It takes some effort to get a One-Star “Avoid” rating from Luca Turin, but Guerlain has managed it with its new Santal Royal. I don’t always agree with the famous perfume critic and I don’t think Santal Royal is the worst thing I’ve ever smelt, even from Guerlain (L’Homme Ideal holds that dubious distinction), but he’s right: Santal Royal isn’t good. It is especially disappointing coming from a once-great house, perhaps the greatest that ever was.
In essence, Santal Royal is another sub-par, extremely commercial creation from Guerlain without any distinctiveness or originality, and with absolutely nothing remotely reminiscent of sandalwood. What it does have, however, is a strong resemblance to a heavily aromachemical Montale fragrance or to any number of basic, cheap, Middle Eastern fragrances centered on a generic, overly sweet, wholly synthetic, fruity rose-oud combination. Actually, I’ve smelt better perfumes from Montale, which is saying something given my general view of that house.
Santal Royal is an eau de parfum that was created by Guerlain’s in-house perfumer, Thierry Wasser, and released in 2014 in very limited fashion. It was primarily sold in the Middle East and at Harrod’s Salon de Parfums. Late last year, it came to America.
I’ll skip most of Guerlain’s narrative on its website, and quote only the basics:
Mysterious, syrupy, enchanting.
Top notes: neroli, jasmine
Heart notes: peach, rose, cinnamon
Base notes: santalwood, leather note, amber notes, oud, muscs note
Santal Royal opens on my skin with roses drenched with a fruity syrup that is as thick as molasses in its sweetness. Within minutes, the syrup transforms into a thick peach compote that is laced with slivers of oud and jasmine, then sprinkled with a dusting of cinnamon. Almost all the notes but the rose smell synthetic, and some go even further to be redolent of chemicals. The rose is thin and given substance solely because of the intense, fruited sweetness that resembles the very worst aspects of purple fruitchouli goo.
Other notes hover on the periphery, and they’re worse. There are small whiffs of plastic and burnt plastic, probably emanating from the leather which smells like a cheap quality synthetic from Givaudan or IFF, rather than a deeper birch tar essence. The leather is spicy, as if Safraleine had been used and is basically a low-rent version of the same accord present in Armani Privé Cuir Noir. The only difference is that this leather is thinner and harsher, due to a more aggressive, less refined handling of the synthetics.
The sweetness and fruitiness balloon quickly. Less than 15 minutes into Santal Royal’s development, I feel as though I’m wearing a fruit pie, perhaps a peach cobbler that has been slathered with rose jam, sprinkled with cinnamon, then mixed with bad, harshly blackened, plastic-y shoe leather as well as a touch of thin, wholly chemical oud, and a pinch of clean musk.
The amount of Santal Royal that I applied seems to make a difference to the nuances that appear because it was even worse when I used only a few smears. Using roughly the equivalent of 2 small spritzes from an actual bottle, Santal Royal was an even simpler, more overtly chemical scent dominated largely by intensely syrupy roses, indistinct fruitiness, generalized spiciness, and harsher synthetics in the base. Most of the notes other than the fruited rose were amorphous, hard to define, and lacking clear delineation. I couldn’t pick out the peach necessarily, nor the “leather.” Really, if I had smelt Santal Royal blindly, I would have thought it was merely a generic saffron rose with dark, syrupy, fruits from patchouli (fruitchouli), some cheap, chemical oud, and something harshly desiccated in feel in the base. It was like a very bad version of an Arabian Oud scent that you can buy for $20 on eBay, or one of any number of small, nameless concoctions that you can find at a Middle Eastern bazaar.
With a larger dosage or application, Santal Royal shows off more of the nuances that I’ve described here. Using 3 hefty, generous smears equal to about 2.5 good sprays from an actual bottle, the intensity of the chemicals is overshadowed by the increased sweetness and by the “peach pie” bouquet. The cinnamon is clearer and extremely nice, as are the occasional flickers of jasmine that lurk around the sidelines during the first 90 minutes. Even the leather smells less egregiously cheap, plastic-y, and raw, though it continues to feel like a very low-rent version of the Safraleine leather in the Armani Cuir Noir.
Yet, regardless of quantity, at no time does Santal Royal smell of sandalwood on my skin. Not the Mysore kind, not the Australian kind, and not even the various synthetic substitutes that are commonly used as a replacement like Javanol or Ebanol. There is no sandalwood on my skin, period. What does appear is chemical oud and, much later on, a generic woodiness that is extremely dusty and desiccated in nature. We will get to that part shortly.
