The joys of Mysore sandalwood are ostensibly and supposedly replicated in Sacred Wood, the latest fragrance from By Kilian. Not in my opinion. Not even remotely.
Sacred Wood was created by Calice Becker, and I think the story behind its creation is essential to understanding the limitations of the scent. As Luckyscent explains, Calice Becker originally intended the scent to be nothing more than a base for other fragrances. Kilian Hennessy loved it so much that he decided it should be a solo scent, all by itself, and with nothing else added. Sacred Wood is therefore meant to be a simple soliflore designed to recreate the smell of Mysore sandalwood via other means. To quote from Luckyscent:
No longer available to perfumers since it was over-harvested, Mysore sandalwood (Santalum album) is one of the ingredients they miss the most. Calice Becker had long been working on a blend that would reproduce its complexity: the warm, rosy, smoky, creamy, spicy facets that make the legendary wood such an irreplaceable material.
Though originally intended as a base, the composition worked so beautifully on its own, and within the theme of the collection, that Kilian Hennessy snapped it up for the last episode of his Asian Tales. Sacred Wood conjures the mystical scent with amazing accuracy: like its model, it is so rich and facetted it is a fragrance in and of itself. Its silky, sensuous scent is amazingly long-lasting, though never overwhelming. It is the answer to the prayers of all sandalwood lovers.
Personally, I think Luckyscent is completely delusional if they think Sacred Wood conjures up the mystical beauty of Mysore sandalwood with any accuracy. Regardless, they provide the following list of notes for the scent:
Steaming milk accord, sandalwood, carrot, cumin, elemi, cedar wood.
Sacred Wood opens on my skin with green Australian sandalwood and sandalwood synthetics. The wood is green — very green — with grassiness and a miniscule touch of medicinal, herbal sourness underneath. It’s infused with the steamed milk accord which smells very authentic. Raw carrots and a touch of dry cedar lurk at the edges.
There is a distinct whiff of synthetics underlying the scent. Elena Vosnaki of The Perfume Shrine recently had a wonderful article on Fragrantica called “Synthetic Pathways to Sandalwood Notes,” regarding the various sandalwood substitutes on the market. I encourage you to read the piece in full if you’re interested, but I’ll quote some relevant sections here:
Several synthetics rose to the task of replicating [Mysore], often at a quite elevated cost despite their man-made aspect, and many times entering into venerable “modern classics.”
Nowadays many of those synthetics are used in combination with or attendance of the harvests of Mysore-identical sandalwood trees being farmed on Australian soil. These are trees of the India native species and not of the different, native Australian sandalwood (Santalum spicatum, such as the one used in Le Labo’s Santal 33 which is a different species with a different, sharper and lightly smoky scent profile, nor of the New Caledonia sandalwood variety (steadily gaining in popularity). […][¶]
Among synthetic sandalwood notes, Polysantol, a former Firmenich trademark, is quite popular thanks to its intense diffusion and realistic replication. Otherwise known as santol pentenol due to its structure, it enters many a fragrance composition thanks to its part herbal, part lived-in warmth. Beta santalol or technically (-)-(1’S,2’R,4’R)-(Z)-beta-santalol is also a nature identical typical sandalwood note. […][¶]
Ebanol [(1S,2’S,3’R)-Ebanol], a Givaudan trademark, is noted for its potency. Symrise proposes its Fleursandol which has a very strong, animalic-laced sandalwood note with floral elements surfacing. […][¶]
Javanol, Ebanol, Sandela, Santaliff (IFF santal mysore core), and Santalore are extremely powerful and true to sandalwood synthetics. In fact this might explain the curious effect one experiences when handling them: it was enough to smell a 10% dilution to anesthetize my nose for several hours later, a state I was taken out of by squeezing fresh lemon juice. A perfumer must be cautious and restrained when using them in order not to end up making the wearer of the finished fragrance tired and anosmic to them. Extreme dilution (even lower than 0.5%) is recommended, as alongside Iso-E Super (woody cedar) and methyl ionone (violets) those notes cause rapid nose fatigue.
