Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Perfumery Material: Sandalwood & Synthetic Substitutes

"None but the Mali Mountains contain Sandalwood" is written in an ancient Buddhist scripture. We know this is not the case, but the essence produced by Santalum album (a member of the Santalaceae family) has captured the imagination of man for 4000 years. Sandalwood is the natural product par excellence: a scent so fine, so rich and yet with a fresh top note, so creamy sweet and so enduring that it has inspired generations of men and women to harvest its precious, sacred trunk in order to imbue products for personal and public use with its fine aroma. I vividly remember the sandalwood soaps I received as a gift when an impressionable teenager by a well travelled, older cousin: the creamy, woody, incense-y ambience was irresistible, to the point that a bar was tucked intact in my drawer of small tops to produce a spontaneous "aaah" of rediscovery each time it was pulled out.

Japanese temple incense is most often infused with the aroma of sandalwood in tandem with agarwood. Indian incense often is nothing but. From soap to shaving cream and from essence oil to fine fragrances, sandalwood is one of the most traditional and yet still popular "notes" in all of perfumery.

As I bathe my skin with real Mysore sandalwood soap, stockpiled a while ago as mentioned, I can very well see why: the suds retain a smell that is beautifully nuanced, clean yet rich, midway between masculine and feminine, with a beautiful lingering effect of polished creaminess on silky pyjamas and dressing gowns.

The production of sandalwood essence 

It is a time consuming process and depends on the maturity of the trees, the length of distillation time and the experience of the person distilling. Most time-honoured method of extraction of sandalwood oil has been hydro-distillation, lately phazed out by steam distillation and CO2 extraction (which is more realistic to the raw material of the wood, due to the reduction in heat processing)

The endangerement of natural Indian sandalwood
Especially in the famous Mysore region of Karnataca and of Tamil Nadu where they're protected by state law, even as early as the 1980s, the depletion of the trees due to over-harvesting has had several adverse effects:
1) sandalwood oil is one of the most-often adulterated essential oils; 
2) the cost of sandalwood oil is rising dramatically (about 25% per year); 
3) due to the value of sandalwood oil, the trees are being illegally cut, leading to the waste of this precious resource as trees that are too young are cut, or trees are cut but the roots are left to rot (the roots are the most valuable part of the tree from which to extract the oil). Additionally, this illegal poaching has lead to several murders of forestry officials and other crimes indicative of the black market; 
4) the resource is becoming scarce. The current production of sandalwood trees is not enough to meet the demand of consumers. The trees are difficult to propagate and must grow for at least 30 years to become suitable for harvesting. The forestry departments in India are regulating the amount of material that is cut and sold, but there are many demands for other use of the land – for example, cattle grazing, the need for wood to keep people employed, etc. [1]

This situation has required the gradual substitution of this precious ingredient in fine fragrance with synthetic varieties (gradually and to the rhythm of depletion of any given brand's inventory of raw materials), such as isobornyl cyclohexanol. Some of them are quite costly in themselves and beautiful to smell, as evidenced below, possessing some of the beloved "creamy", milky facets of natural sandalwood. From a technical standpoint the natural consistutents of sandalwood comprise terpenes, terpenols and terpenals, i.e.terpenoid alcohols.

  • Sandalwood-Smelling Synthetic Ingredients
Several sandalwood synthetics nowadays comprise part of a perfumer's palette for both their technical merits (they are capsule forms of the effect of an otherwise very dense and demanding essence that is amazingly complex in nature), as well as for their isolated facets that boost one aesthetic choice over others, according to said perfumer's mood. Sometimes they can even co-exist as in the case of Guerlain's Samsara, the beautiful balance of natural and synthetic in one.

