The Many Faces of Sandalwood. And a Draw
Most perfumistas are aware that the cost of white sandalwood, Santalum album, is skyrocketing. It’s around $400 an ounce, and increasing in price about 25% each year. The key base note in perfumery on Planet Earth is now a very restricted, and diminishing, commodity. It takes about 4 decades for a white sandalwood tree to become harvestable, and the old stands in India, the famous Mysore sandalwood, are either protected or gone. The notes we perfumistas crave are the santalols, which are warm, milky, woody, somewhat spicy molecules. Rather than abandoning the creamy richness of sandalwood as a base for perfumes, farmers and aromachemical companies have been coming up with a plethora of synthetics and naturals to take the place of the sacred tree. Here’s a brief list of the some of the most important things you might find in your perfume when the list of notes includes sandalwood.
Javanol was created by aromachemical powerhouse Givaudan. It’s intense, with powerful sillage and longevity. Givaudan also makes Sandalore (extraordinarily tenacious, and a little “spiky” to some), and Ebanol, probably the strongest of the set. Break a bottle of Ebanol in your living room and your descendants will be smelling it for 3 generations hence! Firmenich created Polysantol (santol pentenol) which has some herbal/animalic touches. Takasago makes Levosandol, which leans toward cedar, and Symrise has Fleursandol, which, as the name suggests, is softer and more floral. These can be blended in various ways to give each perfumer the “sandalwood accord” that they prefer.
Linda from the Perfumer’s Apprentice makes her own sandalwood accord that combines milky laitones with patchouli and several of the aromachemicals above. It’s my personal favorite, and easy for DIYers like myself to buy in small quantities for experimentation.
But the farmers and natural perfumers have been busy, too! The closest to actual Indian white sandalwood to my nose is Vanuatu and New Caledonian sandalwood (Santalum austrocaledonicum). Their oil goes for around $80 an ounce, and they’re grown sustainably, so they’re ethically a much better choice than poached Indian sandalwood. The best batches really can rival the real deal. Australian sandalwood (Santalum spicatum) is sharper and woodier, but it’s getting a lot of fans for its own unique qualities, it’s cheaper, and it’s an excellent fixative.
Leaving Santalum entirely, the Haitians offer Amyris balsamifera, also called West Indian sandalwood. It’s the cheapest, at around $10 an ounce, but also the roughest of the group. However, like the Australian, it makes a great fixative, and some of the latest batches I’ve tried have been much softer in odor, in fact, very pleasant and peaceful. Siam Wood (Fodenia hodginsii), from Vietnam, has a lovely profile which is a cross between Himalayan cedar and white sandalwood.
It’s frightening to learn how many of our most treasured plant species are fighting for their existence on a planet that’s become so difficult for them. But I’m glad to know the squints and botanists, the farmers and perfumers, are working hard on the next generation of basenotes for all of us. I’d love to hear your comments on your favorite sandalwood-sporting perfume, about sandalwood in general, and I’ll pick one of you for a little packet of some of the aromachemicals and botanicals I’ve described above.