Sandalwood. Circled by venomous snakes, you are inaccessible to the mortals. Some say that like a wealthy king, you are also naturally surrounded by vicious people. But holy, you are, as you embody the Vedic deities and later our Lord Buddha and Ganesha. Ancient Candana, ground into fine powder and mixed with pure water, you become the favorite scented and cooling rub of Rajas in their morning rituals, and a sacred Tilak or Bindi on the Ajna Chakra. Sandalwood, you are the spirit of India, and for your sweet woody scent and your medicinal properties, you were its Ambassador for millenniums.

An Indian religious ascetic,  or “Sadhu”, wearing sandalwood paste to decorate his body, as sandalwood incarnates our relation with the Holy and Eternal.

True Sandalwood or Santalum Album,  is a plant originated from the Southern tip of the Indian sub-continent. Sandalwood is hemiparasitic, meaning that its roots penetrate into a host plant root system, such as Acacia or Gossypium, to get its precious nutrients. In other words, It can’t basically live on its own, like the mistletoe, with which it shares the same botanical family of the Santalales. A sandalwood tree takes a minimum of 15 to 20 years to reach its maturity and produce its precious fragrant oil.  Older trees up to 60 years old are the most appreciated for the quality of their oil. Such oil is obviously scarce and expensive.

Precious logs of sandalwood. In India, this is a Government exclusive trade. The dark heartwood is the most fragrant and valuable part of the tree.

Because of price and availability issues, some botanical substitutes exist, sometimes with the same familiar appellation of sandalwood. These are for example Osyris Lanceolata, aka Bastard or East-African Sandalwood, or Amyris Balsamifera, aka Amyris Sandalwood or West India Sandalwood. Santalum Album, aka Sandalwood E.I. (East India), is, however, the wood of choice for perfumery. Western Australia became the primary producer of sandalwood in the last decades, coping with the growing demand for the essential oil. There, another genus called Santalum Spicatum is also grown and used for aromatherapy and perfumery use.

Amyris oil is often used as a substitute for sandalwood. It is much less pricey and also exudes a pleasant odor that is sometimes sought about in perfumes.

Surprisingly perhaps, sandalwood is also a sacred ingredient of the Ayurvedic pharmacopeia and praised for its medicinal properties. Sandalwood powder is mixed with water in a paste and applied to the skin to cool down Pitta-type heat conditions such as sunburn, acne, rashes, fevers, herpes, and even infectious sores and ulcers. Sandalwood trees also produce an edible nut which, when roasted, provides dishes and deserts with a nutty flavor,  in between almond and hazelnut, with a distinct sandalwood note as well. The nut is a typical food for bushmen in Australia since ancient times.

Sandalwood nuts. They can be consumed freshly roasted, and ground in a paste in curries.

Sandalwood is appreciated for its scent for several millenniums. The wood was already exported from India towards the Arabian peninsula and from there reached the shores of Greece and Italy where it was highly prized by the Romans and the Greeks. The heartwood was at that time primarily ground and burnt as incense or infused in massage oil. The oil extraction by distillation, using boiling water or steam, was later invented by the Arabs and this method paved the way to modern perfumery. Indians and Arabic people still tend today to favor fragrant attars, or oil-based fragrances, rather than alcohol-based ones, also for religious reasons.

A typical Indian sandalwood attar oil. These are the result of a steam distillation in a very traditional way. Often, the sandalwood oil is used to macerate more delicate flowers to provide a unique floral character to the attar.

Such sandalwood attars are thus common in this region and can reach a very high price tag for the best grades. The attar oil is applied to the hot points of the body and also to perfume the hair. In our modern alcoholic perfumes, a sandalwood note is usually the result of a blend of essential oils (distilled or solvent or CO2 extracted) with synthetic molecules which are typically found naturally in the oil (isolates) and can be produced in stable and sustainable quantities. Javanol, Sandalore, Ebanol, Sandela are all among a list of suggestive molecules with a sandalwood odor profile, manufactured by large aroma chemical companies.