Among those synthetic sandalwood notes, Polysantol, a former Firmenich trademark, is quite popular thanks to its intense diffusion and realistic replication. Otherwise known as santol pentenol due to its structure it enters many a fragrance composition imparting herbal and almost tropical nuances with an animalic touch.
Beta santalol or technically (-)-(1'S,2'R,4'R)-(Z)-beta-santalol (interestingly its positive entaniomer is odourless) is also a nature identical typical sandalwood note. It's the reverse case for the enantiomers of alpha Photosantol, the positive being strong and diffusive, the negative weak. Process producing sandalwood organoleptic substances from camphogenic aldehydes produce the prized Firsantol, another Firmenich trademark and a favourite with perfumer and writer Arcadi Boix Camps. Levosandol by Takasago introduces a sharper, more austere cedar note within the creamy sandalwood impression picture. Ebanol [(1S,2'S,3'R)-Ebanol], a Givaudan trademark, on the other hand is noted for its potency. Symrise proposes its Fleursandol which has a very strong, animalic-laced sandalwood note with floral elements surfacing. Other sandalwood substitutes present various unexpected facets, from the very clean with phenolic/guaiac notes on top and cashmeran notes at the finish like some enantiomers of HomoPolysantol to the waxy, leathery of other enantiomers of the same ingredient. The quest for sandalwood substitutes is under way as we speak with several patents from Japanese companies under way and is only going to accelarate in the coming years, despite the illegal poaching in Mysore of immature trees or the import of sandalwood from other regions of the Far East.

A recent addition is a synth blend smelling of sandalwood tagged "HipNote Sandalwood", composed by Tru Fragrance (formerly Romane Fragrances), claimed by the company producing it to be picked by perfumer Harry Fremont of Firmenich no less: “The use of synthetic substitutes within the fragrance world, like those found in "HipNote Sandalwood" and many of the season’s product launches, are essential in assisting in sustainability efforts, helping to ensure the fragrance development process does not destroy natural resources. By using these synthetic blends, we are able to eliminate any allergens that are found in nature and create consistency across different batches of the same fragrance product,” adds Amy Braden, director of product development for Tru Fragrances. The limited edition HipNote Sandalwood is available by request in limited quantities via “Hipnozes by Tru Fragrance” on Facebook, a dynamic, interactive online community which you can visit at www.facebook.com/Hipnozes

  • Other Sandalwood Varieties of Different Origin
But not all perfumers or all fragrances aim to merely replicate that classic Indian sandalwood scent: In Le Labo's case in Santal 33 for instance they're quite clear on using Australian sandalwood (Santalum spicatum), which is a different variety than Mysore sandalwood (Santalum album): indeed the Australian variety is more pungent, sharper in its dryness, with less density, almost metallic in its fine smokiness, still compatible to scent of skin.

Another sandalwood tree variant sometimes used for its rich essence oil is Amyris balsamifera, or West Indian sandalwood or simply amyris: Though not a true sandalwood, it still bears the nuanced, distinctive smell and is useful in soap production (and increasingly fine fragrance, such as the latest Francis Kurkdjian Amyris duo of fragrances) where the Indian variety would rocket the cost to stratospheric heights.  

Finally the New Caledonian sandalwood variety is yet another species with a scent profile between that of the Australian and the Mysore varieties and it looks like it's going to be supremely popular in the near future.


01 Nomad by Odin New York
1725 Casanova by Histoires de Parfums
Alain Delon pour Homme
Aramis by Aramis
Basala by Shiseido
Bel Ami by Hermes
Black Jeans by Versace
Bleu by Paul & Joe
Bleu de Chanel
Bois de Santal by Keiko Mecheri
Bois de Turquie by MaƮtre Parfumeur et Gantier
Bois des Iles by Chanel
Boucheron femme by Boucheron
Burberry for Men
By Man by D&G
Cannabis Santal by Fresh
Cefiro by Floris
Chaos by Donna Karan
Chinatown by Bond no.9
Classic 1920 by Bois 1920
Comme des Garcons by Comme des Garcons
Contradiction for Men by Calvin Klein
Dolce Vita by Dior
Eau de Monsieur by Annick Goutal
Eau de Sandalwood by Le Jardin Retrouve
Eau de Santal Extreme by Floris
Egoiste by Chanel
Fahrenheit by Dior
Ginger Essence by Origins
Hasu-no Hana by Grossmith
Idole de Lubin
Jazz by Yves Saint Laurent
Le Male by J.P.Gaultier
Le Roi Santal by Comptoir Sud Pacifique
Les Saisons: Automne by Van Cleef & Arpels
Macassar by Rochas
Magical Moon by Hanae Mori
Maharadjah by Patricia de Nicolai
Mahora by Guerlain
No.1 for women by Clive Christian
Original Santal by Creed
Pleasures Sandalwood Amber Splash by Estee Lauder  
Samsara by Guerlain  
Sandalwood by Elizabeth Arden
Sandalwood by Pacifica
Sandalo by Lorenzo Villoresi
Santal by L'Artisan Parfumeur
Santal by Roger & Gallet  
Santal 33 by Le Labo
Santal blanc by Serge Lutens
Santal de Mysore by Serge Lutens
Santal Majuscule by Serge Lutens
Santal Imperial by Creed
Santal Noble by Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier
Santalum by Profumum
Tam Dao by Diptyque

