"Sandalwood - or more specific Indian sandalwood - is the fragrant accompaniment to many a human journey from cradle to cremation. Its heartwood is burnt at weddings and funerals."
King Of The Woods
Religious incense, healing oil, mood enhancer... sandalwood is one of the rarest fragrance ingredients. Victoria Gaiger discovers a project in Sri Lanka that’s finding a way to grow and harvest the trees sustainably.
It's just before 5am in Colombo, once the capital of colonial Ceylon, now the heart of modern Sri Lanka and we’re in the country to visit the key supplier of sandalwood for Creed perfumes. In a Hindu temple, people are carrying out an ancient ritual, just as they have done for thousands of years.
The already humid air is thick with the scent of fresh jasmine, tuberose and purple lily mixed with a haze of incense, as floral tributes are offered up to the gods at the start of the day’s devotions. On a table, there are three bowls containing ash, kumkum (red turmeric) and sandalwood paste.
Worshippers dip their fingers in each and apply a dab between their eyebrows, leaving a mark (tilaka) that indicates they are seeking to open their ‘third eye’ to the mysteries of the sacred.
In this part of the world, sandalwood has long been considered to have spiritual properties. It is said to bring people closer to the divine, encourage calmness and clear the mind. It is also the most commonly used ingredient in the incense that is burned during meditations, prayers and other religious practices not just in Hinduism but also in Buddhism.
Here in Sri Lanka and throughout the Indian subcontinent, sandalwood – or more specifically Indian sandalwood – is the fragrant accompaniment to many a human journey from cradle to cremation. Its heartwood is burnt at weddings and funerals – and such is its spiritual significance that more than three tons of sandalwood were burned in Gandhi’s funeral pyre.
This is nothing new. Indian sandalwood was one of the most valuable exports from India to the ancient Roman empire, which might explain why incense containing sandalwood is still widely used in Catholic churches and Jewish synagogues today. Sandalwood is also still used as a base oil in the production of attars when it is blended with flower oils such as rose, jasmine, kewda (pandanus) and others to create the fragrances that define this region.
The Sustainability Project
But what of the raw material? Indian sandalwood is now rarely produced in India after rapacious logging brought the trees to the brink of extinction. Yet a short hop across the Bay of Bengal and sandalwood remains one of Sri Lanka’s most prized exports.
But such is the value of the trees and the danger of illegal logging that it’s also one of the country’s most secretive. Here, the trees are mainly sustainably managed on local plantations, and the oil is distilled in small-scale factories.
Five hours drive from Colombo and the traffic-filled streets have given way to jungle. It’s raining in the hills and a mist has just obscured a magnificent view across the rainforest as a pair of monkeys tumble across a path through the trees.
We have come to visit a sustainable sandalwood project that has grown into a small plantation since a forward-thinking decision was taken in 2008. We have only been brought here on the understanding that we don’t reveal the identity of the plantation or its owners.
A family-run business, both brother and sister convinced their father that it was vital to find a sustainable way to grow sandalwood trees and produce the coveted oil. ‘We are really committed to the project. For every tree that we cut down, we aim to plant seven new saplings,’ explains the sister.
The family has been as good as its word and, in doing so, has created an organically managed forest of these rarest of trees. The project is now almost 15 years old and produces oil for the international fragrance industry using some bought-in, government certified wood as well as some of the younger trees they can now harvest.
The trees can be harvested from around 15 years old although they are at their optimum around 25 to 30 years. The farm has also gained the rare but necessary Forest Stewardship Council certification which recognizes not just the achievement of responsible forest standards but also the social and environmental efforts that have been put in place on the plantation.
‘For us, sustainability not only means taking care of the environment and the trees for future generations but also looking after the local community and inspiring local farmers to take care of their land, says the sister. Local laborers keep the location of the plantation secret too, tending to the trees, committed to protecting them and the farm’s ongoing program of planting new saplings.
The Plantation Process
While traded and used in building, religious ceremonies, medicines and skin creams for centuries, sandalwood has only been used in modern perfumery since the 19th century. Like many natural fragrance ingredients, its use is affected by high demand and cost.
Overexploitation of the trees in the 20th century led to the danger of extinction and fluctuations in quality and supply. By the 1990s, the global supply had been depleted drastically, and India imposed export bans on sandalwood. Since then, new plantations in countries such as Sri Lanka, New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Australia have supplied the markets, but their production and harvesting are strictly controlled.