At least one of those synthetics is present in Sacred Wood, and noticeable in varying degrees from the perfume’s very start to its dying moments on my skin. And no, it does not authentically recreate the smell of Mysore sandalwood. There is a comment to the Fragrantica article where “Eeyore III” quotes Luca Turin on why chemical synthetics fail to properly reproduce the scent of actual Mysore wood:
The reason synthetics don’t smell (that much) like sandalwood has been explained, chemically, by Luca Turin: “(Z)-(-)-beta-santalol, the molecule present to about 25 per cent in natural sandalwood oil and largely responsible for its gorgeous smell, is, synthetically speaking, a real back-breaker. The best total synthesis to date is an eleven-step affair, and any research chemist who tried to talk his production colleagues into making this would be quickly shouted down.“– L. Turin,The Secret of Scent p.77.
What I smell in Sacred Wood is green — all the way through. And greenness is not what I associate with Mysore sandalwood. It is redness. Dark, rich, red spiciness, with slightly smoky creaminess. I grew up in a time when Mysore was in almost every Oriental perfume, while shops sold Mysore beads, Mysore boxes, Mysore sculptures, and everything else in sight. I know what Mysore smells and looks like. And not one iota of that smell is evident in Sacred Wood.
Before you mention the new Australian plantation with its Indian Mysore trees, let me say that I’ve smelled that, too. I was sent a small bottle of the oil by the company as part of what was meant to be a coordinated multi-blog review or Basenotes article to praise its merits. I could not do so, and wrote bluntly that it did not smell at all like Mysore to me, so my comment was not used.
To me, that Australian plantation wood was green. Green, green, green with sour buttermilk and grassy undertones, along with an occasional medicinal touch. The trees may ostensibly be Mysore, but they’re incredibly young. I think it’s going to take another 60 years, at a minimum, for them to age enough to take on a true Mysore aroma. They are not there yet, not even remotely. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sacred Wood contains some oil from that lone Australian plantation, because I have mentioned the word “green,” yet?
I will admit with all honesty that I’m the wrong person to be writing a review of Sacred Wood. I am a die-hard Mysore sandalwood snob, and I cannot stand the Australian varieties — whether the Santalum album from that plantation, or the Australian Santalum spicatum cousin. I dislike both green sandalwood, and the generic beigeness of the Australian variety. I don’t think the latter even deserves the name “sandalwood” at all.
In fact, I sometimes think that all perfumers should stop using the word entirely and substitute “beige woods” unless they are spending a king’s ransom on the actual stuff. Neela Vermeire has done so for her perfumes, with the spectacular Trayee having the greatest amount, and so has Laurent Mazzone for LM Parfums‘ Hard Leather. Chanel‘s beautiful Bois des Iles supposedly has no sandalwood in it at all, but Jacques Polges has successfully recreated the smell through some miracle, so he gets a total pass from me and much worship for his wizardry. All the rest of the perfume houses should bloody well call the wood something else entirely. Yes, it is that much of a sore point for me.
Sacred Wood did not put me in a good mood, as you may have noticed. I tried to like it, I really did. I simply couldn’t get past the greenness, or the synthetic twang in the base. At one point, I told myself to approach it like a non-sandalwood fragrance, and to see the good in Sacred Wood. So, the rest of this review will be me trying my best, lying to myself, and pretending to be someone else.
Sacred Wood’s opening is interesting, I suppose. The steamed milk accord is truly authentic in feel, though it occasionally flashes as “sour milk” on my skin, in a way that replicates badly boiled milk a little too closely for my liking. The cold carrots remind me a little of how iris can be; I’m not crazy about that aspect, either. The cumin doesn’t appear in a distinct way at all, and the elemi initially doesn’t translate either as something lemony or as the wood’s more common smoky, dry, peppered features.
For the most part, Sacred Wood’s opening on my skin is merely a blend of boiled milk, green Australian wood, and cold carrots with a synthetic twinge. It’s a very strong bouquet initially, but thin in body, light in weight, and sheer. It lacks oomph or much character, if you ask me, and I’m saying that in my pretend role as someone who supposedly doesn’t know or care about Mysore sandalwood.