Santal Royal essentially has two main stages on my skin. The first is the rose-peach pie mix with the secondary inflections that have been described above. For the first four hours, that is Santal Royal’s main bouquet with very few changes. Some of the notes vary in their prominence, strength, or order, waxing and waning over time. As a result, I’d often think that an element had ebbed away, like the leather which briefly seemed to slip into the base after 20 minutes or the cinnamon that retreated to the sidelines after an hour. Yet, each note reappears after some period of time, sometimes stronger than ever, but sometimes as a muted flicker.
Throughout it all, Santal Royal’s core essence remains the same, but the accords start to overlap and the perfume turns softer. The two main changes during this first stage is that the chemicals grow stronger as the 2nd hour begins, while a layer of creaminess appears in the base. Together, they cut through Santal Royal’s jammy goo, dilute the sweetness to more palatable levels, and weaken some of the resemblance to a fruit pie.
Roughly 2.5 hours into its development, Santal Royal has become a slightly creamy rose fragrance with fruitiness, slightly smoky “leather,” and faint touches of spiciness, oud, generic woodiness, and clean musk. Many of the notes are blurred together, faceless, and lacking clear delineation. For example, you can’t pick out the cinnamon from the general “spiciness,” and even the oud sometimes seems to be engulfed by the fog of basic, synthetic “woods.” The entire bouquet feels thin and airy, though the aromachemicals mean that it is a strong scent up close. Thankfully, neither the leather nor the general scent is abrasively harsh in feel at this point, though a new set of challenges will eventually appear.
Santal Royal’s second stage begins roughly at the start of the 4th hour and is, essentially, the long, linear drydown phase. In it, the chemicals surge to the forefront to create a desiccated, wooded dustiness that covers the rose petals and slowly suffocates the fruited sweetness. What keeps coming to mind is the smell of the bottom of a dusty drawer in an ancient wooden cabinet. Yes, it’s woody in nature, but the predominant sense is amorphous dustiness.
Something about it is extremely harsh. I am very sensitive to powerful aromachemicals in really large amounts, so Santal Royal caused a reaction even in its opening hour, causing the back of my throat to swell up. It only got worse during Santal Royal’s drydown, resulting not only in a severe migraine whenever I smell the perfume up close for too long, but also making my throat feel painfully scratchy and sore nonstop. To be honest, I scrubbed off Santal Royal the first two times I tried it after 5 hours.
It didn’t get better when I wore the perfume all the way through. The first few hours are always a total bore, but the rest was exhaustingly unpleasant and equally generic. All that really happens is that Santal Royal gets drier and drier, then darker and intensely smoky. At the start of the 6th hour, it is a blur of synthetic woodiness that is usually oud-like, always arid and dusty, but never redolent of sandalwood. There are occasional streaks of something smoky and leathered at the edges, a suggestion of spiciness once in a while, and lingering traces of fruited sweetness and clean musk. The thinnest sliver of abstract, rosy floralcy lies on top, but the layer of creaminess in the base has completely dried up.
By the end of the 7th hour, the smokiness and woods have largely taken over, creating an ashy, burnt wood bouquet that feels extremely pointed and chemically sharp. In its final hours, all that’s left is woody dustiness and dryness.
Santal Royal has generally good projection that is initially extremely powerful, and it also has very good longevity (alas). My skin tends to hold onto powerful aromachemicals like mad, so I wasn’t surprised when the perfume lasted just under 14 hours using the equivalent of roughly 2.5 big sprays or 3 smallish spritzes. With a lesser amount equal to 2 small spritzes, Santal Royal lasted about 11.5 hours. In both cases, the opening bouquet projected roughly 4 inches at first, then seemed to bloom a few inches further. There was also a distinct scent trail that wafted about when I moved. From afar, and at the beginning, it was merely a sticky-sweet rose-oud bouquet, but it definitely lingered in the air about me. Later, and again from afar, the sillage trail wafted sharp woodiness and smokiness. Santal Royal became a skin scent on me after 7 hours with a large amount, and around 5.5 hours with a smaller dosage.
Santal Royal has received largely negative reviews from bloggers and critics, but has a more enthusiastic following amongst some Fragrantica commentators. Let’s start with the biggest perfume critic of them all: Luca Turin. In his online review for Style Arabia, Luca Turin gave Santal Royal a one-star rating which is accompanied by an “Avoid” definition. He wrote:
Guerlain’s unseemly haste in trying to pander to the Arab market is lately reaching levels that must make Jacques Guerlain spin in his grave. This unisex Santal Royal smells as if Thierry Wasser had mixed equal parts of Cool Water [Davidoff] and any one of the lamentable, so-called “ouds” that Western firms try to sell to Arabs who probably know better.
The result smells like musty apple strudel. The only reference to sandalwood that I can smell is a slug of one of the many molecules that chemists have been trying to pass off as the real thing while the Santalum trees of India grow back. The drydown is slightly better, with a pleasantly monochrome dusty effect. Eminently forgettable.
not sandalwood [emphasis in the original and from him.]
