Friday, June 01, 2012

My First Love - The Sixth Anniversary of the Natural Perfumers Guild Blogging Event

Fan carved from sandalwood

Santalum album  -  even the botanical name is beautiful and strong.

If rose and jasmine are feminine, sandalwood is strongly, sexily, masculine.  All male. And I fell hard for “him” from the first sniff.  Here’s my decades-long love/lust story, and I’m sorry to say it might not have a happy ending.

Sandalwood Mala bead necklace
I didn’t get my first bottle of sandalwood oil until I was 18 or so.  I already had some patchouli, as it was the scent of choice for hippies, and if I had some oils from the racks in hippie stores, they’re long forgotten, and I now know they were probably synthetic.  One day I was helping someone unpack some imported goods in the back of the store, and some of the merchandise was from India.  There were lovely colorful glass beads strung into necklaces that were woven from brass wire. Then I found a packet of scented wooden beads made into jewelry.  I’ll always associate the glass green/aqua necklace and the crimson red one with my discovery of the sandalwood necklaces and bracelets, they’re tied in my memory into a colorful, scented mélange.

The sandalwood necklaces and bracelets stopped me in my tracks.  I never dreamed there was a fragrant wood that could be made into jewelry, but the main point is I adored the scent.  Immediately.  Totally. Unconditionally.  I wore them and sniffed them constantly for a long time, years, in fact, , and they were treasured and always nearby. The warmth of my skin would make the scent bloom, and I learned to softly sandpaper them to revive the scent-carrying cells of the wood.

But still, this was only a teaser.  I didn’t even know sandalwood oil existed.  We’re talking 1968 here, so forgive my ignorance.

About a year or so after I found the beads, I discovered that an old herbal apothecary in Philly carried sandalwood oil.  Penn Herb has been in business since 1924, and they had the real sandalwood oil, imported from India.  I remember my first bottle, a tiny 1/8 oz or so, and I treasured it.  For the next 20 years, Penn Herb was still my source for the oil, and no matter where I lived in the USA, I had it shipped to me, in larger quantities as my budget would allow.  

This soap was widely available back in the day - and smelled pretty good. It must have contained some real sandalwood, probably spent powder from the distillation process.

At one point, and now I wish I had taken photos – I had the bottles all lined up, and marveled at the slight differences in color between the various purchases. The darker colored ones I now realize were probably distilled in copper stills. I had a soft golden/amber array of the delicious sandalwood oil to visually enjoy, and a treasure I did not realize at the time, since I didn’t realize in the 70s and 80s that the trees were being overharvested and the oil would soon be scarce and very pricey.  I often slathered my arms in the oil, not realizing “he” was so precious and rare. How I squandered his riches!  My first love was in demand, and the demand turned scary.  Everyone wanted him, and there wasn’t enough to meet the demand.  
Price in Rupees

 I was already in love with the scent of the beads, but unprepared for the soft, creamy, sweet magnificence of the oil.  It was definitely a masculine vibe I got from the sandalwood oil, and I’d never before thought of a male or female aspect to an oil. There was some sweaty magnificence in the sandalwood, something sexually charged.  Years later I spoke with an aromatherapist who said on her first date with the man she would later marry, she yes, slathered herself with sandalwood oil for a day at a country fair.  At the end of the day, as they were saying goodnight, he admitted he was charmed by her “sweaty smell”!  She’s a quiet, reserved type, and immediately was a bit embarrassed, knowing she hadn’t been sweating, but it was a chemical component in sandalwood that he noted.

Sandalwood oil was the “go to” oil for all of my perfumes throughout the years.  It blends with everything, in the right amount.  My first love “plays well with others”. It was in the early 90s that I started to hear about shortages, guerilla warfare in the Mysore and Tamil Nadu regions and prices began to rise sharply.  Over the years, much has been written about the possible extinction of my first love, but I refuse to give in to those thoughts.

Yes, I’ve flirted with other sandalwood oils from different regions, and even different species, such as spicatum.  They’re for the most part, lovely, but not my first love.  I have a nice stash of Mysore aging and some of it goes into my perfumes.  A few years ago I even sold some to help spread the beauty of my first love among other natural perfumers, but I won’t sell any more.  

Guild member Trygve Harris was too busy to take part in this blog event, and anyway, I recently found out she and I share the same first love.  She blogged about it in 2010, and if you search her blog, you’ll find some of the most informative posts about sandalwood from someone who traveled to where he grew up, and who reports on the physical and political and economic forces at work in modern India. 

Today, sandalwood plantations are being established in an attempt to stave off the extinction of this glorious tree.  I found this great Facebook page, and I love some of the pithy, and also some of the touching posts there.

I hope his story does have a happy ending.  In the meantime, I have my memories and sweet dreams of sandalwood, my first love.

From the facebook page, a sad testimony to government mismanagement and squandering of my precious first love.....In the words of the farmers "All govts claim to be friends of farmers. With this kind of friends, farmers don’t need enemies.

First they force the farmers to sell their hard earned crops at throw away prices and then they waste the resource in this way.
Sandalwood powder leaking from bags, spilling onto ground and into water.

 Please visit the other Guild bloggers today to find out about their first natural aromatic love!


  1. Ahhh, yes, sandalwood. Another true love and I, too, hope the story has a happy ending!

  2. Informative!My first love was a honeysuckle maceration I was given, to this day it remains one of my favorite smells and flowers...

  3. I see we share the love of is good stuff...

  4. Yes it is very sad to see sandalwood mysore from India disappearing. It is the best one ever and although some countries such as Vanuatu or New Caledonia are growing their own sandalwood,I never can find one as addictive as the mysore.
    I remember the times in the late 70's when dark and aged patchouli was blended with sandalwood mysore and we were using it as a hippy perfume! These were pure oils! I miss not finding them any longer...

  5. I remember someone giving me an intricately carved sandalwood pen when I was a kid. That was my first exposure to the scent as well. I loved how it fragranced my hand the warmth of which probably helped release the oils. I kept the pen for years until it got lost or stolen. I just acquired a sample of an 80 year old oil. Words cannot describe it's beauty.

  6. It is tragic to see such waste! I remember the sandalwood beads from the Oriental markets, loved them too. Somewhere, I also remember sandalwood boxes, sigh ...

  7. One of the houses where I lived in the Florida Keys was next-door to a retired botanist from Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden. Her yard was an amazing tropical jungle. Somehow she had managed to grow a sandalwood tree. I can remember walking outside of my house in the evening when it was blooming and being nearly mesmerized by the fabulous scent. No matter how hot it was, my mother and I would turn off the A/C and run around opening all our windows to let the scent waft through the house.


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