Sandalwood Gold

Sandalwood_harvestIf you read the Wall Street Journal this past weekend, you may have noticed an article about the poaching of sandalwood from the plantations that now dot Western Australia (Illegal Loggers Tap Australian Prize).  It’s becoming a big problem with so much sandalwood clumsily poached (branches sawn off anyhow, stumps left in the ground) that the illegal export is beginning to hurt the legal trade.

So, alright, this is a not too pretty story of thugs stealing for profit, and how does it affect the rarefied world of high end scent?  One way is clearly that the prices for sandalwood-centric scents like Samsara and Santal Majuscule will remain high.  If a formula really and truly needs that hit from sandalwood and nothing else will do, then you will still be paying for it, through the nose.

The other implication is that IFRA rules and regulations are doing nothing to stifle global demand for the real thing.  It seems that elsewhere in the world, outside the magic circle of the EU, people just aren’t too concerned with allergenic materials or protecting endangered species.  Nope.  They want a certain substance and are willing to pony up the cash.  And so we have poachers.

Maybe production will ramp up enough to make this crime less attractive.  I hope so.  Cutting down trees and leaving shredded remains behind is pretty awful.  But I am a bit torn here myself.  You see, I like sandalwood a lot, and the Hub likes his Caswell Massey Sandalwood soap.  Do we forgo all of these in the hopes of starving an illegal trade?

In fact, we do, but does it have any impact? Unfortunately, it seems unlikely. None of our efforts would make much difference, and that probably includes everybody who is a perfume enthusiast.  As a group we are simply dwarfed by the rising Indian middle class, and other potential consumers.

Anyhow, I’ve never liked any of the sandalwood substitutes that came along.  Even the natural ones made me wrinkle up my nose. When at the height of the sandalwood shortages of the last decade Chanel was evidently reduced to using what I guess to have been Australian sandalwood in Bois des Isles, I noticed the substitution at once.

This was because in my own desperation for sandalwood, I had ordered a bunch of different essential oil sandalwoods from Eden Botanicals, and the distinctive light smell of the Australian (Santalum spicatum) was easily picked out at the Chanel counter by my snoot.  What is the world coming to when a perfume like Bois des Isles loses its thick richness and becomes instead medicinal and reedy?  Nothing good is the answer.  Fortunately, a year or so later I sniffed BdI again and the Australian stuff* was gone.  Who knows how, and I wonder if sales had fallen off during the interim?

There you have it in a nutshell.  The trouble with sandalwood, no matter how many people say, “Oh, you can always substitute patchouli (no), or cedarwood (No), or a nice synthetic (NO NO NO)”,  in fact you just can’t.  Sandalwood, once you know the scent and you love it is inimitable; like P.G. Wodehouse’s prose, or real truffles, or Fred Astaire’s dancing: unique.

So for the moment, this chainsaw massacre will probably continue.

* Meaning the Santalum spicatum was gone and Santalum album was back.  The white sandalwood probably was itself Australian. What Chanel had done I think was to switch species.

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10 thoughts on “Sandalwood Gold

  1. Hiya,
    Recently I was lucky enough to be part of a small group sent the official Australian Mysore Sandalwood juice. In the first moments it has an Australian-ness that is undeniable, a Eucalyptus/medicine/alcohol sting that nearly burnt my nose out but 5 minutes in it smoothed to a buttery soft, sensual, Sandalwood that reminds me of the magic of my first trip to India and the Sandalwood oils were were treated to then.
    I am not as across Sandalwood as you but I loved the sniff I got of the Aussie Mysore stuff. Do you think it will help to replace the lost Indian version?
    Portia x

    • Hi Portia!
      Oh I sure hope so. When I heard that Australia was stepping up as one of the greatest sandalwood producers in the world, I was excited, because all the sandalwood perfumes were sure to have a lasting supply.

      Then along came this news, but the good part about capitalism is that wonderful supply/demand thingumajig, and maybe this means more sandalwood plantations? Yes please!

  2. As I understand it, growers in Western Australia are growing both Santalum album (‘Mysore’ sandalwood) and Santalum spicatum (‘Australian’ Sandalwood). TFS is one company and there may be others. I’ve heard that the Santalum album yield is still quite low. It’s the same species as Mysore sandalwood but who knows whether, in a different ‘terroir’, so to speak, it will smell the same. Portia’s experience suggests probably not quite.

    I think we just have to learn to live with it, but it’s easy for me to say that – I’m not a lover of Bois des Iles particularly. But in certain sort of way it pleases me to think that if we really want something badly enough, we will have to be patient and live *with* the land, and the resources it can yield, rather than exploit them. An idealistic view, I guess.

    • The slowness of Santalum album’s maturity to harvest is something I had read about as well, it’s certainly a contributing factor here. Did not realize how much the same species differed in smell from the Indian white sandalwood though, and Portia’s experience does make you think that the Australian version has a different tonality than the Indian. Terroir as you point out, but unfortunately it seems to be close enough to please a large number of consumers out there.
      Maybe I just got spoiled by the availability of sandalwood-once it was everywhere like cedarwood-and now it’s rare as hen’s teeth!

  3. I *like* sandalwood. I don’t *love* it. And I don’t mind white sandalwood from Australia – it seems brighter, maybe, less deep? – or from the other places it’s grown, I’m forgetting exactly where now. Malaysia maybe.

    I’m encouraged by the plantations. If it’s profitable, SOMEbody will grow sandalwood.

  4. Selfishly, I want a continual supply for Nuit de Noel. Then there’s everything else and Santal Massoia these days over at Hermes.

    Also sandalwood was a great base for florals, used to be that not every floral signed over and out on white musk, the signoff was frequently sandalwood, less heavy than patch or cedarwood I’m guessing.

    • Oh, yes – I have that first Ines de la Fressange that I keep mentioning, and a good part of that base is sandalwood… may be real, may not be, but it sure smells nice. (Scent was launched in 1998, I think, so it may have been the real stuff at that point.)

      And Arpege. For a so-called aldehydic floral, there is a ton of wood in the vintage – vetiver and sandalwood. I struggle through that almost-rotting floral heart (can’t go put it on right after lunch, though) to get to that beautiful drydown, and I’m not much of a drydown kinda gal. I like my flowers too much.

      • That first Ines is getting so hard to locate. Wait a second scanning Ebay and…ok a pristine bottle is 149.00!! You can get used ones for less still, and all.
        Yeah I know what you mean about old Arpege. My Mom’s bottle dated from the sandalwood dry down era and the thing was she hated sandalwood. Hard to believe but true. For me, it’s the easiest of the wood notes to love, (although I do love patchouli :-) )

  5. Hi Jordan,
    Oh it’s appalling, particularly awful that they leave neon road tape out to mark the plantations.
    Btw, caught your profile on Olfactoria, and love your perfume choices, DSH’s Ma Folie de Noel is one of her best Xmas scents :-) and a fave of mine too.

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