Voice of Reason

One of Gorilla’s fragrances is called the Voice of Reason, it was inspired by smoky beat bars that played raspy spoken word mixed jazz music until the early morning hours. With undertones of french cigarettes, strong coffee, and earthy sandalwoods, the fragrance is as unique as the music it sets to represent. The one track that encompassed the feeling of this scene was Gil Scott Heron’s I’m New Here. The lyrics are poetic. Give it a whirl.


“And I’m shedding plates like a snake
And it may be crazy but I’m
The closest thing I have
To a voice of reason”
-Gil Scott Heron


Gorilla Perfume at (s)Lushfest 2012

A small child plays in the mud with his wellies on, holding a special Gorilla Perfume comic book created for the occasion by Plastic Crimewave

Fun in the mud!

Lushfest (affectionately nicknamed “Slushfest” due to the rain, wind and mud) was, amongst many other fabulous things, the launchpad for several new perfumes from Gorilla Perfume.

It was held at the Holton Lee site in Dorset from Wednesday 4th of July through to Sunday the 8th. This was the second Lushfest, and this year it was open to a limited number of external visitors (mostly friends and family but also a handful of competition winners and other lucky people who managed to get tickets). The public days were Saturday and Sunday. Other than a music festival and a general celebration of all things Lush, this could also be one of the world’s first “perfume fesvivals” – there were simply so many perfume events to see. If perfumers have recently begun crawling out of the woodwork and representing themselves as artists, one could say that Mark and Simon Constantine went a step further and made the launch of their perfumes more of a rock n’ roll thing.

A beautiful, haunting dead tree at the site for the Set in Stone stone circle

The site for Set in Stone.

On Thursday evening, Simon and his team had set up a stone circle up on a little hill by the campsite. Each of the stones were scented with one of Simon’s new perfumes, inspired by local history and landmarks. This collection of new perfumes is known as “Set in Stone” and features:

Hellstone: Inspired by an ancient burial mound known as the Hellstone. As described in lore written in 1803, the Devil himself flung this stone in place. The smell evokes unearthed roots and freshly turned earth and is accomplished using resinous, rooty and spicy smells like vetiver, cumin and beeswax.

Lord of Goathorn: Inspired by a small, uninhabited peninsula off the coast of Poole – and the fisherman who lived there and had his boats commandeered by smugglers who would then leave him bounty. The smell evokes the sea using seaweed, lime and basil.

Burning Rosemary: Simon visited Stonehenge on his 30th birthday and witnessed druids burning rosemary as the sun came up. This is the fragrance he created inspired by the smell of burning rosemary in the air. He used rosemary and cade oil to achieve this effect.

Furze: Simon liked the idea of creating an English equivalent of the French “fougere”; a new accord inspired by a native plant. The prickly furze bush smells a little like vanilla and coconut, so Simon created an accord from those two scents and made a beautifully addictive perfume. It was an instant hit at Lushfest!

Flower’s Barrow: Also known as Pines Hill, this Iron Age fort is said to have been taken over by the Romans and it’s said to be haunted. The fort is now sinking into the sea and nettles and brambles have taken over. Simon created a scent using sage, thyme, geranium and blackcurrant.

Live music performance at Set in Stone launch

The live music performance at Set in Stone launch

The Devil’s Nightcap: Based on one of the most mysterious megaliths in the town-place of Studland, this fragrance of oakmoss, clary sage and ylang ylang captures the magic of the stone that folklore says the Devil threw across the sea in an attempt to hit Corfe Castle.

We heard a live set from Simon Richmond and John Metcalfe from the Imagined Village and heard a talk by Paul Devereux. The weather favoured us during the evening – it had been raining all day Wednesday, and by Thursday lunchtime we were getting a little worried, but then the sun came out and our only problem was insect bites. Luckily there were bunches of rosemary burnt on the hill and the smoke scared some of the mozzies away.

Lushies smelling the scented stones

The porous stones were a wonderful vehicle for these very natural-smelling fragrances.

Everyone was absolutely blown away by the beauty of the new scents and the imaginative presentation of them. Many of us returned to the site on the following days to have some time with the circle. The stones have been left standing there and perhaps a thousand years from now someone will be wondering what they might mean.

Meanwhile, at the festival proper, two Gorilla Perfume tents held two different showcases for Mark and Simon’s perfumes. In the black tent, you could pop in to see a re-creation of the London Shoreditch perfume gallery and experience all of the fragranced rooms and stories.

