Sandalwood: From the Perils and Intricacies of Forestry to the Rarified world of Perfumery

Sandalwood reminds me of entering homes with objects from faraway lands. My aunt and uncle had such a home, with artifacts collected in world travels scenting the almost sacred space. When I entered the familiar yet exotic realm, my child’s imagination and consciousness expanded to include worlds beyond the tiny one I occupied.

As Deniz Ataman, managing editor at Perfumer & Flavorist put it in an email, “At the root of it, perfumery is about sharing the essence of the Earth’s spirit and creating beauty for others to enjoy.”
In 2016, Perfumer & Flavorist teamed up with The American Society of Perfumers (ASP) and TFS (an Australian company sustainably growing and harvesting Santalum album) in a perfume contest using this precious commodity. It was in fact this competition that inspired me to write about sandalwood, because, as I mentioned in Aroma Victoriana, it is an unfortunate age-old tradition in perfumery to be secretive, and the World Perfumery Congress (WPC) is one of the few places where the spotlight shines on the perfumer, instead of the hype of a brand or celebrity so common in the fragrance industry.

Ataman attests to the excitement of this unique competition, “Working with the American Society of Perfumers and TFS Corporation for the perfume contest was one of the highlights of my career. Our team was fortunate enough to participate in the judging with five other perfumers. It was quite an experience to watch a perfumer in action–it’s not just about smelling. It’s about experiencing, it’s about unlocking your memory and traveling to forgotten places.”

Jennifer Jambon, a perfumer at Molton Brown (London), won the competition. In its announcement article, TFS quoted The president of ASP, Chris Diienno, explaining her win:

“Jennifer Jambon’s winning fragrance topped a world class selection of contenders by striking a delectable balance of complimentary notes. Capturing the magic of the TFS sandalwood, she exposed it just enough to allow it to peek out and blend with the beautiful orris accord she had developed. This gave an elegance to the creation that became the determining factor for the judges.”

Sandalwood is one of the building block materials in both men’s and women’s fragrances. In fact, the oft quoted figure from Michael Edwards “the perfume experts’ expert,” is that approximately 47 percent of all fragrances since 1790 contain sandalwood notes.

Considering the demand, it’s no wonder Sandalwood (Santalum album) has been for decades overharvested and endangered. Thus, the WPC’s 2016 theme of Scents and Sustainability had a focal point in the work of TFS.

Sandalwood oil derives from the heartwood of a mature tree. There is much oil in the roots, so in order to yield the full potential of oil, the tree must be uprooted, the outer bark and branches stripped away, the inner pulverized and then steam distilled. In India, Santalum album is endangered and even threatened with extinction. Although the Indian government has done much to regulate the buying and selling of the oil which sells at upwards of $2000 per kilo, poaching is obviously a problem, and enforcement difficult.

As Keville and Green put it in Aromatherapy, “Sandalwood has a long history of being overharvested everywhere it grows, and it is difficult to cultivate and grows very slowly, taking twenty to fifty years to reach maturity.”

The time it takes to grow sandalwood is clearly at odds with the desire to be a profitable business. Keville and Green conclude their section on sandalwood as a “threatened essential oil plant” (alongside rosewood and spikenard) thus:

India’s sandalwood trade dropped in half during the 1980s. Replanting efforts and the control of poaching have been difficult. Some landowners actually cut down the trees rather than risk poachers, who often arrive armed and dangerous.

In fact, according to a 2014 article at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), rangers are killed for protecting nature’s pricey offerings: “Almost 60% of all rangers killed this year are from Asia, with the majority of those from India. India, Thailand, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have seen the sharpest increase in ranger deaths caused by poachers in recent years. Areas rich in elephants, rhinos, sandalwood, rosewood and other valuable resources are most affected.”

Besides being a precious commodity for which people have been killed, sandalwood takes time and special effort to grow. Sandalwood, like its relative the European mistletoe, is hemiparasitic. The hemi means that the plant contains chlorophyll, and therefore carries out some photosynthesis, but derives a great deal of nutrients from neighboring trees. So, while human poachers are after sandalwood’s heartwood, the sandalwood tree is sucking the life out of its neighbors!

