Have you ever looked at a perfume’s description and, among the items listed you see the term ‘precious woods’? I remember a line from the Britcom Absolutely Fabulous that went, “I don’t know what it means, but it’s forcing me to believe it!” With perfume marketing terminology, that is usually the case. When reading the term ‘precious woods’ in a perfume’s description, one can quickly think of far away lands, luxury and mystery. Let’s face it, marketers for perfumes know what they’re doing. While there are many scents used in perfumery that are considered ‘Precious Woods,’ there is one thing they all have in common: in a perfume, they are all base notes, and wonderful fixatives. They are also part of the fabulous pefumery marketing spin. Many perfume ingredients fall under the category of ‘precious woods.’ Let’s look at a few of them.
First and foremost is Sandalwood (Santalum Album). Sandalwood is possibly among one of the most used and coveted perfumery materials, and a definite ‘precious’ wood. Until the 1990’s, a large majority of perfumes included Sandalwood in their formulas, and vintage perfumes pretty much depended on it.
And then, the bottom dropped…and the term ‘precious’ could not have been more aptly applied since.
Over-harvesting due to increasing demand and the fact that age of the trees is important when extracting the oil (sandalwood with high levels of fragrance oils requires Santalum trees to be a minimum of 15 years old), caused Sandalwood’s prices to skyrocket. Back in the 90’s, a half ounce bottle of Sandalwood could be bought for under $40. Today, that amount sells for close to $100 or more. And to this day, a replacement has not been found. However, perfumers have found alternatives in some aroma-chemicals like ebanol, javanol, brahmanol and sandalore as well as direct alternatives such as Sandalwood Givco 203. Also, I should mention Amyris Essential Oil, also known as West Indian Sandalwood, is often used as a Sandalwood extender. When you buy a perfume that claims to have Sandalwood in it, chances are it contains these other aroma-chemicals or oils instead, or other types of Sandalwood such as Australian. Ethical use of the oil, and the exorbitant price, has made many perfumers look elsewhere for the scent Sandalwood once provided. As such, other types of Sandalwood have come on the market, like Australian and New Caledonian Sandalwoods. But, as it goes with essential oils, where a plant or tree grows, as well as species, affects the scent. And so, New Caledonian, Australian and Mysore Sandalwoods are not identical in scent. Each has its virtues, but for perfumery, Mysore (or Indian) Sandalwood is still the preferred one and its contribution to a perfume is hard to replace. True Sandalwood’s use now is rare.
Cedarwood is also among the most commonly used of the ‘precious woods’ palette. Cedarwood has a tenacious, balsamic, sweet, woody odor. It enhances the lasting power of natural and synthetic fixatives and also intensifies their odor. Cedarwood oil is used in various types of fragrances, including eau de parfum and toilet water. It also finds application in cosmetic fragrances (lipstick, cream, powder, etc.) and in soap fragrances, as well as in various household product perfumes. Besides contributing lastingness and persistence, cedarwood is known to have a rounding effect on chypre, fougère, musk, rose, violet and other fragrance types. 
There are various types of Cedarwood Oils used in perfumery, which can be a bit daunting to a beginner. Among the various types we normally find used in perfumery, the most common are Atlas, Virginia, Texas and Himalayan. It is good to note that both Texas and Virginia Cedarwood oils used come from trees that are actually Junipers. Cedarwood derivatives are also widely used, such as cedryl acetate, cedrenol, cedrenyl acetate, cedrenyl formate and methyl cedrenyl ketone.
The finest Cedarwood essential oil comes from the Atlas Cedar (Cedrus Atlantica) and is very closely related botanically to the Himalayan Cedar (Cedrus deodora); these produce very similar, yet differently nuanced, essential oils.  Atlas Cedarwood is used for its fixative properties, as well as its scent, that of a lasting balsamic, woody odor. Personally, I find both Atlas and Himalayan oils indeed very similar in scent, with nuances that may not necessarily make a large difference for you, as a perfumer. If you were starting out, having Atlas Cedarwood oil and waiting on Himalayan would work.
Virginia Cedarwood (Juniperus Virginiana) is more closely related to what we think of when we think of cedar shavings or a cedarwood chest and, indeed, the wood from these trees is highly appreciated for the manufacture of cabinets and chests. I find, on a perfume scent strip, the odor of Virginia Cedarwood oil is at first oily-woody and almost sweet, mild and pleasant, somewhat balsamic and typical. But the odor becomes drier and more woody as the oil dries out. Virginia Cedarwood (Juniperus Virginiana) is definitely more closely related to what we think when we think of cedar shavings or a Cedarwood chest and, indeed, the wood from these trees is highly appreciated for the manufacture of cabinets and chests.
