do 4,000 years of uninterrupted use of sandalwood for religious,
ritual, medicine and perfume end? Trust Western greed and corruption to
take care of that... Since its introduction the Europeans in the 19th
Century, Sandalwood's supplies have depleted significantly, and it is
now an endangered species in its natural habitats; and the plantations
of sandalwood world-wide can't seem to keep up with the demand.
Chandana (the tree's original name in Sankskrit) has a fragrant heartwood retains its scent for decades, which is what makes it so
valuable. The trees have been cultivated in plantations in India for
hundreds of years, where they've been used extensively for sacred
carvings and temple gates, in daily religious rituals and in traditional
(see below). It is only in the last hundred years or so there has
developed large-scale interest in them in Western perfumery. The Indian
government attempted to regulate the export of sandalwood, because
India's demand for the wood only justified a very small amount (less
than 10% of all harvest) outside of India. However, corruption among
Indian officials, combined with Western greed, have pretty much
exhausted the supply of East Indian sandalwood (Santalum album
). It is now considered to have a vulnerable status
What we are left with now, is a rapidly dwindling supply of Santalum spicatum
from Australia, New Caledonia and Vanuatu (the latter already made its
exit from the market, probably until the next harvest - in 30 years or
so, if anyone would remain patient and restrain their greed as to allow
them to grow and fully mature and develop their fine aroma). In
Australia, there are still some wild-harvested trees (and, as they tell
us, felling of the trees is highly regulated and restricted as to
protect the trees and allow them to reproduce).
Sandalwood, the genus Santalum, are slow-growing hemiparasitic
trees that are native to India, China, Indonesia, The Philippines and Timor
, (Santalum album
), Australia, Vanuatu
, (Santalum spicatum
) New Caledonia (Santalum austrocaledonicum)
and Hawaii (Santalum ellipticum
, S. freycinetianum
, and S. paniculatum
This evergreen tree reaches heights of up to 40ft, relying on
neighboring plants for its survival - it leeches on to them underground
and sucks their nutrients like a vampire. Sandalwood's essential oil
exists only in its heartwood, which takes between 18-25 years to begin
to develop; reaching its best quality and yield at 50-60 years of age.
most trees are not given the opportunity to reach their optimal age, and
this shows in the rapid decline in quality of the oils in the past 10
Sandalwood thrives in the dry dedcuous
forests of Southeast Asia and Australia and its surrounding archipelago.
There are also several types of sandalwoods native to Hawaii (and
probably already over-harvested). According to IUCN, the plant produces
viable seeds at five years of age, which are distributed in the wild by
bird. The threats to the species Santalum album
are "fire, grazing and most importantly exploitation of the wood for fine
furniture and carving and also oil are threatening the species.
Smuggling has assumed alarming proportions" (quoting from IUCN's website).
trees freely produce seed and natural regeneration occurs both via
seedlings and vegetatively via the roots. If left to mature, the trees
can regenerate fairly quickly. The absence of heartwood in young trees
provides little reason for felling trees less than 20-25 years old.
However destruction of younger trees does occur and the age of trees
that are now harvested has dramatically reduced. This is reflected by
the quantities of oil in the wood. In the 1970s, 10 trees could provide 1
ton of sandalwood, but now more than 1000 trees are needed to produce 1
ton of wood"
Harvesting, Distillation and Extraction Methods:
the essential oil is concentrated entirely in the tree's heartwood,
including the internal parts of the roots - it is necessary to fell the
trees completely in order to make maximum use of the harvest. That is
why sandalwood production, even more than with Agarwood (which might
allow harvest without taking the whole tree down, by "tapping" into the
trees) is so detrimental to the genus' survival.
trees only become fully mature and yield good quality oil beyond the
age of 50, the age of harvest has rapidly declined to 30, 25, 20 and
even 18 now... Resulting in far larger number of trees necessary for
production of the same amount of oil that only required (see above). The
reason I'm repeating this is because of how devastating it is to the
trees, and because as a result, all the traditions, skills, arts and
perfumes that rely on sandalwood, will disappear. It would soon be
impossible to ever smell real mature sandalwood again, and is already
extremely rare to come across a specimen!
of younger trees to harvest their heartwood has greatly influenced the
decline in sandalwood oil (and incense material) quality which I have
witnessed within the past 12 years since I began working with this raw
material. To say this is sad is an understatement. This is a tragedy in
botanical, cultural and of course olfactory proportions (affecting both
incense and perfume). Read on and you'll understand why...