Hemiparasitic trees have specialized roots called haustoria that attached themselves to the root systems of other trees and pilfer their nutrients. Emma Mende, a forester who works with the TFS team in Australia’s tropical north, growing over 4.5 million Indian sandalwood trees and 10 million host trees, describes the endeavor in a brief Q&A:

Over the course of an Indian sandalwood tree’s life it will use around 3 different host trees. While we plant all of the host trees in the plantations at the same time, the Indian sandalwood tree will move from the pot host to the fast growing medium-term host which is strong enough to support the nutrient requirements of the Indian sandalwood tree. Once the medium-term host tree dies at around 3 years of age, the Indian sandalwood tree will move to the long-term host which by that stage is strong enough to sustain the Indian sandalwood tree’s growth. The Indian sandalwood (Santalum album) will then host on this tree for the rest of its life.

She concludes by making the connection between the forester’s job and oil production:

To achieve the best yields this parasitic relationship needs to be carefully managed even from the seedling stage. This is because the development of heartwood in a stem is largely dependent upon diameter growth early in an Indian sandalwood tree’s life. This is important since fatter (larger diameter) trees generally have more heartwood and therefore offer more oil yield.

Since the original publication of this article in my Distill My Heart column at Quail Bell Magazine, I have had the privilege of smelling TFS Sandalwood, and it is glorious! But as I’d not yet got my nose on the TFS Santalum album and in order to learn some distinction between species, I travelled to NYC’s West Village to the beautiful aromatherapy supply store Enfleurage, where I purchased a tiny vile–2ml–of Santalum album from Indonesia.

I also got to do a little comparison contrast with another species of sandalwood native to Australia, Santalum spicatum, which was much stronger and in some ways seemed more familiar, more easily recognizable, intellectually anyway, as sandalwood. It poked me in the nose and announced itself, “I’m sandalwood!” In other words, not a terrible smell, just a little over-friendly, bordering on aggressively pleasant, like an ambitious salesperson.

On the other hand, the Santalum album drifted into my consciousness as if from a tiny box of exotic treasures rarely opened. When I got it home I put a drop in my palm and rubbed the woodsy warmth around. Creamy sweet and softly spicy, this lingering scent is ambiguously seductive, being neither too feminine nor too masculine. I’m smelling myself right now, and I smell delicious!

In response to my follow-up email, Joe Richkus (who teaches Enfleurage classes) wrote that the Indonesian trees that provide the oil they carry are left to grow for forty years before they are harvested and added that it could be a lot better, but that it’s a happy medium given the climate for fast profit.  He concluded by underlining the connection between older trees and better quality oil.

Hence, sandalwood is necessarily expensive. My little 2ml vile of deliciousness cost me $25 at Enfleurage, and Aromatics International has Santalum album for $60/5ml. In other words, if you find cheap sandalwood, it’s likely another genus altogether, such as Amyris. Also, real sandalwood may be adulterated with a synthetic, such as Sandela or Javanol, which can work, albeit with much fussing, in perfumery, but may run you into trouble if you try to use it medicinally or in aromatherapy.

Sandalwood has had many uses through the ages, and so the peddling of fake or adulterated sandalwood is nothing new. In Sandalwood and Carrion, James McHugh writes:

Sandalwood is arguably as important a raw material to South Asian religions and civilization as jade is to China or porphyry was to the Roman Empire at certain times. … Taking sandalwood as an example, I present several texts on the evaluation and artifice of aromatics and conclude that faking this costly material was clearly both common and very profitable.

There is so much to say about a product of nature prized for millennia, that I will wind this potentially book-length subject down with this insightful comment from McHugh, “things smelled differently in early and medieval South Asia than they do today: not only were there many different odorants to smell (more elephants and sandalwood for example, at least in certain circles), but, more important, things smelled differently because of what was in people’s heads when they smelled things.”

In conclusion, I offer this thought: When an exotic fragrance is, by ingenuity and cunning, distilled and transported so far from its natural and cultural habitat, to land like an arrow from nowhere into our noses, we skirt the dangers of simple appropriation. A quick Google search for “sandalwood” will find you thousands of posts about the marvelously spiritual effects of sandalwood, which appeal I think to our sometimes untethered experience of modernity. Perhaps learning a little bit about the tree that gives its life for our pleasure will help us to feel less greedy about having it in our lives, and realize that our demands for natural must necessarily be costly. It is up to us to decide if the costs should be suffered by our pocketbooks or the environment. If we are ok with taking the hit financially, then a 2ml vile of the essence of Santalum album’s heartwood offers an olfactory expansion of our personal smellscape that is not otherwise quantifiable.

*This article was first published at Quail Bell Magazine*