LE SANDALWOOD: When precious wood becomes a perfume
When we say the word sandalwood, our thoughts travel to Asia, to Hindu and Buddhist temples filled with the singular scent of incense sticks coated with sandalwood paste.
Sandalwood, whose botanical name is Santalum album, L., of the family Santalaceae, has also been called “East India sandalwood” since colonial times. It belongs to the family of aromatic woods like rosewood, cinnamon tree (our cinnamon comes from the bark) and cedar trees.
The word sandalwood is a derivative of the Sanskrit Chandanam, or sandanam in Tamil. Known for more than 4,000 years because of ancient Sanskrit and Chinese texts, sandalwood comes from a small tree originating in the tropical areas of Asia, and more particularly Southern India where it is also native to eastern Timor. It was used in ancient Egypt for embalming mummies, and Muslims in India burned it in an incense burner placed at the feet of the deceased person to elevate the soul. In India, cremation with sandalwood is now the exception, due to the high cost and rarity of the raw material.
Origin and planting
Indian sandalwood grows mainly in the dry forests of Kerala along the Western Ghats, notably in the natural sandalwood forest of Marayur, and in the state of Karnataka, where the most famous variety is found: Mysore sandalwood. The city itself is surrounded by sandalwood and rosewood forests.
Today, groves of high-quality sandalwood are also found in the state of Tamil Nadu, not far from Chennai (Madras). In addition, the Indian variety has been grown on a large scale in Western Australia for about ten years. Australia also produces Santalum spicatum, a species that renders an essence considered of lesser quality, whose scent is more resinous and smoky, and which is less expensive and not as prized in fine perfumery as Indian sandalwood.
New Caledonia produces a different species of Santalum album from India – Santalum austrocaledonicum – rather similar in quality to Indian sandalwood. This species is native to New Caledonia and the archipelago of Vanuatu. This oil has an extraordinary aroma, with a woody scent that makes it an excellent base note in perfumes and cosmetics mixes.
To deal with growing demand for the wood, which has become rare, new groves were planted in the state of Tamil Nadu in the 20th century. In fact sandalwood has been used since the 15th century as much in architecture for the construction and decoration of numerous temples and the crafting of precious objects and religious icons that it scents naturally, as in medicine to treat stomachache and skin problems due to its disinfectant, antiseptic and regenerating virtues.
Because of its thickness and hardness, sandalwood was also used in China, Nepal and Tibet for sculptures in temples and monasteries. It is currently highly sought after by the Chinese for producing pieces of furniture. In Europe, its appearance goes back to the Arab presence in Spain: Córdoban leather was scented with sandalwood.
Today sandalwood in India is an endangered botanical species and the Indian government has for a few years now strictly regulated the felling of the trees and export of the wood; essential oil exports for fine perfumery are also very limited due to major diluting risks that in fact explain why perfumers are uninterested in sandalwood of this origin.
The tree and essential oil
Now grown on huge plantations, the sandalwood tree is a hemiparasite in the first stage of its growth. The young sandalwood shoot gets its nutritional elements from the roots of other trees, including those of its own contemporaries through a suction mechanism located on its roots, without however seriously harming the host.
The tree is 8 to 12 meters tall and can live up to 100 years. Its evergreen leaves are oval, of a shiny green, and its many small, straw-colored flowers eventually turn red. They have no particular scent. The tree produces fruit after three years, and birds disperse the seeds.
The brown or dark red bark protects a pale green or white core, from which it takes its botanical name (s. album). In very old trees, the core is yellow.
It takes about 30 years and a circumference of more than 50cm for sandalwood to reach its ideal size before it can be reduced to wood shavings and distilled. The trees are then uprooted so the precious essences contained in all of the wood, including the roots, which are also distilled, can be extracted. The quality of the oil depends on the age of the trees at felling.
For truly superior quality, extraction is done on trees that are more than 60 years old. In this case the price of the oil is especially high. As the tree grows, the essential oil develops in the roots. The center of the dark duramen grows gradually. Then the tree is uprooted in the rainy season when the roots are at their richest in precious essential oil.
Sandalwood oil is extracted through a process of steam distillation used on the wood shavings and roots, which are reduced to fine powder, a process that makes it possible to obtain oil of extremely high quality.