trees are often left outside the white ants (termites) to eat the bark
(they do not like the heartwood because of the oil content), which saves
a lot of labour. The heartwood is then sawed into billets, and sorted
by the following "grades": Roots, billets, jajpokal, cheta and sawdust
(Pucher, p. 366). The nicest and largest pieces will be used for carving
and temple building, smallest pieces for distillation and for
Japanese-style incense ceremonies, and the sawdust is used for incense
making (the self-combustible type, i.e. joss sticks, incense sticks,
cones and spirals). The distillation requires high-skilled workers that
are experienced with this particular wood, not to mention all the
preparation required (sawing, cutting, sorting, grinding). Large amounts
of water, power and longer hours of distillation than many other
harvests are contributing elements to the cost, in addition to the
increasing scarcity of the raw material itself.
most sandalwood is processed by steam distillation, solvent extraction
products have been introduced to the market - sandalwood absolute and
sandalwood CO2; both of which have a far poorer quality than the
essential oil: lower odour intensity and tenacity, and not as fine aroma
- probably because many other non-fragrant molecules have made it into
the receiver. My conclusion is, that these extraction methods increase
yield in weight and volume, but do not add favorably to the odour
Religious and Spiritual Significance of Sandalwood:
a Buddhist temple, and the first thing you'll notice is the soft smoke
of sandalwood incense that wraps the atmosphere with serenity.
Sandalwood is used throughout Asia in most religious practices,
including Buddhist, Hindu, Shinto, Zoroastriansm and Islam. But it's
religious and spiritual significance use is dated as far back as Ancient
Egypt, where it is speculated to be one of the 16 ingredients recorded
on a temple wall in the formula for the Kyphi
The Israelites might have brought some with them from Egypt and have used it in the production of the Holy Incense
burnt in the tabernacle, and perhaps also in the anointing oil for the temple's
tools (the names in the holy scriptures are still rather obscure in regards to these aromatics' identities).
Hindu mythology has the sandalwood tree as
surrounded by snakes; and the wood's long-lasting sweet fragrance
symbolizes ineffable sweetness that is unchanged by danger. The perfume
of sandalwood is believed to attract snakes, but the incense is burnt on
a daily basis in Indian home to welcome the gods and ward-off evil spirits.
both Shinto and Buddhist households in Japan, incense sticks (often
made with sandalwood powder mixed with other spices, resins and woods
such as sweet cassia, cloves, frankinences and oud) are burnt as an
offering to the ancestors.
considered to bring one closer to the divine in several religions, which
is why it is used during funerals: In Hinduism, sandalwood logs were
used in funeral pyres by the rich (not quite possible currently); In
Islam, sandalwood paste would be applied to a Sufi's grave as sign of
devotion by their students. In addition, burning sandalwood incense in
memorial and funeral services soothes and comforts the mourners.
in India, and especially the south, would celebrate the holiday of
Mohammed's birth (Milad un Nabi - literally translates to "birth of the
prophet") by decorating images of Buraq, the mythical horse that took
Mohhamed to Heaven, as well as the symbols of the prophet's foot-prints.
The Hindus apply sandalwood paste or essential to the "Third Eye" or the 6th Chakra Ajna
where it will elevate the spirit, increase spiritual awareness and
awaken intelligence. Buddhists burn sandalwood incense in all their
temples, to increase alertness and assist in meditation practices; as
well as apply a special sandalwood paste called "Cathusama" (a mixture
of sandalwood, agarwood, camphor, musk, saffron and other ingredients)
to the Buddha icons and sculptures. Sandalwood-based incense powders are
used to cleanse the monks and priests' hands before entering the
According to Western alchemists, sandalwood
has an affinity with the element of air, represents the cool lunar
energies, and is most associated with the fixed air sign of Aquarius. It
is also associated to a lesser extent with the planets Venus, the Major
Arcana's Tartot card of The Empress. In Qabbalah, sandalwood incense
will help connect one to the Sephirah of Netzah and the path of the
letter "Daleth". In my early days working with alcehmical incense and
perfumes, I've used sandalwood oil in Moon Breath
as a meditation and anointing oil, as well as in my Zodiac perfumes for Gemini, Aquarius and Libra
Traditional Sandalwood Carving:
close-grained nature of sandalwood's heartwood make it a very smooth
wood, soft to carve and form many intricate designs in. Add to that its
long lasting scent - and it is no surprise that many religious arts have
formed around sandalwood, from creating meditation and prayer beads for
malas, carving deities, and creating luxuriously-scented lace-like
sandalwood fans that emit their delicate scent while fanning.
