Why Sandalwood and Sandalwood essential oil is so expensive?

Sandalwood essential oil is one of the most expensive oils in this world. So is Sandalwood, one of the most expensive woods in this world but it’s really one portion of a sandalwood log or you can say one section of sandalwood that makes it so valuable.

To get to this, workers in sandalwood industry tirelessly chop away the lighter outer layer of sapwood until they’re left with the dark inner core that makes a kilogram of Indian sandalwood cost $200 today.

This is where sandalwood’ unique fragrance comes from.

In some Indian Households they keep a good quality of sandalwood block which passes on to generations to generations.

Sandalwood is also a parasitic plant, this means it relies on other plants to survive like neem 1 to 2 other trees ( mostly malabar neem ), so you can’t plant sandalwood in inter cropping , you have to plant it as a main plant , and this is a water intensive crop , these type of challenges makes it hard for cultivation.

Also there are still chances that your sandalwood tree may be got stolen by thieves, so this is also an issue with the farmers.

And when it’s distilled, it’s used in all kinds of products, from bath soaps to luxury-brand perfumes.

So what makes sandalwood’s aroma so special?

And is that why the wood is so expensive?

Native to South India, Santalum, or Indian sandalwood, was used for hundreds of years before becoming a go-to

scent for expensive perfumes. Today, it’s used for wood carvings and medicine, and it’s even considered a sacred tree in several religions. Once distilled, sandalwood’s sweet, woodsy aroma retains its scent for decades.

After harvesting, the forestry department sells sandalwood at auction to factories. Many of these types of factories are locate in Mysore.

Hollow heartwood logs are classified as jajpokel, one of the 18 classes of Indian sandalwood.

Factories can purchase pure heartwood, like jajpokel, or raw sandalwood logs.

But if they buy the raw wood, they’ll need to break down each log themselves.

Although a machine helps split sandalwood into more manageable pieces, stripping the logs down to their heartwood core requires the effort of several employees.

In a physically demanding process, men chop each log to remove the sapwood,  the nonfragrant portion of sandalwood. Pure heartwood is the most valuable class of sandalwood.

In some trees, pure heartwood is easier to extract because it forms in one circle at the center.

In other trees, the heartwood mixes together with sapwood, which impacts the final value of the oil.

After employees have gathered all they can, a machine breaks down the strips of wood into chips.

Employees do a sift through these chips to grab any leftover pieces of usable heartwood.

Then a separate machine turns those chips into powder. Now distillation can begin.

The process is long, and it starts with injecting steam into distillation stills.

After the oil is extracted, all that’s left are these giant mounds of powder.

But even with most of the oil gone, some of the scent still lingers.

Rather than going to waste, it’s used to make incense sticks and dhoop, a common form of incense in India used during religious rituals.

During the final stages, workers separate the oil from water and purify it until they’re left with a totally clean

tank of sandalwood oil.

It takesa small factory about a week to distill 1 metric ton of oil.

Tanks of the purified oil are sent to a lab in Bengaluru.

Here, researchers test each batch for quality.

They smell samples of the oil to confirm the aroma is consistent across batches.

Sandalwood’s unique and long-lasting scent makes it compatible with a wide range of other fragrances, which is why it’s an ideal base for perfume.

After the oil is tested, it heads to another factory where it will be used to make soap for Karnataka Soap and Detergents Limited, or KS&DL. It’s the color of the oil that the finished-product perfume, what is used for Mysore Sandal Soap’s fragrance.

KS&DL is one of the biggest producers of sandalwood oil products globally. Although its primary focus is soap, the company sells bottles of just sandalwood oil too.

One 10-gram bottle of sandalwood oil costs 5,500 rupees, or about $74.

Compared to 2017, a kilogram of Indian sandalwood oil can cost double today. And demand isn’t slowing down, with the market expected to reach over $165 million by 2027.

Out of roughly 10 sandalwood species,

Indian sandalwood and

Australian sandalwood

have the largest commercial value. The difference is the Indian species has higher levels of alpha- and beta-santalol, the components in sandalwood responsible for its lasting scent and believed health benefits.

India used to dominate the market for sandalwood oil and oil-based products.

But in recent years, Australia, which grows both the Indian and Australian sandalwood species, has gained significant ground in the market. Although this might look like a lot of sandalwood, India’s actually facing a supply shortage.

In fact, the supply is so limited that this sandalwood distillery only operated for about four months in 2021.

And up until 2002, it was illegal for private growers to plant sandalwood trees in the southern states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala.

With only a small amount of government-sanctioned replanting alongside the overharvesting, India’s supply suffered. And since 2018, the species has been considered vulnerable, one level above endangered. Another factor that limits supply and increases the price is inherent to the way the tree grows. Older trees tend to yield more oil, which makes them preferable for oil production. Growers will typically wait around 20 years for a tree to mature. This waiting period doesn’t only limit the quantity of sandalwood, it also puts the trees at risk.

Today, every tree has to be registered with the government and can’t be harvested or transported without permission. But even these strict regulations aren’t enough to prevent theft. According to a research, roughly 2,000 tons of smuggled sandalwood passed through the black market in 2018. To successfully grow the trees for decades, farmers must pay the cost to protect them.

In the city of Mysore, some trees are wrapped in barbed wire. On top of this threat, harvesting these trees isn’t simple. When a farmer has approval, a government official must come in person to uproot the entire tree. None of the tree should be wasted, particularly heartwood in the trunk and roots, since it holds the highest oil content. In the end, the tree’s total oil output isn’t much.

Why the government has regulations on Sandalwood?

There could be many reasons for this, Sandalwood is a water intensive crop. To produce a good quality sandalwood you need to provide enough water and sufficient nutrients in the initial stages to become a healthy tree in later stages.

To replenish some of its trees, the Karnataka state government created the Grow More Sandalwood program. But growing trees comes with the cost of protecting them for decades at a time, something that likely will still deter farmers. There are also the permissions growers need from the government, which slow down the process. It’s uncertain if programs like this can return India to its old production levels, but at a minimum the effort might help restore some of the country’s lost sandalwood supply.

A sandalwood tree takes 20 years to mature, so this is a very long investment crop but the returns of these crops are high. If done properly it can give very high yields.

People who included sandalwood as one of the major woods in making there houses often says that there houses used to have a unique kind of fragrance in their homes.

India from many many generations has been using sandalwood for various purposes. Sandalwood tree in India has now become endangered species in India.

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