It’s always a bit of an adventure to try a Le Labo fragrance because one frequently doesn’t know what will show up, and Santal 33 is no exception. It is an eau de parfum created by Frank Voelkl and released in 2011. For those unfamiliar with the house, the number in the title — in this case, 33 — refers to the number of ingredients in the perfume. However, Le Labo fragrances frequently don’t smell like the note that they single out.
As Now Smell This once explained:
the number in the fragrance name refers to the number of notes that make up the scent’s composition, and the name is taken from the ingredient in the highest concentration; to take one example, Jasmin 17 has 17 ingredients, with jasmine being in the highest concentration. The names are thus not necessarily related to what the fragrance is meant to smell like.
Making matters a little more complicated is the fact that Le Labo’s note lists often do not include all the elements in question. In the case of Santal 33, only 8 of the 33 notes are mentioned. According to Fragrantica and Luckyscent, they include:
Australian sandalwood, papyrus, cedarwood, cardamom, iris, violet, ambroxan and leather accord.
Santal 33 opens on my skin with… cucumbers. Yes, I said cucumbers. If I remember correctly, the very first time I tried Santal 33 many months ago, there were pickles as well. I cannot tell you how disconcerting that is; watery vegetables are not what one expects in one’s perfume in general, but especially not in a fragrance ostensibly centered on woody elements. However, as you will later see, it’s not an uncommon experience with Santal 33.
Santal 33’s burst of liquidy greenness almost suggests calone, a possibility that seems underscored by the aquatic, fresh, and clean elements which ensue. Infused within them all are creamy, white woods with a milky nuance that is almost fig-like, followed by white musk and a touch of iris. A dewy, floral wateriness hovers about, but it is too hijacked by the other notes to ever smell like pure, distinct violets on my skin. Within minutes, the iris grows stronger, smelling primarily like the bulbous roots, but it is also flecked by a subtle whisper of boiled, sweet carrots. In the background, a green cedar note pops up briefly, as does a tiny dab of cardamom, though the latter does not stay for long.
As a whole, Santal 33’s opening bouquet smells of creamy, milky woods, thoroughly infused with watery cucumbers, watery florals, rooty iris, and cleanness. It’s an airy cloud with great lightness and moderate projection at first. Three big smears created 2-3 inches of projection at first, but that number dropped after less than 30 minutes.
Santal 33 doesn’t change significantly for a few hours. At the end of the first hour, there is a growing sense of woody dryness as the cedar starts to emit peppery and dry undertones at the edges. It impacts the watery accords, sometimes making the cucumber feel much more muted and demure. For much of the first few hours, however, the cucumber continues to be a powerful part of the Australian sandalwood on my skin, keeping it green and fresh. The strength of the iris and the milky, fig-like undertones to the wood also fluctuate, but only to small degrees.
At the end of the 2nd hour, Santal 33 is a skin scent that feels very clean and almost translucent. It continues to be a blend of milky woods with iris, cleanness, and liquidy, green wateriness, though it is not always pure cucumber as it was at the start. The iris has lost a large part of its rooty or bulbous qualities, and now feels more floral in nature.
Santal 33 is an incredibly linear scent, and doesn’t change its broad parameters throughout its short lifetime on my skin. At the start of the 4th hour, the white musk synthetic grows stronger. The green milkiness is still there, but the overall scent is a little too synthetically clean for my personal tastes. Around the same time, a tiny whiff of vetiver pops up in the background, but it is very muted and muffled.
In its final moments, Santal 33 is merely an abstract woody musk with soft, beige woods, some greenness, a touch of indeterminate florals, and great cleanness. It lasts 5.75 hours on my skin. As a general rule, Le Labo fragrances don’t have great longevity on me, unless they contain a lot of ISO E Super, which a good number of them do, unfortunately. Santal 33 does not, so it falls within the category of more fleeting Le Labo scents on my skin.
I found Santal 33 vaguely enjoyable at times as a clean, creamy, woody scent, thanks to the prettiness of the milky streak running through the fragrance. So long as I didn’t think of actual sandalwood (let alone, Mysore), I thought the woods were nice and the scent much better than Kilian‘s recent attempt at a “sandalwood” creation with his Sacred Wood. In the case of Santal 33, I wasn’t enthused by the synthetic musk’s growing role during the drydown, but it wasn’t a terrible fragrance as a whole. There were moments where it was almost pleasant, in fact — cucumber or no cucumber.
