I was watching The Phantom Thread (dir. by Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017) a few nights ago and I smiled at this reference to fragrance.
Cyril (Lesley Manville), sister to the main character of fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), enters his studio and literally picks up the scent of Woodcock’s latest model and muse. “And who’s this lovely creature making the house smell so nice?”, she inquires, before stepping close to Alma (Vicky Krieps) and sniffing at her partially undressed body. “Sandalwood and rose water,” she notes.
I’ve never gotten that personal with a stranger in order to identify their fragrance, even before COVID-19, but this moment made me remember a time when you didn’t need to get close to anyone to notice the waves of sandalwood aromachemicals wafting around New York City. In 2017 I mentioned the “perfume that I detect[ed] all-too-frequently on my fellow New Yorkers, on the subway between Manhattan and Brooklyn, in upscale clothing boutiques, in cocktail bars. . . yes, you guessed it: Le Labo Santal 33.”
In 2015, The New York Times called Santal 33 “that perfume you smell everywhere,” but looking back even further, when I wrote my Le Labo store report for Now Smell This in 2008, Santal 33 didn’t even exist yet. (There was a Santal candle, reportedly, but no Eau de Parfum until 2011.)
My feelings for Santal 33 went from “like” to “loathe” pretty quickly, just because it was inescapable and once everyone in town starts raving about something, I lose interest. (Maybe that’s predictably juvenile of me.) But I have no aversion to a good sandalwood perfume, in general, so I’d like to recommend six others worth trying. They’re all slightly different takes on this central theme, and none of them is made by a company that’s now owned by Estée Lauder (yes, Le Labo is not exactly an “indie” line anymore).
If you’re feeling a little nostalgic for pre-COVID public life, but not quite a fan of Santal 33, this may be a place to start.
Diptyque Tam Dao (2003): The old-school niche sandalwood
This is probably one of the first sandalwood fragrances I ever tried (unless you count the Celestial Sky oil that one of my college friends loved). Diptyque is still a great entry point for someone who wants to explore niche perfume, and Tam Dao is one of their classics. Robin reviewed it for Now Smell This in 2005.
Raw Spirit Wild Fire (2013): The boho sandalwood
I might not have known about Raw Spirit had a public relations person not contacted me in 2015 and offered to send me a few sample vials. My favorite turned out to be Wild Fire. I described its take on sandalwood as “smooth, with a creamy undertone, yet also slightly rough-edged” in a review for Now Smell This, and I’ve given it as a gift several times to a sandalwood-loving friend.
Commodity Book (2013): The Sephora sandalwood
I don’t usually recommend fragrances that are obviously “dupes” for best-sellers, but I’ll make an exception for Commodity’s Book. Le Labo’s perfumes are so overpriced that this point, I can’t blame people for wanting a similar scent for less money. You can read my thoughts about Book here. It may not be available at Sephora anymore, but it still fits that demographic and price point.
Le Jardin Retrouvé Sandalwood Sacré (1979, revived 2016): The travelogue sandalwood
This brand has expanded its offerings and changed its visuals since I first reviewed some of its fragrances in 2017. I’ve never smelled the original version of Sandalwood Sacré, but its 2016 re-release is all-gender, natural-smelling, and very easy to wear. (In my review for NST, I also mentioned notes of resins, immortelle, and patchouli.)
Stora Skuggan Moonmilk (2017): The Scandinavian sandalwood
I love the name and the bottle and the straightforward character of this sandalwood-centered perfume. It’s cozy in a very modern way, without being sweet. As I wrote on NST, Moonmilk’s “creaminess smoothes out the woods, and the subtle spices and tea keep things just lively enough.”
Jo Loves Smoked Plum & Leather (2016): The Sandalwood cocktail
I’ve just gotten around to trying a few fragrances from Jo Malone’s Jo Loves line, which wasn’t originally available in the United States. It’s easier to get these days, and Smoked Plum & Leather is a smooth blend of sandalwood, cedar, leather, and dark, boozy plum. It’s would make a perfect winter scent for women or men who want something woodsy but are ready to get a little more refined than Santal 33.
Looking back at these old reviews has made me even more nostalgic!
Is there any particular sandalwood perfume that you’d recommend as an alternative to Le Labo Santal 33? Feel free to share in the comments!