Lovers of the sweet, creamy, and foodie representations of sandalwood, I’m sorry but Santal Nabataea by Fredrik Dalman for Mona di Orio (2018) is not for you. If you love the fake milky sweetness of stuff like Memo’s Quartier Latin, Miller et Bertoux’s Indian Study/ Santal +++, or Perris Monte Carlo’s Santal du Pacifique, and your general expectations of how sandalwood should smell are set in that direction, then take a pass on this.
Santal Nabataea smells very much like real santalum album oil and very little like the usual representation in commercial perfumery. When I first smelled it, I was first astonished, and then a little teary at the thought that something like this can still exist in modern perfumery. The best way to prepare you for something like Santal Nabataea would be to tell you to beg, steal, or borrow a drop of real santalum album oil and see for yourself how different it is from the creamy, sugary loudness of sandalwood in commercial perfumery.
I’ve written a bit about how real santalum album smells like here and here, but to recap, the essential oil itself is quiet, with curiously sharp high notes that can remind one alternately of peanut husks, solvent, glue, and even yoghurt. Australian native sandalwood (s. spicatum) is very sour, with strident green pine notes, but santalum album, used here and also the species from which Mysore sandalwood is derived, is softer, with a dusty incense-and-buttered-toast depth that’s rightly the object of obsession for many.
But no matter what type of sandalwood used, it seems that it’s the perfumer who decides whether to push it in a sweet-creamy or arid-aromatic direction. Natural sandalwood features both aspects simultaneously, but sandalwood synths all seem to focus on the sweet, ambery creaminess to the exclusion of the aromatic.
To date, the sandalwood fragrances that I feel have come closest to capturing the complex, unami-rich flavor of natural sandalwood have been Lorenzo Villoresi’s Sandalo, Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier’s Santal Noble, and Etro’s Sandalo (vintage eau de cologne). Or more accurately, should I say, they all capture that wondrous push-and-pull between the slightly sour milkiness and the dusty, aromatic aridity of the wood itself.
My personal favorite is Etro Sandalo eau de cologne, for two reasons: first, the topnotes feature the same nail polish, industrial plastics, and burning tire weirdness of some natural santalum album oils (which I love and welcome as a sign of authenticity), and second, as a bit of a cop out, it gives me the creamy, incensey milkiness of fake sandalwood in the drydown, a kind of guilty pleasure I can’t seem to wean myself off of. I used to own Santal Noble but although I admired it, I felt its brusque coffee-ish opening rendered it too masculine for me to enjoy as a personal fragrance.
I got into detail about these fragrances because I am convinced that Santal Nabataea is as close to Santal Noble as is possible to get this side of disastrous Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier reforms. It has the same touch of resinous coffee funk and the same dusty, earthy brusqueness. The use of sweet myrrh (opoponax) in the basenotes is also similar, emphasizing the herbal soapiness inherent to both scents.
I always thought that wearing Santal Noble was akin to stumbling upon the private quarters of a very English gentleman and watch him silently getting dressed in his three-piece tweed hunting suit laid out by his valet, tucking as he did a paisley handkerchief sprinkled with aromatic eau de cologne into his upper suit pocket. I didn’t feel comfortable inhabiting the skin of this gentleman every time I wore Santal Noble, so I swapped it away. However, I found and still find the scent of Santal Noble to be richly evocative in a way that few sandalwood-forward perfumes are. Santal Nabataea is similarly evocative; exotic without being derivative.
But Santal Nabataea also possess something of the odd, solvent-like topnotes of the Etro Sandalo and the dark, saline weave of aromatic fougere-ish notes seen in the Villoresi. It’s arid, earthy, and deeply unami, reaching parts of you that synthetic sandalwood just can’t. The supporting notes in Santal Nabataea are just that, a chorus of backing singers for the sandalwood soloist. The dusty resinousness of coffee is noticeable in that it dims the lights a bit, and underlines the essentially masculine nature of the scent. But unless the fruity nail polish honk in the topnotes is thanks to the oleander or apricot, I can’t really make them out as distinct shapes or forms in the texture of the scent. If anything, they exist simply to emphasize the astringency of the sandalwood core.
That’s not a complaint, by the way. I’m so grateful to smell something that actually smells like real sandalwood for once that I’m glad not to be distracted by a plethora of competing notes and accents. I think the way Fredrik Dalman built Santal Nabataea shows real confidence in his materials and in his own vision. I think he’s also counting on people to notice that the authenticity of the sandalwood heart in Santal Nabataea and read it as the entire point of the exercise. If so, message received. Lovers of real sandalwood and of fragrances such as Villoresi’s Sandalo, Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier’s Santal Noble, and even Etro’s Sandalo will definitely want to at least sample Santal Nabataea. For me personally, it joins the pantheon of great sandalwood commercial fragrances.