Sacred Wood changes at the end of the first hour. The elemi’s smoky, peppered sides rise to the surface, the perfume turns smokier, the milky accord starts to fade away, and the carrots vanish. The sour undertone to the fragrance remains, though it waxes and wanes in its visibility over the next few hours. Oddly, the sweetness and spiciness of the “sandalwood” also vary. Sometimes, the wood seems to have turned sweet and spicy, to go with that new touch of smokiness. The majority of the time, however, it’s either sour, the grassiness reappears, or the perfume just continues on its simple trajectory of green “sandalwood” with elemi smoke.
One thing to be said for Sacred Wood is that its greenness turns creamy. Roughly 2.5 hours into the perfume’s development, it lies just an inch above the skin as a very creamy, smooth, slightly smoky sandalwood and elemi fragrance. The synthetics retreat fully to the sidelines, and… well, that’s about it. For hours. And hours. Creamy green woods with elemi. At the end of the 7th hour, the elemi starts to fade away, and the first touch of the sandalwood synthetics returns. By the start of the 9th hour, Sacred Wood is green santal with synthetics. And it remains that way until it finally dies away 12.75 hours from the start.
I was bored out of my mind, and spent a good deal of that time fantasizing about anything else I could put on my skin. Even as someone pretending not to have issues with Australian “sandalwood,” Sacred Wood doesn’t come across as anything particularly interesting. It is a bloody one-note trajectory that starts as boiled milk green sandalwood, turns into lightly smoked green sandalwood, and then ends as green-beige sandalwood. I always say that there is nothing wrong with linearity if you like the scent in question, but I obviously don’t. And, come on, this is a simple base accord that Kilian Hennessey would like to charge you $245 for the supposed privilege of wearing. I realise there are cheaper refill or travel options, but no thanks. To any of it.
Yes, I’m being peevish, and yes, perhaps that’s unfair. But, dammit, I’ve been a die-hard Mysore sandalwood lover for over 30 years, and it’s really hard to wrap my head around a scent like this one. It’s not even trying to fix the problem or to compensate for the limitations by adding more elements to create an end result that is closer to the real thing. That’s the real kicker for me. Plenty of perfumers do that, like Serge Lutens in some of his santal creations where additional spices or accords are brought in to bridge the gap between the Australian wood and the synthetics. Not here. It’s a simple, occasionally creamy, green wood base that somehow Kilian Hennessy thinks is sufficient all by itself. It’s not. And I feel the same way about it as I do when L’Oreal tries to pass off the disgusting modern “Opium” as the real thing. It’s adding insult to injury.
At least one blogger out there seems to understand. Robin at Now Smell This says in her review of Sacred Wood, “if you’re an old-school sandalwood fiend looking for a fix, it might not hit the same spot.” No, it bloody well doesn’t. Parsing her review carefully, and noticing her statements in the comment section, I suspect she feels the same way as I do about Sacred Wood, but she’s simply tactful and diplomatic in a way that I can’t be. She writes:
Sacred Wood opens on citrus-y, spicy wood; it’s not a dead ringer for my long-time love, Diptyque Tam Dao, but it reminded me of Tam Dao right away: the opening has that same sheer but wood-focused feeling, at the other end of the spectrum from the more ornately decorated sandalwood trio from Serge Lutens (Santal Blanc, Santal de Mysore and Santal Majuscule). As the citrus burns off, Sacred Wood moves to the middle: it gets spicier and more milky-creamy, but at the same time, the woods get softer and more indistinct.
It’s closest to the ‘olfactory impression of an authentic Sandalwood from Mysore’ in the middle stages. Eventually, it’s a mild woodsy blend, reasonably sandalwood-y but without the richness of old-school sandalwood fragrances. If you’ve never smelled an old-school sandalwood fragrance, that won’t matter to you, but if you have one on hand, you’ll notice how comparatively thin the base of Sacred Wood is. I wore Sacred Wood next to a drop of Santal Blanc and a drop of Chanel Bois des Iles extrait,2 and the Sacred Wood, smells, well, modern. Obviously, you may or may not prefer it that way. […][¶]
Verdict: I was expecting a sandalwood-bomb, and Sacred Wood isn’t exactly that. It’s a lovely quiet woods scent, though, very wearable, and not at all dull[.]