There were a few hiccups due the rather extreme weather conditions on Saturday – the power went out three times (which meant the lights, tills, music tracks and other things didn’t work) but the team of perfume staff carried on through regardless, unflappably singing the Tuca Tuca instead of playing it from a recording; and hand-writing sales down on a soggy piece of paper.

The black tent with the Shoreditch gallery

This was the tent with the recreation of the London gallery, Paul’s bar and a surprise perfume by the tills.

Paul Tvaroh from Lounge Bohemia was on site with his magical molecular mixology and offered visitors cocktails inspired by Mark’s Hairdresser’s Husband cologne. Meanwhile by the tills, there was a surprise perfume called HQ = “The smell of a Lush shop in a bottle”, made especially for Lushfest.

Over in the yellow tent, one could take a walk through a new showcase featuring:

The Voice of Reason: Inspired by the Beat Generation and literary figures like William Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Gil Scott Heron and Leonard Cohen. The scent feels like you’ve just walked past a bar where something exciting is
happening and you get a waft of cigarette smoke, booze, perfume, books… the perfume includes notes of sandalwood and tonka bean. It may rival our famously moving Dear John in its ability to cause strong emotional reactions.

The yellow perfume tent, featuring The Voice of Reason, The Bug and Sun

The yellow perfume tent, featuring The Voice of Reason, The Bug and Sun.

The Bug: Inspired by the paranoia of the modern age (and a track by the same name), this perfume was introduced by walking people through a dark corridor full of clips from cctv footage and glowing uv-lights. The perfume contains galbanum and black pepper.

Sun: An uplifting, fresh and beautiful perfume by Mark, inspired by his need of sunshine and good vibes during dark days. The Sun evokes Mark’s trips to USA during springtime and features orange, tangerine and sandalwood.

There was going to be a merry-go-round outside for people to experience Euphoria in, but it would have sunk to the mud, not to be found again until the same people who will discover our abandoned stone circle will dig the site for bizarre archaeological curiosities about a 1000 years from now, so that idea was scrapped.

Bottles of Euphoria perfume on the vintage bus

The vintage bus was filled with an eclectic mix of bottles.

Euphoria was available on the Gorilla Bus instead. It is based on aromatherapy research and includes materials known to cause feelings of euphoria, such as clary sage, grapefruit, lime and neroli.

On Sunday afternoon, we were treated to a live gig from Sheema Mukherjee. Her last track was called “Sikkim Girls” – which also happened to feature in her last year’s set and inspired Mark and Simon to invite her to the lab and create an appropriately seductive scent.

Sheema told us the story of how she was warned to stay away from these “dangerous girls” by a cafe owner in Darjeeling. Apparently, despite having their faces covered, the Sikkim Girls had managed to seduce and steal away his son-in-law. He said “it was all in the hips” and Mark wanted to create a fragrance based on this concept and Sheema’s song. The resulting tuberose and frangipani fragrance is extremely beautiful, and, according to Sheema, the authentic smell of a Darjeeling flower market.

Dizraeli running with a molotov cocktail towards three blue cars on a field

“Wait, was that Dizraeli?”

Possibly the most unusual showpiece was the launch of two new incense products. Mark and Si appeared on stage after Dizraeli’s set and talked to us about the London riots and the Jasmine Revolution – and how they were personally affected by both of these and wanted to encourage people to burn incense, not cars. During this speech, Dizraeli was seen running towards us and to a group of cars on the field next to the stage. He threw a molotov cocktail at the cars and blew up the cars! The crowd hadn’t expected this and there was a general air of W…T…F-just-happened in the air.

The Gorilla perfume bus

The Gorilla perfume bus.

Everyone’s favourite perfume place to hang out was the retro bus, painted by Plastic Crimewave and styled inside by our design team gurus to look like the back cover of an old Jane’s Addiction album. An assortment of different bottles decorated with labels designed by Plastic Crimewave housed all of the new perfumes for people to buy.

There were long queues because the bus could only take a couple of people in at a time, but people didn’t mind waiting (the bus was inside the Village Hall tent and there was always some good music on).

All in all, it was a magical event – and to think that the perfume showcases only represented one part of the festival with many, MANY other exciting things going on – you almost have to wonder how it was even possible to pull it off! Hats off to everyone who made this happen and participated in any way. You’re all amazing.

