • Victoria: Thank you, Nathan!!
    I also had higher expectations for this fragrance. I really expect much more from niche, especially when there is so much competition from other houses. May 14, 2011 at 10:45am Reply

  • al: Victoria-Thanks for wonderful review.I am waiting for Le labo rose 31 review from you.
    Its one of top seller from Le labo so see if you try and write.Thanks in advance. May 20, 2012 at 12:50pm Reply

  • Iuliana: Dear Victoria, do you happen to know if it changed at all since you reviewed it? It seems to be having a moment since the second half of last year (I smelled it in London, Paris and… Brussels 🙂, on men and women). I must say it kind of obsesses me and am sorely tempted to supplement the sample I bought from them, although I am having second thoughts after I saw the three stars. February 11, 2019 at 7:08pm Reply

    • Victoria: I haven’t tried it since then, but perhaps it has changed, since most of the perfumes from that period have been reformulated. If you like it, go for it! February 12, 2019 at 9:57am Reply

      • Iuliana: Thank you! February 13, 2019 at 5:04pm Reply

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