Texas Cedarwood if perhaps the smokier of these oils. While pleasant, sweet-woody, it is somewhat tar-like or cade-like, smoky in scent. On drying it becomes increasingly balsamic-sweet and it shows great tenacity with a uniform, sweet-woody dryout.
One does not usually think of Vetiver (Vetiveria Zizanoides) as a wood — it is actually a grass, the oil stemming from the roots — but it is considered one of the scents in the ‘precious woods’ category. Like Sandalwood, Vetiver is a major player in perfumery and, thankfully, not anywhere as expensive as Sandalwood. Vetiver on its own it truly lovely, somewhat woodsy, smoky, earthy and rich. For some, however, it is an acquired taste.
Various types of Vetiver are used in perfumery, and where the oil comes from affects the scent, sometimes considerably. Vetiver Oil is used extensively in perfumery not only as a fixative, but also as an odor contributor in bases such as fougère, chypre, modern woody-aldehydic or ambre-aldehydic bases, Oriental bases, moss and wood notes, opopanax bases, rose bases, etc.  A derivative of Vetiver oil commonly used in perfumery is Vetiveryl Acetate. This is a derivative I often use, as it lends the hint of Vetiver in a perfume, without the other stronger Vetiver nuances associated with it.
The more common types of Vetiver used in perfumery are Haiti, Bourbon, Indian and Indonesian. Haitian Vetiver has an aroma that is deep, heavy, slightly sweet and resinous, with pronounced woody, earthy, root-like notes and light smoky undertones. The Indian Vetiver has an initial clean, clear earthy aroma that becomes deeper as it dries with very light smoky notes. For me, it smells like the most ‘perfumey’ of all the Vetivers. Indonesian Vetiver, from the island of Java, has an earthy, green, fresh aroma with sweet, cedar-like nuances. Vetiver Bourbon has a smoky, woody, earthy, rich odor and is perhaps the nicest of all the Vetivers. However, Vetiver Oil is something you truly have to have before you to compare. The nuances are lovely, and not all Vetiver Oils will fit every perfume. The Vetiver oil you use will greatly affect your final formula.
Additional Precious Woods
Other scents considered in the ‘Precious Woods’ category are Patchouli, which I covered in another post, Tobacco, and aroma-chemicals such as Coniferan, Vertofix and Iso E Super. There are various Tobbaco Absolute oils on the market, with each having different nuances, so I will cover them in a later post.
Coniferan (from perfume house IFF) is an aroma-chemical often used as a ‘balsam.’ The scent is balsamic, somewhat sandalwood, woody odor, but also sweet and rich, as in Fir Balsam Absolute. It is often used in perfumery for pine fragrances and as a modifier for woody and powdery fragrance types.
Vertofix (also from IFF) is another quite commonly used ‘precious woods’ aroma-chemical. IFF describes it as “A warm precious wood aroma with musky undertones. Long lasting and diffusive. Woody, Cedar, Leather, Dry.” Because of its versatility, we can find this material in many fragrances. Sometimes Vertofix can be blended with Cedryl Acetate (see Cedarwood above) to add an ‘old wood‘ effect in a perfume.
Iso E Super is sometimes also considered a ‘precious wood’ aroma-chemical. It is one of those ‘woody,’ extremely versatile aroma-chemicals that has found its way into a large percentage of modern perfumes. It has become a very important ingredient in perfumery and deserves a blog post of its own, so I will cover this material at a later date, but wanted to include it here. It is generally used to impart fullness and subtle strength to a fragrance, adding a velvet nuances and body. Its scent is described as ‘smooth, woody warm amber.’
Precious Woods, like other perfumery terms that include ‘metallic notes,’ ‘Green Notes,’ and the like, is a commonly used term that, to a beginner, can sound daunting, yet very appealing. While sometimes the discovery of ‘precious woods’ in a perfume could be something anti-climactic sounding as Vertofix, it can also be something gorgeous like Sandalwood. Imagination does the rest….
-  Cedarwood and Derivatives in Perfume Compounds, Part II – Perfumer & Flavorist Vol. 27, July/August 2002, Pg. 44 – 47.
-  Rhind, Jennifer Peace. Essential Oils – A Handbook for Aromatherapy Practice, 2nded., 2012, pp. 239-40.
-  Perfume and Flavor: Materials of Natural Origin, Steffen Arctander, Pg. 467.