Santal Royal is one of Guerlain’s latest offerings and as the name suggests, it is an olfactory homage to sandalwood. Over millennia, sandalwood has been the substance of perfume legends. In Eastern cultures it is honoured with sacred reverence. Early Sankrit texts give accounts of fragrant sandalwood paste adorning the bodies of gods, kings and lovers. For Guerlain, Exoticism and mythic stories of love have been constant influences. After a modern system of trade was established with the East, 19th century perfumer Aimé Guerlain used Indian sandalwood oil in his abstract creation, Jicky. At the birth of Art Deco, Jacques Guerlain tributed Shalimar to the tragic love story of Moghul Emperor Shah Jahan. Later that century, Jean-Paul Guerlain authored Samsara, a name inspired by the Eastern philosophy of life and death. Originally Samsara was created for Guerlain’s muse, Decia de Powell, who requested a bespoke perfume using sandalwood and jasmine. The original formula contained an unprecedented 30% of sandalwood oil. Researching for his book, Perfume Legends, author Michael Edwards interviewed Sylvaine Delacourte who was Jean-Paul Guerlain’s assistant at the time. She recalled, “Sandalwood is one of Guerlain’s favourite materials. For as long as I have worked for him, he has told me how much he loved its scent. Perhaps it was because he understands the material so intimately that he was able to put so much sandalwood into a perfume.” Samsara marked a change in Guerlain’s approach to making perfume. Before Samsara, a new Guerlain perfume was only launched when the perfumers believed they had created something worthy of public release. It was a “here’s a beautiful fragrance, let’s see what happens” approach. Samsara was the first time the brand employed modern marketing techniques, where “the imagery came before the perfume,” and Jean-Paul Guerlain submitted a perfume formula in response to the marketing team’s design brief. This way of working is now standard industry practice. Under ownership of LVMH, the Guerlain of today is a well-oiled corporate machine led by concise marketing strategies. Silvaine Delacourte is now responsible for shaping Guerlain’s perfume collections as their “Evaluatrice”. With house perfumer Thierry Wasser, the Guerlain of today reaches out to a new generation of clientele whilst protecting the heritage of one of the world’s oldest living perfume houses. Through Santal Royal it continues to pay homage to the East and the house’s affection for sandalwood. But it hasn’t been the Zen journey the house probably anticipated. Guerlain received public criticism over Santal Royal. Some reviewers felt it lacked creativity and was designed to increase market share in the Middle East, a lucrative market, continually growing its appetite for Western perfumes. Some see Santal Royal as a contributor to the oud phenomenon, a topic frequently discussed on perfume blogs and forums. Although Santal Royal avoids any overt clichés – using Oud in the product’s title or using Arabic-inspired imagery and words on the packaging, many critics have been less than favourable. Writer Luca Turin described Santal Royal in his Style.com Arabia column as “eminently forgettable.” With this he added, “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.” His sentiment was echoed by a number of other writers and their readers. In Guerlain’s defence, I think the brand is often a victim of its own success with new Guerlain perfumes being compared to Shalimar, Mitsouko or L’Heure Bleue, perfumes that are close to or more than 100 years old. It is unrealistic to expect that every new Guerlain perfume will shape history the way these classic perfumes have. Still, there is room for discussion as to how much creativity is sacrificed if perfume design is directed heavily by sales and market trends. Guerlain’s pivotal Jicky required years to find its fan base. Had it been launched today, it would have been swiftly abandoned, condemned a failure because of poor sales performance.
Guerlain’s fascination with stone fruits began in 1919 with Mitsouko’s aldehydic peach note. More recently, dark fruit notes have been a source of inspiration. Black cherry accord was one cornerstone of La Petite Robe Noire and Guerlain’s newest men’s fragrance, L’Homme Ideal used sour cherry to contrast the sweetness of almond in what has been described as an amaretto sour accord. On Guerlain’s website, Santal Royal’s stone fruit reference is listed as peach. The lactonic radiance of aldehyde C14 (peach) forms a halo that pushes the white floral beauty of jasmine up and out of the fragrance. But beyond this, Santal Royal’s peach note is not standard issue, with dark, jammy notes adding a lure of mystery to this exotic scent, which smells more like summer fruit poached in sherry than the fuzzy peach skin found in Mitsouko. Having recently announced a sustainability plan with sandalwood farmers in Sri Lanka, Guerlain also pays tribute to Sri Lanka’s beloved cinnamon with Santal Royal. Cinnamon oil is warm and energising and its woody connotations create a jagged texture on sandalwood’s smooth façade. The sweet and fiery spice adds to the amber note, which anchors the oud accord. Rose is the perfume’s most prominent floral note. As it fades it retreats into leather. In its infancy, Santal Royal’s leather is phenolic, bitter and saffron-like. As the fragrance develops these volatile leather notes fall away to reveal soft-textured, buttery and tenacious suede notes. Within this multitude of layers it is easy to loose track of the sandalwood, which initially surprised me given the fragrance has Santal in its title. Sandalwood is there but it is a note that sits meek behind other more boisterous ingredients. With impressive tenacity, a testimony to Wasser’s skill as a perfumer, Santal Royal settles on skin revealing some classic Guerlain traits of warm, sweet tonka bean, vanilla and a subtle hint of animal.
With the volume of oud-inspired Western perfume launches now at a comical number, a question that may arise is why choose Santal Royal over the hundreds of others? The answer may depend on brand loyalty. Guerlain has one of the biggest perfume fan-bases in the world. If I was choosing a Guerlain fragrance, a logical comparison could be made between Santal Royal and its Les Deserts d’Orient collection. If price was a determining factor, Santal Royal costs considerably less. After that it gets personal. Les Deserts d’Orient is Guerlain with no cost spared. These luxurious perfumes contain some very beautiful natural raw materials derived from woods, spices, resins and flowers. Skilfully set like jewels, Les Deserts d’Orient show off the intricate facets of nature. In comparison, Santal Royal’s facets are much more broad, missing some of the detail captured in the more refined Les Deserts d’Orient. For this reason I think of Santal Royal as being more casual in feel. Les Deserts d’Orient are opulent fragrances but I don’t always want to feel that way. Santal Royal is a fragrance I can wear regularly and in more casual settings. Comparing Santal Royal to other brands that have tackled the oud genre, Santal Royal feels like a Guerlain fragrance. It has the warmth of the Guerlinade and it is, despite criticism from others, well-made. My bottle arrived at the beginning of summer so I am yet to experience Santal Royal in a cold climate but I can imagine it will come alive even more on skin in winter as it feels like suede lined with cashmere.
Alternatives: Guerlain Rose Nacree du Desert, Mona di Orio Oudh Osmanthus, Penhaligon’s Levantium, Penhaligon’s As Sawira
Perfumer: Thierry Wasser
Bottle Designer: Guerlain Studio
Release Date: 2014
Typology (via Fragrances of the World): Woody Oriental