To reacquaint myself with the authentic Indian Mysore sandalwood extract in order to write this piece just an hour or two ago I gave myself one tiny spray of vintage Guerlain Samsara parfum. Just a small dot or two on the top of my left hand, by far the most natural sandalwood-based perfume in my collection (the original formula contained a massive 20% pure essential oil when it debuted) and a smell that you just don’t really get to smell firsthand in perfumery anymore. Head to head with some eau de parfum on my right, at first the pure perfume seems verging on odourless – compact and demure, without all the hairspray fuss and glamour of the other concentrations, no throw. But this is a sandalwood perfume that really, really enjoys to takes its time: where the eau de parfum concentration is now a delicately balanced, if still very strong, blend of jasmine, iris and sandalwood, the parfum, on me, in its full, later stages, is just the latter. Sandalwood as I like it: creamy, dense, sun-filled, languourous – slow, like liquid gold.
The original Mysore sandalwood essential oil, extracted from trees that were overharvested to the virtual point of extinction and therefore placed under protection by the Indian government, is unlike any other perfume component, in its sheer richness and glint; its anchoring, full-bodied self-confidence, and its laconic, sexual grounding. And while this is not my favourite perfume heart or base note by any stretch – I much prefer vetiver, patchouli, even cedarwood – there is something very ‘splayed open’ and courtesanish, to me, about sandalwood (it doesn’t leave much to the imagination) – it is also very easy to imagine how the trees, the wood and its inimitable aroma could have played such an important role in South Asian culture across millennia, in the form of wooden carvings, temple structures, in euphorical aphrodisia, and as an essential and founding component of Oriental incense.
Although I am not a person who likes ‘woody’ perfumes in general – to me they can feel like being trapped in my own funeral casket, too moisture sucking and weighty, enclosing and solidifying rather than languid and free (like flowers, which are always opening and reaching out towards the light), there are, on occasion, days when I do find myself more in the mood for the more form-fitting strength of this kind of perfume, particularly in winter, when I might use a Bois De Santal body cream that Brie sent me (probably the best sandalwood I have ever smelled; so sweet and spiced and eternally lasting), layered with vintage Shiseido Feminité Du Bois parfum, a divinely beautiful perfume that to me smells as though there must be some natural sandalwood extract buried beneath all that beguiling Moroccan Atlas Cedar, the plum and the spices and niggling base notes of vanilla that linger in the most dignified and elegant manner on the skin for hours.
Other sandalwood perfumes I quite enjoy the smell of are the quite classicist Santal Noble by Maitre Parfumeur Et Gantier, Sandalo by Santa Maria Novella – which has an inspired note of thyme that cuts through the length of its duration – Narcisse Noir by Caron, which I ultimately consider a sandalwood perfume, and Serge Lutens’ collection of sandalwood perfumes, Santal Mysore, Bois De Santal and the last of his sandalwood creations, Santal Majuscule, with its calmly stupefying rose and cacao (although if I am absolutely honest I never entirely really believed in the quality of the sandalwood in that perfume; for me, the Australian or ‘East Indian sandalwood’ just never quite cuts the mustard; too thin and flat and unmysterious. Even if I do find true Mysore sandalwood to be a little too forceful and straight in its blatantly carnal message, I nevertheless still do feel that there is always, underneath, also something timeless and soulful about it that appeals to the heart muscle and soul).
When I was in my early twenties I got through several bottles of the exquisitely pleasing Sandalwood by Crabtree & Evelyn – my ultimate sandalwood and favourite of this genre for all time. If you could still buy this light, rosy, powdery, sunlit composition that was as dreamy and clean as a sunset on a beach then I most definitely would: in fact just writing about it here makes me crave the stuff quite badly – but they discontinued it a very long time ago. Does anyone reading this remember it as fondly as I do? I know I used to find that perfume so calming and soothing – soapy and talcy but also quite enveloping and sensuous… I think this is how I basically enjoy sandalwood best, in the desert-wind lightness of say, L’Artisan Parfumeur’s L’Eau du Navigateur, or else full on oriental and packed with exotica, like Lorenzo Villoresi’s Alamut, a 1001 Arabian-inspired sandalwood that is the holy grail perfume of a Japanese friend of mine and which she smells perfectly gorgeous in (she is also the person who I give all my boisé sample bottles I receive to: as a fan of as-woody-as-you-can-get perfumes like Diptyque’s very literal Asian wooden temple Tam Dao or Comme Des Garçons Kyoto as well as Ex Nihilo’s Bois d’Hiver (2015), a very woody sandalwoody/cypriol scent that she adored so much she brought herself a full bottle from Harrods that summer when the small sample bottle ran out); as the most fiercely independent person I have ever known, Junko smells brilliantly contained in this style of perfumery; a mode of fragrance I personally just can’t get with on my own skin, but which I like to experience closehand as long as I am on the other side of the table).