Ref: Christian Chapuis, In the Quest for a Virtual Pseudo Receptor for Sandalwood-Like Odorants, Part I, Chemistry & Biodiversity, Volume 1, Issue 7, July 2004 [1] Eden botanicals


  1. 30 Roses15:21

    Fascinating and informative article about one of my (and my husband's) favorite perfume notes. Thanks for the read!

  2. Great article! I am so amazed that of all the fragrances listed at the end, the only ones I have ever owned are Lou Lou and Samsara, both of which I never liked! Oh, but there is Bulgari Black which I do love. Clearly, I need to try some more sandalwood perfumes.

  3. JessBecause16:21

    Yes - great post! I love sandalwood scents and will have to check out more from this list. So, I'm wondering: if a perfume that's just been made in recent years (example: Bois de Santal by Keiko Mecheri) specifically lists Mysore sandalwood as a note, should I assume most likely they mean "the idea of mysore sandalwood" rather than it being actually an ingredient in the perfume? It's fine with me if it's just sandalwood-esque, but as a newbie I'm thinking that perfume notes can't be interpreted the same way as reading the back of a food package for ingredients, is that right?

  4. Anonymous22:48

    What an interesting article -- thank you. I especially appreciated your explaining the issue of endangered resources -- as usual, your article is so balanced and thoughtful.

    On a dork note: the "ancient Buddhist text" you reference is the Mo-ho Chih-kuan, composed by Chih-i almost 1,000 years after the advent of Buddhism. oO maybe not so "ancient." But whatever.

    Anyhow, thank you for such a fascinating read.

  5. Anonymous05:02

    Thanks for the informative post, and the list of sandalwood-heavy fragrances, some of which I adore.

    I would add SSS Champagne de Bois (if you haven't smelled it yet, you really must, it's both a joy and a bargain) and possibly my vintage Arpege parfum, which is luxuriantly sandalwoody.

    I find that I rather like the Australian version as well, though it's brighter and less creamy.

  6. Great read, thank you. I notice that the prices for sandalwood (Santalum album) chips, pieces etc in Japan just shoot up by around 30%-40% in the last two weeks. Same with aloeswoods/kyaras. Which means stocks are getting lower and raw materials harder to come by. This will, of course, drive up the prices of incense and ouds across the board.

  7. Stelma,

    down down the rabbit hole, I say!

    Sandalwood is such a great, classic "note" there's bound to be things to like. Black is a vanillic rubber sandalwood. A bit quirky, but not miles off the feel of the wood.

  8. 30 Roses,

    thank you very much for commenting!

    Indeed, it's such a delectable note, isn't it? Sharing this like with your husband is very romantic, as it's such a cozy, snuggly, soft scent.

  9. Jess,

    excellent observation!

    Yes, I think given "notes" are not necessarily ingredients (indeed in the vast majority of cases they're not) and there is no regulatory body to insist that they should be, barring the listing of potential allergens (which is a different thing and a huge can of worms to open; check out my IFRA articles for that)
    I think unless someone is getting poached Mysore sandalwood in some way, it's safe to assume it's a synthetic variable.