It’s “not sandalwood,” but it’s also “Not Oud” for one blogger. (I agree.) The Smelly Vagabond is an ardent Guerlain lover, but he called Santal Royal “dross” and “dire,” writing in part:
why is it that you release dross such as Santal Royal? Just to make money? I get that it’s necessary, in order to keep the business afloat, but surely making money can run hand in hand with producing quality fragrances? […]
Santal Royal doesn’t have real sandalwood, that’s for sure. I wasn’t expecting any, but surely Guerlain could have done something better than the rubbish aromachemical that has been thrown around left, right and centre in pretty much every perfume that was designed for the Middle East (Santal Royal was exclusive to Dubai for some time).
But the “sandalwood” isn’t even the main player in this fragrance. Instead, we have a huge blast of what I’d like to call the Not Oud. What is the Not Oud? The Not Oud is the crap that fragrance companies try to pass off as oud, which comes nowhere close to the real stuff, and which is pretty ubiquitous at this point of time, in every perfume that has “oud” in its name. […] It’s douchey and it’s vile. What’s the point of creating something like that? You don’t make money by creating something that is derivative and that blends in with every other perfume on the market. [snip.]
For Mark Behnke of Colognoisseur, Santal Royal warranted a rare negative review:
Santal Royal is just something that misses the mark by a mile. The press release says Santal Royal will be a deep dark oriental of sandalwood and oud. It is supposed to be “shrouded in mystery”. Instead it is all too obvious in construction and pedestrian. It opens on a whisper of jasmine and neroli which strengthens into a solid note of rose paired with cinnamon. It leads to a very common leather accord which is matched up with the sandalwood and the oud. This felt so much like “perfume by numbers” as there is absolutely nothing here which is special. It is not terrible but it is just so lacking in any imagination that it is surprising. The other thing about this is it lasts much less that I expected on my skin only getting about 8 hours out of my morning application with modest sillage.
On Fragrantica, however, Santal Royal has received some glowing reviews, though I would describe the overall assessment as mixed. Still, for some, Santal Royal is a dark, sweet, sexy scent with leather, spices, and cooked fruits that eventually takes on an interesting dusty quality. One chap calls it a “A beautiful modern Oriental Guerlain Oud” with a commercial feel that he says “is a compliment here,” though he does admit that it is a linear scent. He also adds that something in the perfume “will leave you with a bit of a dry tickle in the throat (which is my only criticism of this scent).” Another positive review talks quite a bit about the dustiness of the scent, though “Q80” seems to have enjoyed it. He also experienced a creamy note which “gives the impression of wet black leather or latex sheets soaked in moisturizer cream mixed with tobacco ashes.”
For others, however, Santal Royal is excessively sweet. So much so in fact that one person wrote “the sweetness… makes it smell a bit cheap.” There was a harsher take on things from “Sezyvex” who describes herself as a “Guerlain fan” who rushed to buy the scent at Harrods, only to experience such disappointment that she actually chastises Thierry Wasser for Guerlain’s latest, two releases. She writes, in large part:
I was greatly disappointed because usually Guerlain leaves an impression on my mind but this was just some kind of sickly sweet concoction filled with honey, mildew and rose-dipped water by which I mean the rose wasn’t extracted itself but it was put into a pot of water for weeks and then the water was used to create this sweet honey mixture which I would not categorise as a blend. [¶] Thierry Wasser seems to have a thing for perspiring honey and rose and L’Homme Ideal?!? What in the name of perfumery is that!?! [snip]
On Basenotes, early, pre-release excitement for Santal Royal and admiration for its bottle soon led to similarly mixed reviews, though they are sometimes more negative than what’s on Fragrantica.
Starting with a positive one first, “Journeyman Dave” writes:
Firstly: no sandalwood to be found, zilch. Disappointing at first, as this was the basis of my blind buy. [¶] Once I reset my mind on just smelling what the fragrance was offering I appreciated it much more. This one evolves quite a lot from beginning to end, and its an interesting ride. It initially goes on just a touch femme, as a rosey oud combination. It is a pretty good one though, reminding me of the smoothness of Ex-Idolo 33, not medicinal. Cinnamon is apparent throughout, spicing it up a tad and making it more masculine. It then evolves through a floral stage and then to leather, in that order, with each of those accords taking a bit of a turn in the spotlight. [¶][…] it’s quite a nice wearing fragrance, I rate it a solid 8/10.