The Isolates and synthetic molecules above all share a similar molecular structure and also the same order profile of sandalwood with slight nuances. They can all be found in modern fragrances, as they are substantially cheaper and more predictable than natural sandalwood essential oil.

Sandalwood has a very sensual scent, characterized by a milky-woody-floral olfactory spectrum. The note is prevalent in oriental fragrances and also mixed in smaller doses in other fragrance families, for its excellent fixative properties. I am happy to introduce hereafter my favorite perfumes with a distinctive note of the precious wood.

Santal 33 from Le Labo is certainly at the top of my sandalwood collection. I love the nearly “soliflore” nature of this juice, with a very delicate, aerial and warm sandalwood note, decorated only lightly with cardamom and beautified with some papyrus and cedarwood notes which give this lovely pencil shaving feeling in the blend. Some leathery notes also appear at some time in the dry down, but not very obvious to me as it seems to be for some detractors of this fragrance. Iris and violet provide some extra powdery comfort, and the whole juice is toned up by a solid base of Ambroxan. I am wearing it right at the time I am typing these words and can’t avoid sniffing it again and again; a real delight for my senses. I am frankly not a fan of Le Labo and even less of their abusive price tags, but I could not resist buying this one, it is just too good not to own it.

I have a great respect for the oriental fragrances of Penhaligon’s, especially the ones of the Trade Route collection. Among them, the feminine Paithani and the masculine Agarbathi, launched in 2017, are both very complex orientals, very unisex actually, and with delicious notes of sandalwood. Agarbathi, meaning “incense” in Hindhi,  is the one with the strongest sandalwood base and powerful incense notes, along with an interesting animal heart of suede and milky notes that might not please everyone though. Pink pepper is spicing up the intense woody juice. I tried it on my scarf the other day and was very impressed by the dry down of the fragrance, leaving me with a superb sandalwood and vetiver blend after a couple of hours. I also love Paithani which is dominated by rose notes along with a similar structure, even if the given notes seem to differ substantially with Agarbathi. I can still find some sandalwood in there, however.

I was 18 years old, wandering in Paris without any special purpose when I coincidentally came across the newly-opened boutique of Serge Lutens in the Palais Royal. At that time, I had no clue who was Serge Lutens, but the beautiful decoration of the shop and my already high interest in fragrances were enough to give me the courage to come in. There, I discovered the first marvels of the great Serge, such as Fumerie Turque, Tubereuse Criminelle, and Santal de Mysore. I loved this latter so much that I used all my pocket-money to get a flask of the precious juice. That was my first purchase of a niche fragrance, without even realizing it. Santal de Mysore is a very sweet sandalwood, flavored with caraway and other mixed spices,  giving the juice a curry note that I love. Benzoin and Styrax add a resinous-sweet character that remains in the dry down. This fragrance is very powerful and long-lasting, especially on clothes. Beware of it before to impregnate your best scarf with the juice; it might not fit all occasions.

In a very different category now, Escentric Molecules – Molecule 04 is one of the best fragrances to experience the magic of organic chemistry. Like the other previous editions of the brand, the number 04, launched this year, exists as a pure molecule or as a blend of this molecule with some complimentary accord. So, what is this secret molecule composing the fourth creation of Geza Schoen? Javanol in its pure form. The result is quite impressive since it is not a very powerful juice, but it lasts for many hours and provides a very linear note of ozonic sandalwood. Like with Molecule 01 made of ISO E Super, Javanol gives this pumping impression, coming and leaving the nostrils in a slow wave. The perfume accord, called Escentric 04 combines Javanol with some top notes of grapefruit, some florals like rose and osmanthus, green notes of juniper and galbanum and a beautiful note of lentisque (kind of pistachio tree) resin. The result is enjoyable, even if the character of sandalwood found in Molecule 04 kind of disappear until the final dry down when only Javanol remains on the skin.

I will certainly update this post one day again since there are many more sandalwood fragrances I would like to mention about, but that will be all for today, and I hope to meet you again very soon on Scent & Flavor.

I wish you guys a very fragrant week.



About Laurent 70 Articles
Born in Switzerland but lived half of my life in fragrant Asia, I want to share my passion for scents and flavors

Leave a Reply