  10. Anon,

    thank you for the compliment, glad you liked it, and thanks for the specification on the word use. I might have carried myself away, that won't be the first time. Old is not the same as ancient, true! I will edit it into "old".

  11. Muse,

    you're welcome, there's something for everyone, I guess in the sandal realm :-)

    Yup, good suggestions! How did Arpege escape me?

  12. Ross,

    thanks for stopping by and for mentioning that issue. It's been long since I discussed prices with a perfumer and I have no doubt you're right. It had to come, but wow, in 2 weeks such a rise, phew!
    Kyaras is much more expensive than the average perfume user is used to, so its inclusion in fine fragrance at such a pressing rhythm is at the very least...let's say...ahem...suspicious.

  13. JessBecause15:19

    Thanks for responding and enlightening me! :)

  14. I would add Diptyque Tam Dao to that great list :)

    I love sandalwood!

  15. Anonymous16:50

    Bois des iles - my new obssession - to add to the vanilla kick.....
    it's just a wonderful sandalwood.

  16. Jess,

    a pleasure! I always try to respond to all comments/questions. It's common author's courtesy to people who spend their free time reading. So thank you for asking.

  17. M,

    who could disagree? I find it pure class. A very masterful scent, especially in the extrait de parfum form.

  18. Isa,

    how on earth could I manage to omit that??? Adding it right now! Thank you!!! *smacks rusty brain, scattered after a lovely afternoon break*

  19. Thanks for this post.

    Just a couple of questions:

    - What can you tell us about Javanol and Sandalmysore Core?

    - Could you write a few lines in response to the claim that's often made about sandalwood being a very elusive note, constantly flitting in and out of 'detection range'.

  20. Please add Sandalo by Lorenzo Villoresi to your list of Sandalwood prominent perfumes.

  21. Loved this post, thank you. I will use it as my 'to smell' list :)
    You might add Original Santal by Creed And Santal Majuscule by Serge Lutens.

  22. Anonymous07:11

    To me the gorgeous sandalwood has never been that. Forty years ago in the Krishna temple we offered sandalwood oil to the deity neat many mornings, and I used to grind sandalwood on a stone for pulp to smear on the deity's body as a cooling decoration on hot days. However I never detect real sandalwood in any of the mentioned perfumes that I have smelled. The more they rave about the "rare woods", the more I suspect, woods that came in a forty gallon drum. And what to speak of agarwood...

    1. Very very true. I think they believe that only talking about something exotic and precious would justify the prices. Unfortunately for the perfume industry and the candor it should embrace at some point, most people still judge by the "price" and "value" of ingredients. Perfumery isn't exactly cooking, although there are some similarities, and still even with the best ingredients a cook can botch the whole thing.
      Thank you very much for coming onboard to share this story and enlighten many of us. Welcome!

  23. Thank you for this excellent post.
    Just a quick comment on "Mysore Sandalwood" - it is important to remember that this name was applied in the 19th century British Empire to distinguish between the Santalum Album imported from the Raj and the Santalum Spicatum imported from Western Australia (and which was known as "Australian sandalwood")
    However Santalum Album is indigenous to the entire region of South Asia, South-East Asia and Australasia and is also one of the fourteen Santalum varieties indigenous to Australia, so nowadays it is misnomer to speak of Mysore Sandalwood.
    During the mid 19th century the export of sandalwood was the main source of income for the Maharajah of Mysore and to some extent this tradition has continued with the Karnataka (formerly Mysore) Government Soap Factory famous as the historical source of Indian sandalwood products.
    However - even in the 19th century artificial perfume was added to essential oils produced in "Mysore" and this practice continues to the present day - as anyone who's been there knows.
    Nowadays it is impossible to source quality natural sandalwood oil in India, and Singapore is now the centre of world trade in real sandalwood, with wild oils and woods coming from Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Myanmar, Vietnam and China.

    1. Thank you Rowan for the very illuminating comment and welcome to Perfume Shrine.
      Indeed the addition/adulteration of several raw materials is a practice that happens the world over (much so in the Far East) and I'm glad to know about all the intricacies you added. Readers, hear hear.


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