Medicinal, Therapeutic and Aromatherapeutic Properties:
considers sandalwood to be a cooling, calming oil. Sandalwood
powder is mixed with water into a paste to treat skin conditions that
are associated with over-heating originated in "Pitta": sunburn, acne,
rashes, herpes, infectious sores and also fever and ulcers. Mixed with
coconut water, sandalwood was also prepared by ayurvedic doctors to
further quench patients' thirst.
uses sandalwood primarily for purification of the urinary tract.
Western medicine acknowledged that role and for a while it was used in
such way. However, these treatments were abandoned.
the alcohols in sandalwood, are antiseptic which contributed to
sandalwood's popularity in soaps. It also decreases skin inflammation,
itchiness, etc. Mixed with honey and rice-water, sandalwood aided in
treating digestive problems, and also was used in mouth-washing
preparations to prevent bad-breath.
I have in my
possession 3 sandalwood pills that are soft-gell covered and filled with
an actual oil - a gift from Yuko Fukami. She told me that those were
originally used to treat herpes (which is incurable, but the "cooling"
effect of the oil ingested perhaps aided in reducing the symptoms). I
cherish those not for their medicinal benefits, but because they are the
only oil I have from properly aged trees!
Sandalwood is valued for protecting the skin from the sun. Some research
is even beginning to find connection between sandalwood and treatment
as well as prevention of skin cancer - so perhaps it's no coincidence on
Mother Nature's behalf, that this tree still grows wild in Australia,
the world's number one victim of that disease, as it sits right under
the atmosphere's largest ozone hole.
Last but not least: sandalwood's healing effect on the mind is incredible - bring calmness and serenity and reducing depression, alleviating tension and anxiety. Therefore, it is not surprising that it's been used so widely in meditation, prayers and spiritual practices (see above).
Cosmetic Uses for Sandalwood:
Sandalwood not only smells good, but is also valued for its beautifying properties:
acne-prone skin will benefit from the antiseptic qualities of sandalwood
in a toner or cleaner it can balance the oils on the skin and stimulate
healing; while dry and mature skin will improve regeneration and feel
more soft and supple with the addition of sandalwood to creams, facial
serums, etc. It is also used as in hair products such as hair oils. It is also used an all-natural sunscreen in Southeast Asia, similarly to how the girls in the above photograph have partially covered their face with its thin clay-like paste.
Sandalwood's animalic and slightly uric qualities are no conicedence: this wood oil is surprisingly the closest resemblence
to the masculine pheromone androstenol.
It is therefore no surprise that in East Indian culture, jasmine and sandalwood are considered to be the most manly of scents.
Types and Aromatic Profiles of Sandalwood:
The most prized of all sandalwoods is the so-called "white" or "yellow" sandalwood (Santalum album
that comes from plantations in Mysore, India. When the trees are
allowed to fully mature, their aroma is so fine, beyond imagination:
Precious wood. Creamy, woody, milky, warm, smooth, and very special.
Most of the good stuff was gone just about ten years ago, and lesser
quality stuff (from younger trees) replaced them, being only a poor
representation of what this should be. The modern East Indian sandalwood
oils have a certain acrid top-note, and dry down with a sour trail on
my skin. This is not so with the original Mysore sandalwood, which once
developed on the skin would convince you that your skin is made of silk
and butter. It is milky, sweet, warm and rounded. Truly a gift from the
Gods of perfume.
If you can find superior quality of
East Indian sandalwood oil, it is most likely stashed away from before.
And if it ain't, you should because it will in fact improve over time,
giving way to more floral and sweet-warm characteristics to develop as
the less pleasant bitter-woody notes dissipate.
Vanuatu is the only modern sandalwood oil that did not leave those
sour, acrid skidmarks on my skin. It is different than the Indian one
but to me that's a plus.
Australian Sandalwood (Santalum spicatum
Floral, wood, warm, musky, sweet and smooth. Tenacious yet soft with
incredible lasting power. Opens with sawdust overtones, and develops
into a musky, warm, smooth, floral notes. Hint of nail-polish notes into
the dry down. There is also an unmistakable urine-like note, which can
be appealing - or not. It all depends on taste.
Ironically, sandalwood from Australia, which was considered such an inferior quality to the Indian (accounting still for about 90% of the world's production) and "posed no threat to it" (Arctander) is now the only viable alternative to the endangered Santalum album
It's important to note that some people have difficulty perceiving sandalwood. Similarly to ionones and certain musk - not everyone will get the depth and tenacity of sandalwood and might experience as a barely-there, almost transparent note.