There are lots of videos of Lushfest on our official Lush YouTube channel and we’ve got a metric tonne of photos of all these perfumes and events on our Facebook page.

Perhaps we’ll see the Gorilla bus in other locations soon?


The Gorilla Perfumers are up to something…

Gorilla comic book cover

Not King Kong.

The Gorilla Perfumers have been busy in the lab again and new perfumes are around the corner. There is much more afoot, however, and the upcoming Lushfest will be a really unique showcase for some amazing new creativity. Head on to our Facebook page for your chance to win tickets or keep an eye on there and this blog for photos, updates and reports from the festival.

All will be revealed soon…

Lushfest is happening on the 7th and 8th of July in Dorset, UK.

Seoul Music

(Aka Pia’s Korean Travel Journal)

National stereotypes are generally quite cringe-inducing. Sometimes they can be convenient ways of describing a common feature present in a particular ethnic group or country. I’m a Finn, so, to explain to my new Korean friends why some Finnish men are crazy enough to risk dying in sauna competitions (which are basically an even more neanderthalesque-version of hot dog eating competitions), I’d say “Finnish men are very stubborn. They find it’s a badge of honour to be the last bloke in the sauna, even if it means you risk being cooked to death.” Clearly not all Finnish men are stubborn; at least not by Finnish standards. And clearly not all Finns treat sauna as a competitive sport. But it’s fair to say that the aforementioned behaviour doesn’t surprise me one bit.

Lush staff at the Lush Land and concert, Seoul

Lush staff at the Lush Land and concert, Seoul

So, with this in mind, I hope you will excuse me while I say that it seems that all Koreans love singing and dancing. The nation seems almost obsessed by music and though the majority of music I experienced on my trip to the Lush Land and concert, held in Seoul this April, was typical pop, there were some surprises in the mix. And I was completely blown away by the talent of ordinary retail staff members who, during the event, burst into song and dance (as you do) to the delight of the over 4000 visitors that came to Lush Land over the two days.

Getting ready for press

From left to right: Joy, Pia, Dragon (getting ready for TV and press interviews).

I was just about to take a much-needed two week holiday when our Press Office called to ask if I would like to attend the launch of Gorilla Perfume in Korea. It would have been nice to travel with Mark and Simon but both of them were away at the time. I may have even taken my holiday instead of going on a work trip. However, it was lovely to be asked to represent the perfumery team this way. It was also a new kind of challenge – this time I would be interviewed and grilled for more details by everyone, instead of being the invisible support person behind the scenes. I immediately bought a new dress.

The Korean team did send us a Power Point presentation of what they were intending to do but I don’t think any of us in UK fully appreciated the magnitude of the event from the slides – and actually – I don’t think even the Koreans really knew what they were getting themselves into until the project developed critical mass and rolled off like an unstoppable juggernaut. By the time I arrived in Seoul, there were two days to go and everyone looked a little gray and waxy; nevertheless in good spirits and very hard at work. I can’t imagine how many long shifts and cups of coffee went into putting together what was essentially a small festival, open to the general public.

Bubble demo at Lush Land

Bubble demo at Lush Land

The event was called Lush Land and designed to showcase the best bits of the company. It was staged at a popular concert hall, outside of which stalls were erected and all kinds of other activities also took place (from lively bubble bar demos with an actual bath tub to slightly creepy rock-paper-scissors-type game a man in a gorilla mask was encouraging visitors to participate in. They got free drinks as a reward so I suppose that went some way towards easing the trauma).

Mock Carnaby Street arch

Mock Carnaby Street arch

The exterior space was inspired by Carnaby Street. It sounds a bit corny but actually, in situ, the Carnaby-Street-style arch and clever printed backdrops gave the concrete courtyard a kind of kitsch charm, though I’m not sure how English it was exactly. Except on the second day when it poured down with rain and all the stalls had to be brought indoors. That’s when it felt English.

There were food and drink stalls, serving imported Wedgwood tea (of which I drank many cups, having been brainwashed during my 20 years in England to crave the stuff), beer, vegan food and fruit. The Lush pop-up stalls with Fresh Face Masks and other handmade cosmetics blended in effortlessly and at times I wondered whether any non-Lushies were there, trying to figure out which stall to queue for if they were feeling a bit peckish.