Native to India and Oceania, there are three main varieties of sandalwood used in perfumery, although there are more than 15 different species found in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Australia, Indonesia, Hawaii and certain Pacific Islands.
Several of the species produce a highly aromatic wood that retains its scent for decades. Known in the fragrance industry as the King of Woods, sandalwood trees grow up to 40 feet tall but their trunks are smaller and more slender than you would imagine. The trees are also hemi parasitic, which means they rely on nearby ‘host’ trees for some of their nutrients.
Once the tree is ready to be harvested, it is felled or uprooted. Then its branches and outer layer (or sapwood) are removed, leaving the paler heartwood, which is delivered to the factory in large sacks. It is this dense inner part of the trunk that contains the precious oil – so valuable in fact, that a small sandalwood tree can command prices of $15,000 or more.
This helps explain the tree’s status as a protected species and why the plantation’s whereabouts are being kept secret. Next, the heartwood is split into smaller pieces and ground into fine sawdust for distillation. The sawdust-water suspension is brought to the boil in distillation tanks and the water vapor then passes through a condenser, with fragrance molecules deposited as oil that is skimmed off the top of the water. The distillation process can take anywhere between 10 to 36 hours.
The resulting yellow oil has the consistency of vegetable oil and already has its signature woody creaminess. I rub a drop on the back of my hand. Its longevity is astounding; 14 hours later, as we head to the airport, I can still smell its unique softness.
Indian Sandalwood in Perfumery
The most sought-after variety of sandalwood in perfumery is Santalum album (once called Mysore or Indian sandalwood as it was grown in the region of Karnataka, previously known as Mysore) in India. It is prized for its rounded notes – woody, powdery, musky and creamy – which imbue fragrances with a velvety warmth. Indian sandalwood belongs to the amber woody olfactory family.
Sandalwood’s molecular structure is unique among perfumery’s woody ingredients, and each species has its own discrete olfactory profile. Its valued fragrance notes come from alpha-sotalol and beta-sotalol, active compounds that make up more than 70% of the oil in Indian sandalwood, three times more than in other species which is why it is so sought after.
Alpha-sotalol is said to provide most of sandalwood’s therapeutic benefits. Throughout Eastern cultures, sandalwood has been used to treat conditions ranging from mood disorders to respiratory and skin problems.
These historic uses of sandalwood have been backed up by modern science. Studies have shown Santalum album to be anti-microbial, analgesic and anti-inflammatory. Beta-sotalol is thought to be largely responsible for Indian sandalwood’s soft, creamy fragrance.
Perfumers covet the oil of Santalum album not just for its unique fragrance but also for its ability to blend well with other ingredients and for its long-lasting base note. It is often combined with other woody ingredients such as cedarwood and rosewood, and essential oils like patchouli, vetiver and frankincense.
In "oral and citrus fragrances, sandalwood imbues softness to white florals such as orange blossom, jasmine, ylang-ylang, gardenia and tuberose and improves the scents’ longevity. It is also traditionally used to extract musk, ambergris and saffron and to capture highly volatile floral notes.
Album sandalwood, in particular, is a globally recognized ingredient with an exceptionally high demand and subject to price spikes and cheaper substitutions,’ explains Bas Schneiders, Creed’s Director of Sustainability.
‘Unfortunately, some unethical companies add other components that reduce an oil’s quality and try to sell it on'. This lack of traceability creates a muddied view of the provenance and production methods which unfortunately results in around 90% of Indian sandalwood being illegally harvested and adulterated.
‘Sustainable plantation management, on the other hand, creates a reliable supply for decades to come, which is really important for us at Creed in terms of traceability – we can see where the wood has been harvested and test batches to ensure it is devoid of any other additives.’
At this plantation, the team do things the right way, finding in sustainability the strategy for longevity that these rare trees require to survive and thrive. We’re invited to plant some new saplings to leave a legacy of our own. The ceremony is conducted by a Hindu priest, and as I add the first handful of soil to the saplings’ roots, the reverence that is felt for these plants is palpable.
Looking out over the jungle’s green canopy, it’s a view that could have remained the same for centuries, long before the need for secret plantations to replenish the local tree stock. A timeless scene as old as the rituals of the temples.
Sandalwood may be increasingly scarce but its significance hasn’t changed over time. For devotees of its unique fragrance, the King of the Woods still reigns supreme.