There is something about Javanol, the synthetic molecule now regularly used in contemporary cutting edge perfumery as a substitute (or, to be honest, now actually preferred by the majority of people to the original, natural, sandalwood oil), that is addictive, sexy and in your face. Many of the scents that Junko has in her collection – aside the aforementioned Alamut, which I do think smells best on her – do contain Javanol (or Polysantol, the creamier variant) and if I hadn’t already found immediate recipients for the two new Escentric Molecules perfume based entirely around this note that I am writing about now here and that I received in the post from a friend, I would most definitely have given them to her as well.
Javanol smells fashionable, current. Sexy, in an urban vacuum kind of way; endocrinic, a bit pheremonal; ‘woody’, but in no way connected to nature or the outdoors. There is a no-nonsense, ‘get to it’ aura around this odour molecule – which is extremely potent and which I am really very sensitive to (if I even imagine I can detect an even hint of the stuff in the base of a perfume, it is what the Americans refer to as a ‘deal breaker’ – this happened with Guerlain’s expensive Spiriteuse Double Vanille and Tonka Impériale, both of which I had full bottle of but became detached from when I realized there might be something there , just hiding in the very base tones, though in truth it could quite easily just been a tiny smidgen of my even greater bête noire, ambroxan).
What Javanol does have, though, to its credit, is a certain dryness; a ‘stripped’ quality, and a strange, oxygenated freshness that is a million miles from the sweaty, almost indecently kama sutraness of the original, and natural, odour material; a Tindr or Grindr social media network hook up down the back alley behind a club instead of an elaborately staged, contortionist’s nightmare on an ancient bed of bleeding roses leading to procreation and a dancing Bollywood finale. It is the smell of the present, of what the new sex smells like, the new genders, the sloughing off of labels and traditions, and Geza Schoen, the perfumer of the very popular Molecule line, does an interesting job here of dressing and disguising the essential element at the heart of both of these fragrances – the Javanol, here, there, always waiting to take pronouncement – and presenting two very contrasting perfumes that go very different routes until they reach similar, inevitable conclusions.
Molecule 04 is very simple and futuristic; airy, almost invisible, citrus-like, with the familiar, fat-free glimpse of ‘woodsy’ featured from beneath, like a lemon-pip trapped inside an ice cube. I immediately thought of my neighbour’s daughter Aiko, who is never averse to a gender-subverting scent or two, and sure enough, she took to it straight away. ‘Nice’, she said, as she surveyed the scent on her wrists. It smells clean, fresh, laundered but wordlessly flirtatious and aura-constructing; a masculine/feminine conglomeration that smells quite hip but understated. Intelligent, quite fashionista.
Escentric 04, a very different beast entirely, was snapped up upon smelling it, somewhat to my surprise, by my other half. He always loves the pepper notes, especially a rambunctiously bracing, nose-tingly top note of pink pepper (he is always shoving whole poivres roses into salads as well, so you crunch down on their dried, crunchy stimulation when you are expecting the smoothness of avocado), and this perfume has a very pleasing initial pepper profusion that grabbed him, when he sampled the bottle, right from the get go. The D also has an inclination for anything rhubarby; berry -like; non-banal fruity that isn’t too sweet, and the fruit-salad accord of this perfume (very, very far from the candy cane syrup of the ethymaltol ‘gourmands’; there is something quite stark and Teutonic about the way that the barbed fruit notes are handled) is a heftier, more fun-packed Javanol perfume that forms a fetching complement to the far more transparent and subtle Molecule: a big boost to the senses of hedione and floral notes (rose, osmanthus, orris) that smell as red and pink and indomitable as its packaging.
Boxy, uncluttered, and of the moment, later – quite a lot later, Escentric 04 dies down to the much more predictable, more instinctual basenotes of pure Javanol, musk, and Ambroxan. Just that smell. Potently. Essentially, therefore, what you put on, is not what you end up with here. D goes out for the evening: spruced, and sprayed happily all over with a new burst of hedgerow, colour-blocked charm. He comes home, hours later, and the whole room is quickly fit to bursting – obliviously on his part – completely, with the inglorious, but involuntarily riveting – and for me, quite conflictingly sexual – smell of pounding, synthetic woods on human flesh.