People queuing to get in to Lush Land

People queuing to get in to Lush Land

Both days started with a general market-feel with people milling around outside. There was a concert on both nights. On the first day, there were very long queues of people hoping to guarantee a good spot for the evening’s performance. I was told that this was because Big Bang, a Korean boy band, would be there and that they are insanely popular in Asia. So much so that there were people from neighbouring countries who’d flown over just to see them and camped outside the venue overnight.

Jungle in the Breath of God room

Jungle in the Breath of God room

The Gorilla Perfume gallery was set inside the concert hall and was open throughout the event. Hundreds of people were led through the maze of scented rooms. I’ve participated in all of the other gallery launches and was pleased to see how well the experience had been translated here. The local design team members recreated the gallery very well and Jungle*, the charismatic guy responsible for Korean training, spent the evening before the event with me and the gallery room staff, polishing up their performance. I can’t stress enough how important it has been to the whole gallery set-up to have excellent staff who make the whole thing just click in place. Although I don’t speak Korean (apart from the four or five words I learned from my iPhone app on the way there), I could tell how well the roles of each perfume were played by the curators chosen. The Breath of God room was a special Korean addition to the gallery; it turned out to be a good decision as the fragrance became one of the best-sellers at the pop-up shop. I did wonder how much the decision to include a Breath of God room might have been due to its Buddhist connotations and the fact that it

Lanterns at a Buddhist temple, Seoul

Lanterns at a Buddhist temple, Seoul

happened to be Buddha’s birthday month (widely celebrated with multicoloured lanterns and special Baby Buddha altars across Seoul).

The biggest surprise for me was probably the first few minutes of the opening night’s concert, when the curtain rose to… a full philharmonic orchestra! I was told that getting them to perform at a popular music venue rather than a concert hall had been a long (but clearly eventually fruitful), booze-fuelled task. By the second night, the drummer had got the hang of it and really went for a big drum solo, to the tune of hundreds of screaming and clapping visitors. I doubt he has people wolf-whistling and squealing at him very often.

The mix of music over the two nights could perhaps be best described as a kind of cross between Jools Holland’s Annual Hootenanny and X Factor. Korean music taste seems to lean towards the highly produced and glossy but there were a couple of performers that stood out. As an example of the glossy, none seemed more loved than Lee Sora, who the locals call Milky Skin. Her sentimental ballads sound lovely even when you don’t understand the lyrics, but apparently the lyrics are the main reason why her music is so well-liked.

My absolute favourite from the whole experience was a new Indie group called Jang-gi-ha and The Faces. Their performance was superb; starting with a quiet piece and building the audience to a hysteric froth over several songs until everyone was clapping and waving and jumping to the tune of the last song. Again, I wish I could understand the lyrics, but their music is very catchy and I really enjoyed it.

What's going on?

What's going on?

When the two-day event came to a close, there was a final treat in store for everyone: a mass Tuca Tuca dancemob in the lobby! I don’t know whether it was planned or whether the whole team just decided to jump in and do it (I suspect the former), but whichever the case, it felt spontaneous and emotional. As guests left the building, they stopped to look and take photos.

It’s always such a pleasure when a work-event feels like something you would have enjoyed even if you weren’t in any way affiliated and that’s exactly how I felt at Lush Land in Seoul. I also really fell in love with our team there and hope they do well and that I get to visit them again some day.

If you would like to see lots more photos of the whole trip, head over to our Facebook page to have a look!

*Lush Korea uses nicknames inspired by the names of Lush products in all internal communications. I actually have no idea what Jungle’s real name is. Not that it matters. Jungle suits him perfectly well. He’s exotic and colourful!

Breath of God

I hope you’re all getting stuck into the brand new Gorilla Perfume range. It’s been a few months since we launched and we’ve been busy.

The successful London gallery made its debut New York appearance last month with yours truly answering questions, and even guide a few choice perfumistas around. It was great fun and every bit as successful as our grand Shoreditch entrance in July. Next up, Mr. Big will be opening the Tokyo gallery as we launch Gorilla perfume in Japan this Christmas.