The most highly reputed sandalwood essential oil comes from the province of Mysore. It is this one that has long been used by Guerlain, Chanel and Hermès. India used to produce up to 70% of world production of the species Santalum album.
Due to the increasing rarity of the aromatic Indian wood, the global price of the essential oil has recently risen to US $2200/kg. According to 2012 figures, a ton of Indian sandalwood would cost seven times more than the Australian variety. Annual production of the native Indian variety that is practically totally controlled by the governments of the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu would be 400 tons. Sandalwood is the second most expensive wood species in the world, behind Cuban mahogany. Sandalwood essence is called “liquid gold” due to its cost, its precious nature and its olfactory characteristics: it has a suave, balsamic, milky, mild scent and it is remarkably lasting.
For Santalum album, it takes 1000 kg of wood to obtain 45 to 50 liters of essential oil. For Santalum Spicatum, it takes 2500 kg.
The essential oil of Mysore sandalwood is limited, if not to say almost unavailable today. Production of this “sacred” oil is reserved for local consumption and is no longer exported. In view of this shortage, R&D departments at major fragrance makers have long been looking into the problem and have developed molecules to replace natural sandalwood. The first substitution molecule was Sandela, fortuitously discovered at Givaudan in 1947. In the 1970s, the most common were Givaudan’s Sandalore and IFF’s Bagdanol. Their role, in formulas, was to support the essential oil of sandalwood that the companies were already using sparingly. Chemists, always wanting to push the limits of their work, developed other molecules that were even more powerful, such as Firmenich’s Polysantol, first used in Guerlain’s Samsara de Guerlain, which came out in 1989. This was beautiful work by Jean-Paul Guerlain, who used the sandalwood note as a centerpiece of his fragrance (it makes up 26% of the composition!). More recently still, Givaudan offered an incredibly powerful molecule with Javanol. There is just one drawback to all this: the olfactory power is there, but the richness of the Mysore sandalwood note has not yet been equaled. In fact the voluptuous, milky facet of this prodigious essential is not found, according to perfumers, in any of the molecules cited.
The main chemical ingredients of sandalwood are alpha- and beta-santalol, the santalines and various sesquiterpenols. A good quality essential oil of sandalwood must contain at least 75% of santalol. As shows the chemists’ work developed in the above-mentioned companies, an attempt was made to synthesize sandalwood essence but the results were not quite satisfactory as the main constituting ingredient – santalol – was difficult to draw out from other base materials. However, biotechnology perhaps offers promising perspectives.
The sandalwood imprint added to a few famous fragrances
In perfume composition, sandalwood essence is generally used as a base note like vetiver, myrrh, tonka bean and labdanum (amber).
Woody fragrances are based on warm, sensual notes like patchouli and sandalwood and drier cedar and vetiver notes. Sandalwood is widely used in perfumery. Since it is used in small amounts, it is an excellent fixative and makes it possible to capture the head notes of other essential oils.
Traditionally associated with men’s fragrances, sandalwood is now used in women’s perfumes for a woody note or to strengthen certain powdery notes.
The most significant of the major perfumes today are still :
Guerlain’s SAMSARA (1989), made by Jean-Paul Guerlain, an amber floral woody fragrance. It is the brand’s first to be made with sandalwood and at that, at a very high dose perked up with other sandalwood notes such as polysantol combined with jasmine and ylang-ylang. Jean-Paul Guerlain himself went to India in search of the best sandalwood as he needed huge amounts of this precious wood to make Samsara.
Lanvin’s ARPÈGE (1927), a floral aldehyde made by André Fraysse.
It is said to contain about 60 ingredients that open out into one of the world’s greatest perfumes whose voluptuous sillage is redolent of vanilla, patchouli, vetiver and sandalwood.
Hermès’ CALÈCHE (1961), a chypre floral aldehyde filled with a rich chypre accord made perky with a base of Haitian vetiver, cedar and Mysore sandalwood, which contributed to the huge success of this perfume created by Guy Robert.
Jean Patou’s 1000 (1972), by Jean Kerléo, is a great floral bouquet that opens out thanks to a significant dose of sandalwood.