Role of Sandalwood in Attars - Traditional East Indian Perfumery:
perfumery not only preceded Western perfumery and had immense technical
advantage over it for hundreds if not thousands of years - it is also
completely different from it, both technically and philosophically. And
there is no better place to talk about Indian perfumery than within the
context of sandalwood oil.
There is very little we
know about the composition of traditional Indian perfumes, as the
knowledge passes from father to son, from one generation to the next,
orally and via hands-on experience of working together. Family's recipes
are more than just trade secrets, as they were also protected by
India's strict caste system. If you were not born to a perfumer's
family, you can't and shan't be one. There was no way around it.
we do know about East Indian perfumery is only from what we can smell -
if we can get the real stuff; and from those who spent time with the
distillers there. Equipped with a transportable copper still on his
back, the Indian perfumer ventures into the wild to procure fresh
aromatics - including getting all wet and dirty in search for
waterlilies and lotus flowers inside ponds, and distilled into a
receiver that contains pre-distilled sandalwood oil, which is by and
large used as the carrier - you will find neither alcohol nor fatty oils
in a true, traditional Indian attar
materials, such as spices, resins and herbs are masterfully blended
together, like a complex masala, prior to being distilled - either with
sandalwood, or into sandalwood oil. The blending does not, in most
cases, happen after the distillation, but beforehand. Beautifully
complex perfumes such as Amberi, Shamama, Mukhallat, Majmuna, Kadam and
many others are true complex perfumes with many secret ingredients, some
of which are indigenous to India and mostly recognizable to the Western
nose, with some ingredients more known such as rose, jasmines (there
are at least three species available to the Indian perfumer!), marigold
(tagetes), agarwood and more. And all of these, let's not forget, is
suspended in a base of sandalwood oil!
importance of this raw material to the art of Indian perfumery. It is
both aesthetically and technically impossible to preserve this unique,
ancient art form that has been passed and perfected from one generation
to the next - without the existence of this plant. While there are some
creative attempts at finding alternatives - vetiver based attars, for
instance - nothing would change the fact that we've been too greedy with
our sandalwood consumption, we've over-harvested, and we still do not
wait long enough for the trees to mature and develop their fine
characteristics, not to mention replenish their own population.
Sandalwood in Western Perfumery:
Sandalwood oil has a distinctive precious-wood scent that is soft, warm, smooth, creamy
and milky. It imparts a long-lasting woody base to perfumes from the
oriental, woody, fougère and chypre families, as well as a fixative to
floral and citrus fragrances. When used in smaller proportions in a perfume
, it acts as a fixative
enhancing the longevity of other more volatile materials in the
composition. Last but not least, sandalwood is a key ingredient in the
"floriental" (aka floral-ambery) fragrance family - when combined with
white florals such as jasmine, ylang ylang, gardenia, plumeria, orange
blossom and tuberose etc.
Sandalwood easily gets along
with all ingredients, and creates a precious wood note with a suave,
soft, warm, velvety presence wherever it is placed. It goes particualrly
well with rose, musk, ambergris, patchouli, cloves, cedarwood,
cardamom, nutmeg, ginger, honey, ylang ylang, jasmine and all "white"
florals. The main danger, however, is in burying sandalwood among very
dominant notes where it would get completely lost rather than shine, so
be cautious when you're marrying this costly essence with notes such as
patchouli, oakmoss and the like.
A simple search for all perfumes containing "sandalwood note" on Basenotes yields a swooping number of over 3,000 results. Not all perfumes with that note truly contain the natural sandalwood oil; and even those who do - don't always have it in their forefront, including perfumes that have the word "Sandal", "Santal" or "Sandalwood" in their name.
Notable perfumes with a significant amount of sandalwood:
Bois des Îles
, Tam Dao
, Santal de Mysore
, Cocoa Sandalwood
, No. 5
, Narcisse Noir
and countless classical eaux (Crabtree & Evelyn, Floris, Yardley, Penhaligon) as well as modern niche houses (Lorenzo Villorsei, Etro, Amouage, Santa Maria Novella, Creed, Fresh, Tom Ford and many more).
Labels: Chandana, Decoding Obscure Notes, Decoding Obscure Notes Part XI, Eas Indian Sandalwood, Endangered Species, Mysore, Sandal, Sandalwood, Santal