Meanwhile, to keep all you loyal British fans happy, we are pleased to announce my wonderful five-star (yes, five-star!) fragrance, Breath of God, is now available in store. It’s returning by popular demand under the Gorilla banner after we lost it when ‘B’ closed its doors. For those who haven’t heard of it before, I first developed the idea of Breath of God when reading up on pheromones. I discovered that many attractive scents actually contain pheromones similar to our own. For example, the composition of incense materials are actually similar to that of human breath. So, when incense is burning in a church, temple or wherever else, it’s like a sweet, ethereal breath flowing through the congregation. I found this fascinating and on my subsequent travels through China and Tibet, I was inspired by the heavy use of incense. From yak butter candles and sandalwood incense in the temples to the juniper branches burned on the hillsides.

When I returned from travelling, I began making two fragrances. One was rich in wood-smoke, heavy with amber and sandalwood inside the temples. The other fresh, clean like the air whistling across the nomadic grasslands. When both of these fragrances were finished, I realized that the first was heavily masculine, woody and resinous; the other took crisp cucumber notes mixed with neroli and bergamot and was altogether more feminine. I decided to chance mixing the two to see if they blended and the result was Breath of God, a balance of masculine and feminine.

A short while after it was released, Breath of God received a wonderful review in Perfumes: The Guide of which I was very proud hence the 5 stars!

I hope you all enjoy,

Simon C – One half of the Gorilla perfumers

The Godfather of sandalwood

Simon ConstantineAs well as being nominated as the Gorilla Perfumer by his brother Jack, Simon Constantine also heads the Creative Buying team at Lush. His work takes him all over the world and some of these research and buying trips can be a little bit off the beaten track.

Simon often travels with Agnes, our essential oils buyer and an industry expert.

We’ll be publishing a series of Simon’s travel journals here.

Dowload this sandalwood story in .pdf format.

Long known to Lush is the debacle of Indian sandalwood oil. We have always bought large quantities of the oil to use in our fragrances both for its great odour and its properties on the skin. However, over the years, stories started to reach us of illegal activities surrounding the collection, production and selling of Sandalwood and its oil. As we began to discover more about these and as its price on the open market began to soar, we realised that we could not ignore this any longer.

Already, we have researched and begun to buy New Caledonian Sandalwood as a substitute to the Indian oil. The New Caledonian had a slightly poorer odour quality, but was a viable substitute until we were able to purchase Indian quality again. Then, in the summer of last year, we discovered a great project growing sandalwood sustainably in Western Australia and signed up to buy this when it reaches the market in a few years time. A positive move, but there remained a niggling feeling that, at some point in our buying history, we had bought sandalwood from India. What was the real story behind the fables and legends that surround it? We decided to find out for good.

SOUTH INDIASandalwood is one of the most important natural materials in Indian culture, deeply embedded in religious festivals and in Ayurvedic remedies for sexually transmitted diseases, amongst other benefits. In fact, I had heard tales of a ritual where the oil of sandalwood was rubbed on an effigy of a large penis, so these may be related somewhat, I couldn’t say. Anyway, today in India, sandalwood covets a highly desirable material to own and, with its value ever-increasing as stocks begin to dwindle locally, it’s said to be an excellent investment, like gold or property, it never goes down. The primary growing regions of sandalwood trees, the species known as Santalum album, are the forests of South India in the regions of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andrha Pradesh and some from Maharastha. These regions have always had sandalwood trees, which only grow parasitically, latching onto the roots of several different plants as they grow. Usually, a tree in the wild will need around thirty to forty years for it to develop the valuable ‘heartwood’ in the centre of the trunk, and it’s here where the valuable oil is and it’s this oil that Lush buys and uses.

To find out more about the current situation of sandalwood processing and supply, it’s best to look back a few decades to understand better the problems associated with it. During the late 1980s in the region of Karnataka, a modern day Robin Hood emerged from the forests in the area, a young man sporting a large handlebar moustache and a penchant for poaching, smuggling, kidnap and murder. Veerappan, born into a lower caste society in a small village called Gopinatham, soon realised he was destined for greater things than the lowly existence of subsistence farming. As a young boy, he illegally felled bamboo and smuggled it to local craftsmen. As he matured, he found work poaching elephants for their ivory where he inherited a lust for power that gunfire gave him.

Gradually, Veerappan established himself as a ruthless leader and began to realise the value of the natural resource, which surrounded him in abundance: sandalwood.

