Wouldn’t it be reckless to belittle the impact Serge Lutens has had on the world of perfumery? Through his customary exoticism or his introspective, philosophical works, most of his creations, formulated more often than not by Christopher Sheldrake, become a standard for a particular perfume style or note. Lutens has explored santal (sandalwood in French) three times, in each opportunity experimenting with different facets of the ingredient.
Sandalwood oil is a highly appreciated ingredient in perfumery. It is extracted from the wood of some of the species of the genus Santalum. Its smell is peculiar, characteristically woody, but warm, creamy in texture, almost milky, unlike other woods which are drier, sharper, more aggressive. It has incredible fixative properties as well, making it an obvious choice as a component for perfume bases.
The compounds to which the characteristic odor of sandalwood is attributed are alpha-Santalol and beta-Santalol, both sesquiterpenoids, together representing around 65% of the distilled oil. Of course, the presence of impurities contributes to the oil’s richness and specific nuances, hence why natural sandalwood will always have a complex odor profile, richer than that of artificial substitutes.
Of the three true santal species, the Indian variety (S. album) is the most coveted, having such a pleasant smell that the experience of using it is often described as mystical (and so, its relation with religious practices). If sandalwood is usually described as creamy, then the sandalwood from India is almost buttery. Sadly, the high esteem for Indian sandalwood is precisely the cause of its overexploitation, which is why its harvest has been regulated, decreasing the production over the years and increasing its value in consequence. This is why the extract from other varieties of sandalwood, like Australian (S. spicatum), as well as synthetic molecules such as Javanol have taken on importance.
Back to Lutens, Santal Majuscule was released in 2012 as the third fragrance from his santal collection, with little explanation to the inspiration behind it (as usual with Uncle Serge) other than a reference to a childhood obsession with the capitalization of some words and a vague quote from a Catholic saint. Obscure, but not as cryptic as with some of his other perfumes.
Unlike the gloriously spiced but considerably unforgiving Santal de Mysore (1997) or the sweetened Santal Blanc (2001), Santal Majuscule is intended to be sandalwood in uppercase, which might make you think that this is solely a sandalwood fragrance, but that is simply not the case. It seems like only a portion of the santal was capitalized. It should be taken into consideration that capitalization consists of writing a word with its first letter in uppercase and the remaining letters in lower case, which may help to integrate the inspiration to the end result.
It is common to associate the ingredient with India, and Lutens has certainly taken advantage of that connection: the perfume is based on a typical sandalwood and rose attar –a combination so repeatedly employed in the industry that many people fail to recognize the wood if not paired with the flower. A logical match, as sandalwood does have a certain rosiness.
The composition is centered around sandalwood and rose, with a dash of orange in the opening. There is a perceptible note of tonka bean which provides a healthy degree of sweetness, deterring the Australian santal from ever smelling like pencil shavings (a tinge found on this kind). Also, there is a cacao note that pulls together all the other ingredients, with a consistency far removed from chocolate, evoking instead the sensation of biting into a roasted cacao bean, which is a nice counterbalance to the creaminess of sandalwood. Finally, there is musk buzzing underneath it all, in low frequency, almost imperceptible, revealing itself only when the fragrance has declined many hours past its sunset and everything else has faded away.
In this particular scent, they manipulated Australian sandalwood to smell as close to the Bharat type as possible, yet it never reaches the buttery smoothness characteristic of south Asian specimens. What seems to be capitalized is the woody facets of the ingredient. It feels as if the wood was left unsanded, and no lacquer was applied to it. You would still feel the grain of the wood if you run your hands over it.
It would be pernicious to expect Santal Majuscule to be an olfactory journey through Delhi and other Indian cities. It does not feel like a one-way ticket to Mumbai, and there is no reason for it to be, as attempting to stay too close to Indian attars could potentially result in a reductive product. Wisely, the people at Lutens (and more so Monsieur Sheldrake who, as a matter of fact, was born in Chennai) kept it somewhere in between East and West. It feels like goods imported from the Kingdom of Mysore, to be appreciated somewhere in Europe, inside a turn-of-the-century manor. The setting is more bourgeois than aristocratic. It also avoids the treacherous pothole of cultural appropriation with all of its negative connotations, which one could easily fall into, thanks to its meticulous execution.
Capitalization is, after all, a way to highlight a particular word within text. Lutens has explained that when he was a school boy, he used to capitalize on words or phrases that seemed important to him, regardless of the rules for it. If sandalwood was upper-cased here, then he chose to focus on the woody instead of the creamy. As a whole, Santal Majuscule is a linear scent, with medium projection and notable longevity. It will never suffocate and the smell will accompany you for most of the day. Certainly, not the purest interpretation of santal, but it is indeed a perfectly fine introduction to the sandalwood note and rose-santal accords, with enough personality to assure a spot in anyone’s textbook.
Name: Santal Majuscule
House: Serge Lutens
Concentration: Eau de parfum
Nose: Christopher Sheldrake
Release Year: 2012
Category: Woody oriental
Reviewed Batch: circa 2017
From personal collection.