The Allure of Sandalwood

My mother-in-law rubbed a piece of pink colored wood on a rough stone until it turned to paste.  My husband and I were about to travel back to Europe, and in the Hindu custom, my mother-in-law performed a puja, an act of worship, to ensure our safe journey. She lit joss sticks around the deities and dabbed some of the paste on the figurines of gods arranged on her small altar and then on our foreheads. The fragrance of sandalwood rose in the warm air. Many hours later as I sat on the airplane, the creamy, floral perfume lingered around me, carrying with it the memory of a caring touch.


In Indian paintings you can sometimes spot curious image of snakes curving sensually around sandalwood trees. According to legend, the tree releases such a beautiful scent that serpents are charmed by it. More than a pleasing aromatic, sandalwood is a means to feel closer to the divine, for all creatures alike. This is the reason why Vedic religious rites, from birth to death, are accompanied by this precious wood.

The downside of such passionate love is the major overharvesting. Despite Indian government protection, sandalwood trees continue to be illegally logged, and violent crime accompanies the contraband. Sandalwood is a parasitic tree from the same botanical family as European mistletoe, and while it can grow quickly, it requires at least 15 years to accumulate the prized aromatic oils in its wood. There have been efforts to establish new plantations, but whether the lush Mysore groves will regenerate once again remains to be seen.

In the meantime Australia has taken the initiative to plant Indian sandalwood (Santalum album) alongside its native Santalum spicatum. The latter is the typical sandalwood found in contemporary perfumes, if they indeed use natural, and not synthetic, oils. Santalum spicatum smells sharper than the Indian variety, but as part of a well-blended accord, it’s voluptuous and creamy. This is the sandalwood in Tom Ford’s Santal Blush and Le Labo Santal 33.

A sandalwood gold standard in French perfumery is Guerlain Samsara. Samsara, which is Sanskrit for ‘wheel of life’, is so radiant that it’s hard to imagine that it’s composed of 40% sandalwood. The natural sandalwood essence is buttery and rich, and to give it shimmer and a lighter texture, Jean-Paul Guerlain used Polysantol, a sandalwood synthetic that was still a novelty in 1989, the year Samsara was launched. For all of its baroque complexity, Samsara seems gilded and airy.

For a sandalwood rendition closer to the Indian traditions I prefer Neela Vermeire Créations Trayee. Its ingredients were drawn from Vedic texts—frankincense, agarwood, holy basil, myrrh, jasmine. It smells like an old apothecary in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk abutting a temple and an attar lane. Trayee is a rare fragrance that allows for the kind of aesthetic experience described in India as rasasvadana, ‘the tasting of flavour’. Every stage of its development offers something new—a smouldering incense cinder, skin dusted by jasmine pollen, a salty kiss, a flower offering.

Another sandalwood that reminds me of India is 10 Corso Como. The paradox is that the fragrance was created for the fashionable Milan boutique, while its spirit is closer to Mumbai—spice markets, marigold garlands, and a touch of Colaba’s trendiness. The marriage between sandalwood and oud conjures up a trademark medicinal tang of Indian temple incense, while musk softens the edges.

Those are the fragrances for times when I want intricate tales and exciting adventures. On a grey rainy day, however, when the clouds hang so low that they touch the red rooftops of Brussels, I wear Serge Lutens’s Santal Majuscule. It’s delicately sweet, with a warm, comforting finish of sandalwood paste diluted in rosewater.

Do you have a favorite sandalwood perfume?

Photography by Bois de Jasmin



  • connie hill: Sounds like a warming, enveloping scent full of comfort like a cup of bone broth on a cold day. January 16, 2023 at 9:04am Reply

  • Celie: Thank you for this article, Victoria! I really appreciate how you share both the beautiful (the lore) and the more mundane and sad (overharvesting) relating to a raw material.

    For the longest while, I thought I detested sandalwood in perfume. I associated with the synthetic screech in modern male perfumes. Still, I found myself intrigued by the mythology of sandalwood, and I ended up bidding on a mini of Samsara extrait. Suffice it to say, it was a revelation. I think I swooned a little. That was two years ago. Since then, I’ve discovered the sandalwood facet in my most worn and loved perfume – La Myrrhe – and I’ve found other sandalwood favourites: La Via del Profumo’s saffron and sandalwood attar (and a tiny, tiny vial of the actual oil, to satisfy my curiosity), as well as the beauty that is Chanel’s Bois des Iles extrait.

    And yet, Samsara extrait is still my greatest sandalwood love. I have acquired two more mini bottles as back ups. Oh, and you know what? I happened to be wearing Samsara today, as I read your post. Serendipity! January 16, 2023 at 9:08am Reply

    • Silvermoon: Hello Celia, oh this makes me very curious about the Samsara extract. How does it differ from the RDP? Will try to test it, although it’s likely to be difficult to find. January 16, 2023 at 1:19pm Reply

      • Celie: Hi, Silvermoon!

        I find the extrait (I’ve only tried vintage from 1989-1990) smoother and creamier, if that makes sense. It was a while since I’ve tried the EDP, though.