We shall have to agree to disagree on everything, but how Sacred Wood doesn’t measure up to actual “old-school sandalwood fragrances,” and how “thin” its base is in comparison. I suppose her feelings can be understood, given how much better her experience and version of Sacred Wood was to mine. Green-beige woods and synthetic sandalwood in a dead flat-line are most certainly dull, in my opinion.
The best thing that can be said for Sacred Wood is that it’s smooth and I suppose it’s wearable, especially if you have never experienced Mysore sandalwood. That may be why it has some very enthusiastic reviews on Fragrantica. You can read them if you’re interested. I’m having great difficulty in not writing, “Meh” to everything, or banging my head against a wall. So, it’s probably best that I end this here and now. I shall seek comfort in the arms of Crabtree & Evelyn‘s vintage, discontinued Extrait de Mysore Sandalwood, and mourn.
I’ve been an aromatherapist for fifteen years and the quality of Sandalwood that I can buy has slightly deteriorated but I can still buy Mysore Sandalwood from Baldwins in London for £24.95 for 5 mls. It is listed as Santalum album and is steam distilled from India. I still use this in some of my treatments but sparingly because I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to buy it. It is warm rich and creamy but its not quite as pungent and glorious as the sandalwood that I used to buy years ago and I remember about 30 years ago I bought from a hippie stall in the local market some small vials of REAL Sandalwood for about 50 pence. That oil was something that only lives in my memory – it was so wonderful that I wore it neat as a perfume…..and I was cocooned in a kashmir blanket of creamy warmth. Fabulous!!
50 pence! My word, if only we could go back in time. It’s interesting about the smell of the oil that you buy now and how much it costs. I can understand why you’d use it very sparingly.
Have you tried Iunx L’Arbre, Kafka?
No, that one doesn’t ring a bell for me, I’m afraid. I smelled the whole line last Fall in Paris, but I think it was L’Ether which drew me. It was the strongest, spiciest, and most intense of the line, though they were all pretty airy and gauzy as a general rule. (That seems to be Olivia G’s overall style.) L’Ether is the spicy Oriental one with various woods. I was thinking of buying it, but I hesitated and decided to wait, especially as I didn’t have some to test on the skin. Then, events caught up with me, and I never had a chance to go back to the store.
What makes you ask about L’Arbre and what is it like? I don’t see it listed on the Fragrantica site. Is it new? Or were you thinking of L’Ether?
L’Arbre is a sandalwood dominant scent. Done in her style, of course, but then, sandalwood is never a big in your face note is it? The sandalwood note in L’Arbre smells true to my nose, and supposedly is the real deal, but I don’t have the history with sandalwood. I have a small bit left from my decant I’d be happy to send you.
Actually, real Mysore sandalwood used to be quite a “big in your face note,” especially if the other notes which are used to accompany it amplify its essential nature. From what I’ve seen of Ms. Giacobetti’s style in other fragrances, big is not her style.
It’s extremely and inordinately kind of you to offer me some of your decant, James, and I’m hugely touched. I really am. Thank you. I’m afraid I cannot accept, my friend. Iunx isn’t an easily accessible brand, and your decant cannot have been cheap. You also have very little left of it, which makes your generosity mean even more. Thank you, dear James. Please know how much your offer means to me.
oh, and, last time I looked at the Iunx website, l’Arbre was not listed. the time before that, it was. I was told by the folks at StC (where I got my decant) that they expect to pick up more in June, so perhaps it has been out of stock. Or perhaps it is done.
cafleurebon reviewed l’Arbre a year ago. It really is good, but low key, and kind of silently wraps you in an airy sandalwood cloud.
It sounds lovely, James. 🙂 I will go through my list of papers from Paris and try to dig up the Iunx stuff to see if that was one of the ones on the list of things in the store at the time. Enjoy your L’Arbre. I’m sure you smell wonderful in it!
Finally I have a moment tosit down and read all of your posts. All in a row. Hahaha how much I have missed your bluntness! A delusional Luckyscent would not be inaccurate for sure! I adore Mysore just as much as you do, I think, and I detest green woods, specially under the Mysore rubric. Enraged as you are! and I haven’t even smelled this just yet.