It was a lucrative commodity that grew wild in the local forests and enabled him to grow a substantial organisation hidden in the forests away from prying eyes. The small villages in the area became great recruitment grounds for his operation and soon blazing and bloody battles raged between the local authorities and Veerappan men as they fought for sandalwood, elephant ivory and small arms smuggling. During his reign, Veerappan was known to have killed numerous high standing members of government and police force, embarrassing and violently murdering those who promised to capture him. Methods implemented by both sides were unorthodox, the police hatching plans to poison his food at a banquet and planning numerous booby traps, while Veerappan brazenly attacked police stations and kidnapped a well-known Bollywood star, marching him 400km through the wilderness. He established an almost mythical status in which stories abound of his escapes from jails and dangerous situations, using his cunning and guile.

Sleeping rough most of his life, his camps would move regularly to avoid capture and he was said to have poached $2,600,000 of ivory and smuggled 10,000 tonnes of sandalwood during his time. Whatever the truths of his situation, the net finally closed in on him in 2004 when a special task force despatched to capture him fell on his camp and caught him and two of his associates. Interestingly, he was killed while in captivity and so, too, was his widow, who was captured some time later. The reason behind this was never clear, but it was suspected that for him to have operated for so long from the forests of South India, he would have had to handed out some backhanders to leading officials and may have had held undesirable secrets.

It is with some trepidation then that Agnes and I are waiting in the cool restaurant of our hotel in Bangalore, the capital city of Karnataka state, and the city in which Veerappan famously escaped police custody by allegedly slipping his cuffs and disappearing from a window. As we sit waiting to be told to come down to meet the men who can sell us sandalwood, we see a large gentleman sat motionless in the arm chair in the lobby. He’s wearing a grey collarless shirt and heavy sunglasses and Agnes steals a sneaky photograph of him as we began to wonder if this was such a good idea.

Determined to find out the state of the sandalwood industry four years after Veerappan’s demise, we nervously descend the stairs to informally chat with our potential suppliers. In the cool shade, Agnes and I shake the hand of the man we had spied from the balcony of the restaurant; accompanied by his son, we are introduced to both of them. The father sits solidly with a large frame and two keen, beady eyes weighing us up, a waiter begins to pour him a coffee, he waves his hands after about a quarter inch has been poured and then tops the rest of the cup up with milk and sugar. Uncomfortably, we begin to ask general questions about the sandalwood and the state of the industry.

Soon, our efforts are split as Agnes attracts the attention of the father, whose wheezing voice is hard to understand as he regales his stories. Meanwhile, I talk to his son, a large guy in his thirties, as he cautiously answers my questions, pausing occasionally to listen to his father’s words before continuing our conversation. There is a veritable gabble as they both chatter away hoping to sell us some quantity of oil today. Excited at first they are keen to help and later when we compare notes, Agnes and I see large disparities in what the two were telling us. However, we were able to establish a few basics that seemed to tally up.

Sandalwood production is banned in the state of Karnataka; however, the cultivation of the wood apparently isn’t. This means that wood can be cut in the forest, but then is sent to factories, which surround the state’s borders where the oil can be processed. To buy the wood, there are official auctions in which the wood gathered is then sold to the highest bidder; it is this that all Indian sandalwood should come from. However, our suppliers also tell us of other licenses that can be obtained, which enable a manufacturer to legitimately process wood that is logged and sent direct to the factory.

‘Do you have one of these licences?’ We ask.
‘Yes,’ they reply together, then the son turns to me to detract from the question. ‘Can we see it?’ I ask him anyway.
‘Oh, no. It’s very private; if we showed you, it would make other people angry.’ Uneasy grins and nervous chuckles circulate the table on both sides. In truth, the auctions are unpopular, they drive the price high and the successful bidders are those that bribe the officials the most. They also only sell the whole tree and the processors are only after the heartwood, a milky coloured fragrant centre of the trunk. Therefore, they are buying a large percentage of useless wood. The wood can be ground for use in the incense market and Taiwan was the largest importer of this until it banned imports recently creating problems in this market, too.

Onto the next problem, the Indian government has banned any export of sandalwood or its oil outside of India. Now, the primary consumer of the oil is the local chewing tobacco industry, small packets of tobacco, which are banned in some states, as they are hugely carcinogenic. How do we receive Indian oil then? ‘Oh, it is not a problem. We have a Dubai company, you can buy from that and we send you the oil, no problem.’ No problem then. The fact is, the oil is readily available to the open market, it is just smuggled out of Indian territory, then sold onto predominantly Middle Eastern customers or a few multi national US flavour and fragrance companies. This practise remains from the days of Veerappan, where large quantities of oil were supposedly sealed with the official seal, the agmark. When I was working in the perfumery six years ago, we used to receive these tins. Looking back now, we must have had some counterfeit agmarked sandalwood. In fact, I remember one canister that had been sealed in the UK using the supplier’s own seal turned back to front, so we couldn’t read it.