        Small bottles (2,5 ml, I think) of the vintage extrait frequently pop up on auction sites.I think they must have made loads of them! I never see them go for more than, say, 20 Euro, so for me it was an easy blind buy. January 18, 2023 at 4:22am Reply

      • AF R: Santal 33
        Vilerossi sandalo January 22, 2023 at 11:27pm Reply

  • Cecilia: Ooh thank you for the post! I adore Tam Dao, and I prefer it over 10 Corso Como. I will have to try Trayee!! January 16, 2023 at 9:32am Reply

  • krista Pennington: I love Sanyal Majascule too. My favourite sandalwood perfume was Lorenzo Villoresi Sandalo but the blue bottle from years ago is long gone from my collection and the last time I purchased it, it was a silver bottle and didn’t smell the same. January 16, 2023 at 10:06am Reply

  • Valentyna: Bois de Iles extrait. Quenches my thirst for velvety sandalwood with cinnamon and rose. Creamy indeed. January 16, 2023 at 10:19am Reply

    • la_ninon: This is my favorite, too. January 27, 2023 at 10:49pm Reply

  • Gabriela: What a beautiful post. I have just tried my sample of Trayee again and it has been a totally different experience after reading your post.

    I ADORE vintage Samsara, sandalwood and jasmine together is so wonderful. It feels so feminine to me. January 16, 2023 at 10:32am Reply

  • Marsha Smith: Lovely article! Sandalwood is my favorite! I love both 10 Corso Como and Tam Dao. January 16, 2023 at 10:33am Reply

  • Phyllis Iervello: I love this post and I am happy that I own most of the sandalwood perfumes mentioned except for 10 Corso Como. January 16, 2023 at 12:11pm Reply

  • Kathy Parsons: Such an interesting article and very informative. Thank you January 16, 2023 at 12:33pm Reply

  • Silvermoon: Sorry, Celie, autocorrect changed your name spelling. January 16, 2023 at 1:21pm Reply

  • Silvermoon: Hello Victoria,
    I love the smell of sandalwood, and associate it strongly with temples, pujas, weddings, etc in India (where I grew up). In personal terms, I think of my father’s Mysore sandalwood soap and incense. Although I think it’s beautiful in perfume, it’s a note I don’t immediately relate to it. I am a big fan of Bois des Iles. January 16, 2023 at 1:32pm Reply

  • Akimon: Thank you for writing this post. I love real sandalwood, it’s a glorious and complex scent, and the story of its demise in India is a heartbreaking. I first found it about this from reading blog posts by Trygve Harris, founder of Enfleurage. She is, I think, one of the world’s preeminent experts on sandalwood (and frankincense..!). I grew up with plentiful and cheap sandalwood oil available in Indian stores and to suddenly find it almost gone was quite a shock.
    During my last trip to India few years ago I tried looking for the real thing but even places I thought would care to source to – Cottage Industries etc – only had synthetic scents available. I did procure some Australian Santalum Album recently and it’s a very very good one, but it’s still not widely available.
    While I appreciate the sandalwood scents that combine the real thing – Indian, Australian or Hawaiian – with synthetic ingredients, Samsara being a perfect example, I enjoy perfumes that use it straight up. One company that really knows their sandalwood is La Via del Profumo, an all natural perfume company, already mentioned here in comments. My favorite from that house is Holy Water which combines citrus, sandalwood, rose and frankincense in an austere but beautiful composition.
    And as it happens, I am wearing another all natural sandalwood perfume today, Aquarian Rose by Strange Invisible Perfumes. The rose – sandalwood combo is definitely my thing. This one adds marjoram to the mix for a nice top note twist but the base is all about sandalwood. January 16, 2023 at 1:42pm Reply

  • Sandra: Samsara is such a beautiful composition. I wear it when I want to feel blissful and centered.

    I am curious about Santal Blush, does it go on the masculine side? January 16, 2023 at 2:15pm Reply

    • Nancy Chan: Bois de Jasmin was the perfume blog that got me interested in perfumes with sandalwood notes.
      My favourite perfumes are Chanel’s Bois des Iles, Sana Jardin’s Sandalwood Temple and Dior J’Adore Touche de Parfum. I also have a tiny bottle of Sandalwood essential oil. January 16, 2023 at 4:01pm Reply

    • Nancy Chan: Apologies Sandra, my comment was supposed to be posted as my own, not as a reply to you. January 16, 2023 at 4:03pm Reply

  • Specialscent: Great article! I found the information to be very well-researched and presented. I especially appreciated the insights and perspectives provided. Keep up the good work! January 16, 2023 at 2:16pm Reply

  • Amanda M: Lovely article, Victoria.

    Sandalwood, without a doubt, is my most favourite note! I just adore it.
    I find it so lush, calming and soothing.

    I especially love vintage Samsara edp – the first bottles that were clear with a gold cap. It is sublime. I treasure the bottles I have of this version…♥️

    I also love the sandalwood in vintage Christian Dior Dune and Chanel Egoiste.