I was thinking of you, WeFadeToGrey, when testing Sacred Wood, because I know you’ve found a number of sandalwood scents to be very green or green-beige as well. I’d be amused to see your face as you tried this one. 😉
Yes, yes and YES. To all of it. I smelled green too – grass, carrot tops, new young lumber that had just been cut. In my grim quest to find something that even remotely lives up to the claim of smelling like “genuine” Mysore when there’s narry a molecule of it present, I pounced upon Sacred Wood immediately. As it was supposed to be “the answer to the prayers of all sandalwood lovers” I waited for the trumpeting of heavenly angels to ring out at first sniff. I can only wonder what sandalwood lovers they are referring to – certainly not those who have the slightest idea what Mysore smells like.
I totally agree about the Australian trees – they need to mature for far longer than I’ll probably be around to reach the required scent. I’m totally on board with the (novel) idea of the perfumers stepping up to the plate and telling it how it is – which is NOT how it really is, insofar as these creations are NOT going to “conjure the mystical scent with amazing accuracy.” Stop trying to pull the wool over our noses and market your products accordingly. Sacred Wood may be as green as grass, but we aren’t.
Ha, carrot tops! You, too, huh? I had to laugh at your comment: “I waited for the trumpeting of heavenly angels to ring out at first sniff. I can only wonder what sandalwood lovers they are referring to – certainly not those who have the slightest idea what Mysore smells like.” ROFL. 😀 😀 I’m so glad you found me and the blog, Sally. You often make me smile to no end. 🙂
Oh the feeling is mutual – I’m so glad I found the blog. Your reviews are nothing short of spectacular. As a “tell it how it is and be damned” person, I sense a kindred spirit 😉
Oh Lord….now they’re charging top dollar for simple bases….what’s next?? Niche companies charging top dollar for Eau de Department Store?? 😉 No thanks.I’ll stick with my Trayee and I still have an ounce of pure Mysore sandalwood oil I bought about 20yrs ago from Trygve at Enfleurage.It’s absolutely divine and is one of the most luscious perfumes (and yes I refer to it as a complete perfume) that I own and only on the rarest of special occasions do I squeeze the smallest drop of the golden nectar out of the reducer (gently wiping and applying any excess) and swoon as the warmth of my skin releases the heavenly aroma…
I can so relate to eking out a beloved source of Mysore. I have a teeny bottle from way back when that is now mostly fumes, but every so often I uncap it and indulge in a blissful sniff. There’s quite simply nothing like it which is why I wish perfumers would acknowledge that fact and stop giving us false hope!
It’s quite a sad and melancholy thought that in our lifetimes at least ,we’ll never see much Mysore Sandalwood again….if only we had known decades ago…
I think we need a Mysore Survivors Support Group. Or perhaps we’d merely end up depressing ourselves further. lol
LOL at your reaction, RVB. As for your sandalwood oil, it sounds magnificent. I have no doubt you smell fantastic in it. BTW, have you ever tried Chanel’s Bois des Iles in Extrait form? I haven’t, but I hear it’s stupendous. And the regular version is lovely enough as it is. Since you have Trayee, you may want to give Bois des Iles a look.
I haven’t tried Bois des Iles in any form but will have to make my way over to Saks to try it.Thanks for the tip! I’ve read that some find it similar to vintage Egoiste of which I used to have a bottle circa 1990.I absolutely loved that one but in a fit of pique which I sincerely regret, I threw it and all my 1980’s and 1990’s perfumes away(plenty of Mysore sandalwood in those…).I decided to go “all natural” and just use my essential oils and absolutes.Not a day goes by that I don’t rue that brain fart….And I love your idea of a Mysore Survivors Support Group…MSSG!
An online acquaintance very kindly sent me a sample of Sacred Wood, and I am caught out completely; can’t bear to blunt his enthusiasm, and can’t stand to endorse this as smelling like Mysore. The time will come when few of us can remember Mysore, and Sacred Wood and its ilk will reign supreme, but while I have Trayee and vintage Opium in my treasure chest, they won’t pass stuff like this off on me.
What I dislike most about this is that it makes me feel old. While I am no adolescent, I am only in my early 50s, and yet I can recall the sweet flavor of real wild gulf shrimp and the deep creaminess of real Mysore, and these are pleasures that seem to be passing from the earth. Maybe better things are coming along? It’s hard to imagine.