Intrigued by the US company they mentioned, we asked how much they use. It turns out to be around 50 tonnes of Indian oil, a huge amount considering the price has escalated to around £1,000 per litre of oil now. To understand how much sandal-wood this equates to, around one tonne of wood will yield 50kg of oil, which means this particular company is using around 100 tonnes of wood a year. On current market value, this is around £50 million; with these values, it’s easy to see why it quickly attracts unsavoury characters. Operating in poor areas under partially corrupt local government provides the perfect breeding ground for illegal and lucrative industries such as this. The national government have set a ban on export, but in the past, there was an upper quota on exports of 10 tonnes. The 50 tonnes being sent to the US alone breaks this. We ask what other sources are available outside India.
‘Well we have operations in Africa where we have set up factories in Tanzania,’ the son tells me.

Agnes gleans from the father that they pertain to have two factories in Tanzania that produce 1 tonne and two tonnes of oil a month respectively. It is doubtful that they themselves own the plants, but the fact that operations are established in other countries using Indian methodology doesn’t sound like the best plan to us. Operations outside India can only mean one thing: resource is running short inside India. The pressure on the market has driven the price up and forced processors into new markets. The information we received about these issues was convoluted to say the least, but we were able to make out that Tanzanian wood itself was not legal for export, however the oil may be. Through other contacts we had already heard about the Tanzanian facilities; they had been set up over the last six years by three competing operations. Two successfully bribed local officials to export the wood and oil, while one was not so lucky. He sent container loads of wood back to his processing plant back in India where his competitors quickly reported him to the authorities and he lost the entire consignment. This threw dark light over two containers of sandalwood we had been offered shortly before leaving by an unknown Kenyan company.

This new source of wood produces lower quality oil, which can’t be resold easily as the Indian variety. Quality control is also an issue to be aware of. Adulteration has become so rife in the sandalwood business that it has forced many businesses to turn their back entirely on using it. Many perfume houses, unable to stomach the price and quality issues, no longer use natural oil, opting instead for synthetic reproductions with little of the true value of sandalwood.

The fact that the predominant market for the wood is the local trade of tobacco flavours, and the little means of quality control could mean there is opportunity to adulterate the Indian oil with Tanzanian, which is around half the price. This would produce reasonable oil with increased profit. In fact, the production figures that we were quoted for this new opportunity said that around 30 tonnes of oil was being ‘imported’ from Tanzania. The reliability of these figures is disputable, but still, large quantities of oil are produced and the market place seems none the wiser.

As we finish up our meeting, we touch on smuggling and illegal operations, which these guys may have heard of, obviously not taking part in such underhand methods themselves! In fact they had heard of a few illegal factories running, one in Silvasa, near Mumbai and two in Goa. We thanked them for this information, shook hands again and decided to take a trip to Goa to see one of these factories for ourselves.


As we board the small aircraft for the short flight to Goa, both myself and Agnes are a little nervous. The flight is 45 minutes from Mumbai airport and we watch the ambitious crew try to serve breakfast and collect it before we land. My spicy omelette is whipped away from under my nose minutes before we descend to the sought after holiday destination. Most people arriving are holidaymakers, here to enjoy the sun and numerous beaches. We on the other hand are not so lucky; we have a meeting with an illegal sandalwood processor. The humidity hits us, it must be around 80 -90% and beads of sweat begin to trickle down my back. Waiting out the front of the airport is a sleek, brilliant-white Mercedes. Two guys, one heavy set and both sporting thick moustaches, greet us. We are put in the back of the Mercedes with a driver dressed in equally brilliant-white uniform, crisply pressed collarless shirt and trousers with one clean line running down each leg. We settle into the air-conditioned luxury while we drive silently inland for about 45 minutes.

