Where have all the “good” sandalwood notes gone?

On a recent thread on Basenotes.net, a member posted the following:

…I found an article from late 2008 entitled “Sandalwood scarcity hits artisans” that stated “90 per cent of the world sandalwood output used to come from Mysore and parts of Tamil Nadu. But today, the rare aromatic plant is on the brink of extinction, thanks to illegal felling.”

Sandalwood prices shifted as follows, based on Indian currency:


I think the article he referenced can be found here:


The thread this member started was entitled, “When did Mysore Sandalwood shift from affordable to expensive in the USA?” I’d guess that hardly anyone has smelled Mysore sandalwood, at least not in anything more than very tiny amounts, and that is likely confined entirely to the aficionados and perfumers. And if this chart of prices is accurate, it coincides with the switch away from noticeable sandalwood notes in the base of “masculines” and to “woody/amber” aroma chemicals. The key question, it seems, it why is this important? Obviously, even among aficionados, many people don’t appreciate any kind of sandalwood note. Others enjoy sandalwood notes of all kinds, and so it doesn’t matter much if Mysore is used or not.

I can’t say for sure if I’ve sampled a scent with noticeable Mysore sandalwood content, but I have noticed that some older scents that list sandalwood have a wood note that is dry, delicate (sort of particulate), and rich (some might say creamy but to me it is not quite what I’d call creamy). In other scents, such as vintage Samsara, a similar kind of effect is present, but the other notes are much stronger, and so it’s not clear how much of this kind of sandalwood note is being masked. Thus, when people like the author of the FromPyrgos blog state that a scent such as Grey Flannel (in one of its formulations) has a sandalwood note derived from one aroma chemical (because he thinks his “nose” can’t be wrong about such things, apparently), I’m not sure what the point is.

The title of his post is “Alpha Ionone At Little More Than 1% Concentration Responsible For Natural Sandalwood Effect In Grey Flannel,” and some quotes from it are:

Jim Gehr a sample of Ionone Alpha at 1% concentration, something I requested, and I’m surprised to find after several days of scrutiny that this aroma chemical is in fact responsible for that velvety precious wood effect in the older vintage, although perhaps at a higher concentration…

The moral of the story: ingredient quality in vintages is not necessarily better. Just the same at a higher concentration, or marginally different.

Where to begin? GF is not considered a “sandalwood scent” by everyone, and it’s rather complex, with strong violet leaf. In fact, I doubt most aficionados would classify it as such. Plenty of scents feature a noticeable sandalwood note, “good” or “bad,” synthetic or natural, and in some it seems that a number of different ingredients are used in the same scent (to create a sandalwood note of some kind).  However, I wouldn’t be surprised if he is correct, but GF has a kind of crude and singular woody quality that is not common in my experience. If he had asked my advice, I would have suggested he focus on the variety of sandalwood notes one might encounter as well as his idea that scents with strong sandalwood notes seem to be out of favor.

The key point for me is that certain kinds of sandalwood-dominant scents appear to be gone, at least for the foreseeable future, other than in expensive niche or “exclusive” designer lines, and I have no idea how well these compare to the sandalwood note in my vintage Heritage, for example. I also have a very old bottle of Brooks Brothers Sandalwood Cologne, which goes in a more vanillic direction (the sandalwood note isn’t nearly as obvious as it is in the vintage Heritage). Then there is my vintage version of Elizabeth Arden’s Sandalwood for Men, which is less particulate and seems “harder.” And of course more than a few fairly recent scents feature a noticeable sandalwood note, one of my favorites being Barbara Bui Le Parfum, which features one of the strongest sandalwood notes I’ve encountered (and it’s quite enjoyable). If I had to guess, the Heritage might have some Mysore but the Barbara Bui has none.

But what does that matter? Why would anyone other than Mysore fans care? I certainly can’t claim that there is no doubt that the reformulation of Zino, for example, is missing its former sandalwood note because of the cost of Mysore, or any other variety of sandalwood (though the cost chart above certainly suggests this is a good possibility). It may be, for example, that they tried several different reformulations, at least one with a sandalwood aroma chemical, but decided to just omit the that note altogether for some reason (if that’s the case). One can only guess, based upon the information and claims (such as those by Luca Turin) that are available to the general public. If the sandalwood note in Zino would have been replaced by just some of what was used to construct the one in the Barbara Bui, I think it would have been much closer to original Zino, but again, we can only guess.

Why not make that guess an intelligent guess, though? And why fixate on one scent that seems to be quite unpopular now, especially among the under-35 or so crowd? Think of Loud for Him – that was supposed to “feature” a patchouli note, but it hardly features any notes at all! That seems to be the problem, and not the inability to construct a sandalwood note that works well with other notes. Perhaps if aroma chemicals are used for a strong sandalwood note and other aroma chemicals are used in large amounts, a “synthetic mess” or “chemical soup” quality usually results. This may be why we don’t see many scents with prominent sandalwood notes, but again, for all I know it could just be what is considered fashionable, or even worse (and probably more likely) what the research departments have found when they tested out different kinds of new concoctions. Perhaps all we can do is hope the old saying about everything old being new again will not take too long to emerge in this context !

UPDATE:  I found a 2012 post on Basenotes.net by perfumer Chris Bartlett that explains quite a bit:

I also have Vanuatu Sandalwood – the link will take you to an explanation on my blog if you’ve never heard of it – it’s the most widely used natural sandalwood in high-end fragrances now.

The other thing I have though is a large range of synthetics, including several sandalwood replacers, several of which are really very, very good. If you do a direct smell test against the best Mysore Sandalwood then of course you can tell them apart, but for most purposes synthetic replacements are excellent. You are not likely to find real sandalwood (not even the Vanuatu, which is still very expensive compared to the replacers) in any of the fragrances you can buy in most of the big stores: niche and high-end fragrances use it and you’ll occasionally find it in tiny amounts alongside a replacer, just so that the maker can say it’s there too. No-one making anything in big enough quantities to have stock on the shelves of a chain of stores is using Mysore now: it’s just not being exported legally any more.


NOTE: The FromPyrgos author also made this interesting statement:

Look at Green Irish Tweed and Cool Water – the former, while certainly classic and still sought after, smells rather loud in an eighties way, overly rich for today’s blood, while the latter remains a throwback, but much crisper and cleaner. “Sheer” is the word I’d use to describe a key difference between them, because CW smells transparent compared to GIT.

And here I just want to point out that my impression is the exact opposite. I find CW to be heavy and ridiculously sweet, (for the composition) whereas GIT has a lightness that is engaging. If you have an opinion on this, please go ahead and let us know how you think CW compares to GIT in this context.

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Filed under Criticizing the critics., The basics.

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