I realise, however, that is rather damning it with faint praise. I’m afraid Le Labo fragrances don’t impress me very much with their gauzy wispiness, frequent use of synthetics, linearity, lack of layers, and often indeterminate character. For the most part, they simply don’t feel luxurious, opulent, special, or distinctive to me.
Santal 33 seems to be a rather polarizing scent. On Fragrantica, the fragrance receives sharply mixed reviews, though the majority are negative. A significant number of people talk about a cucumber note, pickles, or the fragrance’s wateriness. A handful compare the scent to hamster cages, due to the cedar, while a few detected an animalic note instead. There are so many negative reviews in fact that one person wondered why there was such hate for such “casual scent.” Well, the detractors are certainly very forceful in their feelings. One chap said he finally understood what it meant to “hate” something passionately:
Now, I know what it means to dislike a fragrance so much, that it actually RUINS other fragrances for you when you detect any similarities between them and it. I hate Santal 33. This may be a first for me. It damn near made me turn my back on every cardamom fragrance I own, which would have been serious b.s.. There are many watery cheap unremarkable fragrances out there which I don’t like, but I also don’t respect them. I respect Santal 33 enough to hate it. There is something about the sheer potency of the opaque SUGAR encrusted sandalwood, cardamom, and leather, that I find to be sickeningly cloying and nauseating. This fragrance is a sillage/longevity beast, so it’s definitely worth the investment if you love it, but for me, it’s a nightmare on wheels. I got it on my mouse and keyboard at work and now I am trying to change jobs. That’s how much I hate this juice.
Other commentators smelled extremely different elements from coconut or “a figgy milky note,” to earthy vetiver, leathery smoke, violets, or, in the case of one woman’s husband, harsh, pungent, pine tree air freshener. One chap is even certain that he smelt mango!
Despite the varying notes that people experienced, Santal 33 does have fans who adore its creamy sandalwood and the fragrance’s greenness, calling it beautiful or meditative. The bottom line, however, is there isn’t a uniform consensus on Santal 33 or what it smells like. Absolutely none whatsoever. The only thing one can say is that the majority of commentators seem to smell either pickles, cucumbers, or cedar hamster cage bedding, and that a lot of people on Fragrantica seem to dislike Santal 33.
It’s a completely different story on Luckyscent where 8 of the 10 reviews rate Santal 33 as a 5-star fragrance. One person thought the fragrance should be called Violet 33, as that was the dominant note on their skin. For another, the fragrance was: “Soft leather and definately wearble [sic] by a woman as well. Light and green like cucumber with a soft saddle grease mixed with rosewood on me. Not amazing lasting power, but good enough.”
For The Non-Blonde, Santal 33 is a “wild ride” with violets, leather and woods that she thoroughly enjoys, even if she smells dill pickles at first:
The opening of Santal 33 is spicy with some of the weird but inviting pickle note. Sometimes I encounter pickles in the opening of high quality ambers, other times it’s attached to certain woods, which I’d guess it’s the case in this Le Labo perfume. I don’t mind it as the dill is short-lived and actually smells almost comforting (blame my mom who used to can and pickle all through the years I lived at home). Once we get that out the way I start smelling the cedar, scorched sandalwood and loads of violet.
This is where the journey begins. Santal 33 changes and expands on my skin in various directions. It’s sweet and it’s not. It’s rough and sharp but also snuggly. There’s something metallic and cold thrown into the pile of aromatic woods that keeps my senses alert to any coming dangers. Sometimes it smells like a girl on a camping trip [….]
It’s the blend of violet, camphor, leather and top quality wood that gets me in its grip. This wild ride last and lasts (and lasts) on my skin, becomes more musky and sweet, and just works magic for me.
The deeply divisive reactions and the incredibly wide range of experiences (including very differing assessments regarding longevity) make it hard to come to any predictive conclusions as to how Santal 33 will smell on you. My guess is that it will be some version of a clean, watery, green “sandalwood” scent, but who knows? It could end up as anything. If you enjoy woody fragrances, then Santal 33 is one of those things that you need to test for yourself.