The thing with Sacred Wood, though, is that it’s hardly a spectacular, complex, intricate or interesting perfume even if you take out Mysore out of the equation. It’s a simple base without many layers, without huge body, and without distinctive body. It’s just… there. Even if it weren’t trying to be an approximation of Mysore, it’s just… there. One-dimensional, and extremely thin. I don’t think any of it is remotely interesting, but clearly some people are hugely enthusiastic for Sacred Wood. All the more power to them.
I don’t envy you your attempts at diplomatic tactfulness. I’m very glad I’m not in your shoes. 🙂
I’ve not yet had the (dis?)pleasure to sniff SW, tho’ am certainly waaay less enthusiastic to do so now. 🙂 And notwithstanding your usual definition that Mysore Sandal is somehow ‘red’ in scent to you (which to me it’s not particularly – more so ‘golden’ I’d say). And tho’ it’s not really important, I have a suspicion that your above pic of “Mysore Sandalwood” is NOT actually of true Santalum Album. IMO it’s far too red looking to be true white sandalwood chips. It looks far more to be what they usually call ‘raktha chandan’ which is in fact ‘red sandalwood’, which is of course a totally different tree & mostly used in Ayurvedic medicine (i.e. Pterocarpus Santalinus). … The other clue as to why I think it’s rather red sandalwood is the Chinese looking box it’s in and the fact that the Chinese value red sandalwood above the white – (mostly for furniture making tho’ as it’s actually weak or nothing special scent-wise.)
Unfortunately my squirreled-away small stock of authentic ‘vintage’ Mysore oil is long gone by now. (I used the very last precious drops to replenish my sandalwood prayer bead necklace which thankfully it’s still, tho’ faintly, gloriously redolent of.) … As for the Crabtree & Evelyn Extrait I was surprised to find that even here it will greatly depend on which batch you find, as the one bottle I managed to hunt down smelled nothing like my 1st vintage one. (It smelled instead deeply peppery & only vaguely woody in a very generic ‘male-cologne’ kinda way. Certainly nothing like I remember true Mysore to smell like). And seeing as the C&E bottles weren’t ‘splash’ type but atomised I couldn’t put it down to mere tampering. So all you vintage C&E-EdMS hunters please BEWARE, it seems not even here were all bottles created equal. – Nor, it seems, does ‘vintage’ always equal ‘un-reformulated’. 🙁
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Yawn, another By Kilian that live up to the hype. I guess that’s a pretty negative outlook, but frankly I just can’t get too excited about anything I’ve smelled from the line, and this sounds pretty much the same. I might be more generous if the scents didn’t cost a bajillion dollars, but they do, and for the money there are pretty much an infinite number of perfumes I find more interesting, long-lasting, with better projection. For my Sandalwood fix, I’ll take comfort in Opium and vintage Bois des Iles (though the current BdI is similarly good, actually!). I eventually want to try the old Crabtree and Evelyn Sandalwood because I hear it’s amazing, and I’m confident one of these days I’ll be able to track it down for a reasonable price. It’s just hard to spend the fees it commands on eBay since it was so inexpensive once upon a time!
It’s not my favorite house either, but I did really like Musk Oud. That one is lovely. Not particularly original, but very nice.
Thanks for another honest review. I very much appreciate you including details like the price in your reviews as that often helps me decide if something is worth trying.
You’re very welcome, Sandy. I try to write for someone like myself, someone a little OCD about details and specifics, from what a scent really is like all the way through, to what other people think, how long it lasts, if it has such low sillage that it’s barely noticeable, and if the fragrance as a whole is worth the price in light of all those factors. All those details aren’t to everyone’s taste, but I’m always glad to hear that it makes a difference for a few people. 🙂
I was completely underwhelmed by this scent and now I know why. Mysore sandalwood did not even come to mind when I smelled it – it smells nothing like it at all.
Heh, how funny that it was so far from seeming like Mysore that you didn’t even realise that was what it was supposed to be! 😀 In my opinion, the fact that you found it underwhelming without even once considering or thinking of the Mysore issue pretty much says it all about the scent.
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