Another Patou fragrance, SUBLIME (1992) by Jean Kerléo, is a floriental, an oriental fragrance developed over a base of Indian sandalwood.
Lacoste’s LACOSTE ORIGINAL (1984), also by Jean Kerléo, is an aromatic fougère also made of Indian sandalwood.
Joop’s fragrance JOOP! Femme (1987), created by Michel Almairac, is an oriental woody. It kicks off to a fresh start to gradually reveal a sensual, oriental signature thanks to sandalwood and tonka bean in the base.
Joop! is the first women’s perfume from Wolfgang Joop, one of the top names in German fashion.
YSL’s JAZZ (1988) is a men’s fragrance by J.F. Matty, a woody aromatic perfume with spicy top notes over a base of sandalwood, leather and amber.
Chanel’s EGOÏSTE (1990), a woody spicy fragrance, is the work of Jacques Polge, who decided to re-work the formula for Ernest Beaux’s Bois des Iles (1926) to create a complex, elegant men’s fragrance with a woody harmony of sandalwood, intense vanilla and tobacco for the base. The spectacular ad concept that accompanied the launch helped make EGOÏSTE a huge commercial success.
Lorenzo Villoresi’s SANDALO (1995), an oriental woody, is a rich, precious fragrance inspired from Indian tradition, with a Mysore sandalwood base. A wonderful glow of aromatic wood and tree sap.
Davidoff’s COOL WATER (1997) Woman, a floral woody fragrance by Pierre Bourdon, features a floral jasmine-lily-of-the-valley accord perked up by base notes of sandalwood and vetiver.
Boucheron’s JAÏPUR Homme (1997), a woody spicy fragrance by Annick Menardo (of ISIPCA) with sandalwood, musk and tonka bean notes in the base.
Olivier Creed’s ORIGINAL SANTAL (2005), an oriental woody with Indian sandalwood as the top note.
Hermès’ SANTAL MASSOÏA (2011), by Jean-Claude Ellena, is a unisex woody floral fragrance in the Hermessence collection. It’s an exotic, airy woody fragrance made with a floral accord for the top notes and massoia and sandalwood for the heart (massoia is a rare, protected tree that grows in Indonesia and whose bark is used to extract the essential oil).
Exotic Island Perfumer’s SANTAL EXOTIC ( 2013), by Juan Perez, is a woody oriental.
A bouquet of the essential oils of Mysore, New Caledonia and Hawaii sandalwood for base notes create a milky, decidedly spicy oriental fragrance.
Guerlain’s SANTAL ROYAL (2015). Oriental.
With this fragrance of oriental woody notes (sandalwood and oud) over fruity, flowery accords, Guerlain glorifies sandalwood, creating a journey to warm lands.
House perfumer Thierry Wasser was inspired by the East to base his composition on this precious raw material.
Among makers of niche perfumes, Serge Lutens has shown special interest in aromatic sandalwood, with three fragrances made by Christopher Sheldrake, the famous British perfumer born in Madras:
- SANTAL de MYSORE (1991), a woody, unisex eau de parfum. It’s milky, spicy, opulent and gourmand, all at once.
- SANTAL BLANC (2001), a chypre woody creation with a woody and spicy accord to create a very intense, multifaceted fragrance. “Peppery crystal that holds its own. One remembers it,” says Serge Lutens.
- SANTAL MAJUSCULE (2012), an oriental woody: warm, gourmand, enveloping wood, a unisex eau de parfum with rose and sandalwood as heart notes.
SACREBLEU INTENSE (2008), by Patricia de Nicolaï, oriental spicy.
A highly feminine eau de parfum made of fruity top notes over a floral accord of carnation and jasmine made rich with sandalwood, tonka bean and benzoin to create a very original oriental fragrance.
Cited since Antiquity in Indian literature, sandalwood is considered a sacred tree, a gift of the gods offering a warm, woody fragrance. In mythology, sandalwood was guarded by serpents because the antidote to their deadly venom was the fragrance of the tree. The spiritual symbolism linked to the olfactory quality of this aromatic wood gave birth to an Indian proverb that perfume lovers won’t forget:
“The virtuous man must imitate the sandalwood tree which, when felled, perfumes the ax that strikes it.”
Catherine Bala for the Osmothèque
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