Others are more harshly critical. Take, for example, “Mr. Bon Vivant” who seems have had largely the same experience as I did, resulting in many of the same conclusions:
There is no discernible sandalwood, and the general feel of the fragrance is marked by a light, smokey, highly abrasive synthetic that seems to be standing in for leather these days. Santal Royal smells a good deal like Armani Prive Cuir Noir, and both smell fairly bad. They are copies of what is already found in spades in the local Arabian Gulf market, a transparent rose coupled with synthetic “oud” and “leather”. I’m sick of smelling this combo everywhere, and the only good thing about SR is that it plays the sillage lightly.
Please don’t spend money on this stuff. If you blind buy a spray from Arabian Oud or similar retailer, you will get something that will smell 95% the same and at a fraction of the cost. I had much higher hopes from Guerlain, either in better than average materials or in a novel twist. But no such luck this time around. [Emphasis to names added by me.]
“Noggs,” a poster in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia (a location which gives him ample exposure to true Middle Eastern fragrances), had similar thoughts:
The first (and strongest) thing that struck me was how much it smelled like some of the sprays from the Arabian houses. Arabian Oud and Junaid came immediately to mind as houses that offer very similar products.
I liked Santal Royal better than Mr. Bon Vivant, but probably not enough to buy it. It is interesting that we both noticed that same thing. [¶][…]
Santal Royal smells, well…generic, and presents itself in a rather prosaically balanced manner oddly similar to how I perceive many of the cheaper Arabian sprays. [Emphasis to names added by me.]
Both he and Mr. Bon Vivant are right, and it would be far cheaper to buy Arabian Oud‘s Woody, Misty Wood, or any one of a myriad, analogous, spicy rose-oud-woody-musk fragrances from a Middle Eastern brand than to spend $200 on the new Guerlain.
As should be quite clear by now, I did not like Santal Royal, though I think it’s better than L’Homme Ideal. While that’s not saying much given my opinion of the latter, at least Santal Royal is not as unbalanced in its notes as L’Homme Ideal, not as extreme, and is more finely tuned on most olfactory levels, though it is far more egregious in another regard (the industrial strength of its synthetics at times). At a higher dosage, there are even some vaguely appealing bits to Santal Royal, like the creaminess that appears in the base for a few hours, the impact of the cinnamon on the fruity rose, and the… well, that’s about it.
Santal Royal may be a (small) step up from the generic profile that plagued L’Homme Ideal, but I think it still reeks of Guerlain’s focus on commercialism and profitability above all else. I’ve gotten a lot of grief for my review of L’Homme Ideal and for my comments on the trend that I think it represents, but I stand by them and think Santal Royal is further evidence of the damage caused by LVMH‘s control over the company. Like L’Homme Ideal, it evinces the same limited focus on commercialism, hyped-up marketing, and market share, in lieu of a true interest in creating an authentically distinctive, high-quality, luxurious-smelling fragrance that stands out in a very over-saturated rose-oud field. Guerlain has become a master of beautiful bottles and endless flankers — and it is driving me insane. Just how many flankers (particularly for La Petit Robe Noire and Shalimar) can one company put out in a single year? Even the trashy L’Homme Ideal is getting a flanker now. (I can only shudder.)
On the Facebook page of the blogger and Guerlain expert, Monsieur Guerlain, a post from January 6th, 2015 says that the company puts out “twenty releases per year. Yes, twenty — that’s more than one every three weeks.” A good number of those seem to be flankers. Some are re-issues. Then, quite separately, there are all the special, limited-edition, super-expensive bottles that are occasionally embellished with jewels, and which Guerlain seems to put out every month or so. In short, it’s gloss and appearance over substance and smell — at a rate of “one every 3 weeks.” I find it appalling.
I don’t blame Thierry Wasser, but I absolutely blame LVMH. Guerlain has become the epitome of mediocrity under the giant multinational’s ownership. You know the sound of the slot machine section of a Las Vegas casino with the gushing of coins and the discordant cacophony in the air? That “ka-ching” is clearly the sound that LVMH hears when it says the name “Guerlain,” and a gushing slot machine is clearly how the subsidiary is being used. It’s cheap, it’s tawdry, and it’s truly sad. Strangely, if you will notice, the same situation is not happening at Dior, another cog in the LVMH machine. At least not to the same degree, since I don’t see Dior putting out a fragrance every 3 weeks and, relatively speaking, the general quality of their scents is better.
I apologise for the digression, but Guerlain’s trajectory is rapidly becoming a sore point with me. Getting back to the topic at hand, if you are really passionate about rose-oud fragrances with some spiciness, some leather, and extremely fruited sweetness, then give Santal Royal a sniff. Perhaps on your skin, it won’t be terribly harsh and synthetic, but don’t expect anything with the quality or smoothness of Guerlain’s Desert d’Orient Collection. And you should definitely not expect anything original or distinctive.