    Oh and another sandalwood I have and use daily, is the Mysore soaps – they are beautifully scented and so creamy.
    I remember your article about these soaps and have been using them ever since! January 16, 2023 at 4:14pm Reply

    • Amanda M: Oh yes, I also love Bois Des Iles – I have the extrait and the edp – both of which are so dreamy and beautiful. 🤎 January 16, 2023 at 9:54pm Reply

  • Henry: My favorite sandalwood fragrance is Creed Santal. It’s my default scent — spray it on all my hats and scarves. Shame about overharvesting 🙁 January 16, 2023 at 6:26pm Reply

  • matty1649: I remember your article on Mysore soaps. I intended to buy some, but I forgot.
    I wear Samsara….Dune and J’Adore
    Thank you for this very interesting ost January 16, 2023 at 7:14pm Reply

  • Tara C: I love 10 Corsi Como, SL Santal Majuscule, TF Santal Blush and Teone Reinthal’s Embers. January 16, 2023 at 8:21pm Reply

  • Maggiecat: I have been on a sandalwood binge lately, my current favorite being Sandalwood Temple from Sana Jardin (sandalwood and neroli). Also Necessaire body wash in sandalwood, and assorted soaps. And candles. Still looking for a good body lotion though. Sandalwood is one of the few scents my husband likes, which is another point in its favor! January 16, 2023 at 10:54pm Reply

  • Hamamelis: My most loved sandalwood perfume is Trayee, and I am never without Mysore sandalwood soap since reading your review about that some years ago. January 17, 2023 at 2:50am Reply

  • Alityke: Mysore soap, I wish it could be bottled. Sandalwood soaps from the 70’s & 80’s were my entry into sandalwood. They were aimed at men but I didn’t realise at the time, they just smelt great.

    In scents I’ve owned many, BdI, 10CC, Trayee, Samsara, Santal Blush are those I remember. Often, I’ve found they make my thought tickle. More the texture than the smell.
    Of those I’m familiar with I prefer my vintage Samsara EdT & Santal Blush January 17, 2023 at 9:47am Reply

  • Aurora: Thank you so much for highlighting these lovely rituals. I have a special soft spot for the sandalwood in vintage Arpège, it is such a calming and simple conclusion for this symphonic perfume. January 17, 2023 at 2:03pm Reply

  • Fazal: Vintage Samsara is, indeed, the best sandalwood fragrance ever and edp is the best version in my opinion. I would also mention Lutens Santal de Mysore as another good sandalwood fragrance. A friend with no particular interest in perfumes immediately claimed upon smelling Santal de Mysore that it smells like sandalwood. I do not see it as a sandalwood soliflore kind of perfume but I guess the recreation of sandalwood smell has been expertly done for my friend to immed. notice it. January 18, 2023 at 6:33am Reply

    • Amanda M: Oh yes! I do agree with you. I just love vintage Samsara in Eau de Parfum, the first version.
      Such a beautiful and unforgettable sandalwood.

      ♥️ January 18, 2023 at 8:18pm Reply

      • Fazal: Same. I have all three concentrations, i.e. parfum, edp, and edt and I think it shines the best in edp. However, edt may be more palatable to those who do not like their perfume compositions to be overly rich. January 18, 2023 at 8:30pm Reply

        • Amanda M: I’ve not tried the Parfum version, but have heard it’s exquisite! Harder to find now these days…
          I also have the Eau de toilette, vintage, in the clear bottle with gold cap. That is also very beautiful and yes, not as ‘heavy’ as the edp, but very lovely nonetheless. January 18, 2023 at 8:36pm Reply

          • Amanda M: Oops, I meant to say the clear bottle with the red cap, for the vintage edt! January 19, 2023 at 4:22am Reply

            • Amanda M: Although, just checked…there were also vintage edt’s in clear bottles with a gold cap too – I think the red capped ones were 30ml. January 19, 2023 at 4:26am Reply

      • Fazal: I don’t think one misses much by not smelling parfum if one has edp. As many parfum versions tend to be, samsara parfum is discreet and not very loud so more apt for close intimate encounters. Sometimes I struggle to smell it on myself and only get occasional whiffs of it. edp, on the other hand, never fails to announce its presence. January 18, 2023 at 8:50pm Reply

        • Amanda M: Thank you for the explanation!
          Yes, I am very happy with my edp – it is so beautiful, and probably won’t chase the Parfum. 😊
          Parfum does wear typically close to the skin. January 18, 2023 at 9:03pm Reply

  • Sowmya Dakshinamurti: Have recently purchased Narciso Rodriguez Santal Musc – was very pleasantly surprised with its richness! There’s almost a thread of coconut in it, which I really like. January 22, 2023 at 11:49pm Reply

  • Sam: Hi Victoria, I enjoyed your article, there was an update in ABC news today on the Indian sandalwood industry in Australia that might interest you. February 9, 2023 at 10:33pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Sam! February 10, 2023 at 2:03am Reply

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