The mysteries of sandalwood

Sandalwood is a fragrant wood with many virtues, which has been used for centuries for its warm and velvety scent

Warm scents coming from an incense stick burning in a temple in India… That is what sandalwood evokes to us. Known for 4,000 years, sandalwood is one of the oldest fragrant ingredients used today. From its bark is made a precious essence that has been delighting the nose for many years. Its warm and velvety perfume enriches compositions and brings a woody wake to fragrances. A true olfactory “must-have” that is becoming increasingly rare. From India to the forests of Australia, discover this jewel of perfumery.

The origins of sandalwood

A mysterious tree

In addition to its botanical name santalnum album, sandalwood was also called “East Indian sandalwood” since colonial times. Like cedar, cinnamon wood and rosewood, sandalwood belongs to the category of aromatic woods, which is also called perfume trees. It is a tree about ten meters high with oval evergreen leaves and small odorless yellow flowers with purple shades. But it is neither its leaves nor its flowers that make it so majestic, but its brown bark that protects a pale green or white heart with a velvety scent.

From mystical rites to perfumery

Known for thousands of years, sandalwood was first used by the Egyptians to embalm their mummies. It was also used by the Muslims of India during funeral ceremonies. They placed a censer containing sandalwood at the feet of the deceased, to allow the soul to rise. This dense and solid wood was also adopted in the construction of temples in Tibet, Nepal and China. The appearance of sandalwood in Europe will be later. It will be introduced by the Arabs who used it to perfume the leather of Cordoba in Spain. Sandalwood will also be present in pharmacies in the Middle Ages, once again introduced by Arab doctors who used it to concoct ointments and plasters. It was not until the appearance of modern perfumery in the 19th century that sandalwood became a raw material of choice and was used in many men’s compositions.

Sandalwood lands

This sacred wood is native to Asia, and more precisely to India and Indonesia. It is in the south of India, in the state of Karnataka, that one of its most famous and coveted varieties can be found: Mysore sandalwood. This Indian city is surrounded by sandalwood and rosewood forests, a dream for all perfumers. Highly prized, Mysore sandalwood has long suffered from over-exploitation and is now cultivated under the aegis of the Indian government. Sandalwood is also grown in other countries, including Australia and New Caledonia, in the Vanuatu archipelago. This variety is quite similar in smell to Indian sandalwood. In Australia, the famous sandalnum album is cultivated on a large scale to compensate for the scarcity of sandalwood from India. Australia also produces another variety of sandalwood, whose smell is more resinous and smokier.

Sandalwood in perfumery

From the tree to the essential oil

As it grows, the wood’s scent develops. You have to wait until the tree reaches maturity, between 25 and 30 years, to make an essence. At that time, the tree is cut down and uprooted, to be reduced to chips before being distilled. In the past, trees were felled and then the branches and roots were cut down. The trunks were then left abandoned on the ground and fed termites. Today, faced with the scarcity of sandalwood, all parts of the tree are used, without leaving a crumb for the gourmand insects! The chips and the heart of the wood, but also the roots of the tree, are reduced to powder and then dried, to be finally steam distilled. This process makes it possible to produce a precious essence whose quality will depend on the age of the tree.

Sandalwood is one of the most expensive fragrant raw materials. Its essence is often referred to as “liquid gold” and its price can be very expensive. To obtain 45 litres of essential oil, about 1 tonne of wood is needed.

From left to right, the forest of Mysore in India, the brown and reddish bark of sandalwood and finally the wood chips before being powdered and distilled.

A characteristic smell

Aromatic tree par excellence, sandalwood gives off a very warm woody fragrance. It possesses powdery, balsamic, even milky notes and has slightly leathery and animalized facets. It is a sensual scent that evokes creamy and velvety olfactory sensations. However, its scent is not very powerful, but on the other hand, its tenacity is particularly strong. It is also a very low-volatility ingredient. For all these reasons, sandalwood is widely used in perfumery to enrich an olfactory composition. It is an excellent fixative that will allow lighter notes to be captured. At Carrément Belle, you will find the woody notes of sandalwood in the chypre eau de parfum ïōdé. It gives it a comforting woody wake and sits alongside amber to soothe this marine and invigorating fragrance.

A perfumed jewel to protect

Prized and long-mistreated material, the sandalwood has become increasingly rare since the 1970s. Over-exploitation and the black market have led governments to regulate the growing and the trade in India to preserve this precious resource. Faced with a wood that has become scarce, but a growing demand, new plantations have been created. In fact, the Mysore species is extremely limited, or even almost impossible to find nowadays. It is no longer exported and is reserved for local consumption. Organic chemistry researchers are also working on substitute molecules. The first, the Sandela, was even created in 1947 by mistake! During the 70s, Sandalore was used extensively to support natural sandalwood essence, which was already limited at the time. Since then, new discoveries have been made and other more powerful molecules such as Polysantol have been added to the formulas.

Did you know the origins of this almost mystic wood? Do you like to smell this woody and milky note in your fragrances ?

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