We reach the factory, which is set away from the main road and has a non-descript appearance. The car pulls away and leaves us to enter the yellow building, its modest exterior hiding its dubious contents. Once inside, the smell of incense is strong; the room next to the reception has several sticks burning away, the smoke fills the room as we sit and we are offered drinks. We ask to see the factory and the operation they are running here and are ushered into the main body of the factory. Our guides are pleasant in their description of how things work here. Comfortably talking about how they process the wood, they point to huge piles of Sandalwood heartwood stacked up as high as the tall ceiling and even allow us to take photos. They also point to the pile of Tanzanian wood; wood we had been informed could not be exported legally from Tanzania, again a huge stack.

They talk us through the process of distillation of the oil. Basically, the wood is chopped into very small chips by hand and we watch two men cutting the wood with small axes. Then, the wood is ground to a powder, so it will release the oil much quicker when it is blasted with steam during the distillation. We see the oil slowly collecting in a thick scum on the top of the water in front of the distillation vessels. The oil is skimmed from the top with a ladle, much the same as cream from milk. The precious oil is then poured into containers and sold to customers. The factory was all very straightforward: they had a small lab that tested the quality of the oil and they presented several samples of fractions and by-products of sandalwood that we could use. However, the most intriguing part of the trip was simply the location of the factory. Apart from hearing that at least two illegal factories operated out of Goa, there was one other factor. Goa was a seaside town, imports and exports from the local port were easy and the controls here were said to be much more lax than in neighbouring states. The fact they had large quantities of Tanzanian wood meant they had easily imported the wood here and it followed that exporting the oil to Dubai, for instance, may not be too difficult from here either.

We sat with the factory operators where we tried to ask a few questions about the origin of the Indian wood. There was a strange tension in the air, they seemed unable to understand the questions we asked, but when our Indian guide asked the same question, in English, they seemed to be able to answer. We wondered how they received the wood, as they said it came from areas inland.
‘Do you know where exactly the wood has come from?’
‘No.’ A very blunt answer. They just received the wood and processed it.
‘How long has the factory been here?’
‘Five years.’ Feeling the pressure building, one of the guys pulled his iPhone from his pocket, a quick conversation followed between him and his boss before the phone was passed to our Indian guide.
‘Hmm, yes… Ok…. Yes, it’s been very interesting, thanks.’ Was about all I could pick out from the conversation before it descended into Hindi.

He hung up the phone, and we all sat opposite each other. I was asked if there were any more questions that we would like to ask, I thought about going for the jugular: ‘So this wood you have here has been legally logged has it?’ or ‘So how much do you pay at the docks to send the oil to Dubai?’

However, it did spring to mind that we had been driven here and had no real way of leaving if they took offence. Instead, we all sat shifting awkwardly in our seats, sipping flat coke and nervously shovelling biscuits into our mouths to make up for our short-lived breakfast. We all began to feel like it was time to leave. The two men sat opposite us, both playing with pens and paperclips, fidgeting until we eventually made our excuses. Thankfully, we were offered the car home and, as we left, I took some photos of the factory.
‘If I disappear, at least my camera will leave some trace of where I went!’ I thought. It was obvious that the only person who was going to offer us any further information would be the boss himself.

The Godfather

Several days later, we wait in the bar of our hotel. A young girl from the Philippines sings badly in the corner to the backing track of her keyboard, transforming the Beatles and Rolling Stones into soulless mediocrity for the pleasure of a few uninterested business men dotted around the place. Agnes, our guide and I sit around chatting excitedly about the events of the week so far. The atmosphere is good and we are laughing and joking, feeling safe in the security of the bar after the awkward situations so far. We are expecting the boss of the company we visited in Goa to arrive any minute. He promised to be there at 11:30 and it’s already 12, so we start to get a little more anxious. Eventually, our guide gets a phone call and he disappears to meet him in the lobby. Soon, he is back with two men: one a quiet accountant in a sweater, and a small statured man with slightly bulging eyes which throw furtive glances at all of us as he gently shakes our hands. He was dressed in a well-cut suit and as he sat in the chair he had an air of authority and odd menace about him. He handed his card round with a flattering photo of himself, giving him a soft glow and warm radiance, which he really didn’t possess.

We settled in and ordered drinks while treading carefully around what we really wanted to talk about. Finally broaching the subject of where the sandalwood in his factory actually came from we ask, ‘Is the wood bought at auction?’
‘Well, all sandalwood should be bought at auction… but I buy mine on the grey market.’ Quite what the grey market was we couldn’t be sure, it seemed pretty black or white to be honest, either the government had sold them the wood or they had illegally collected it, bypassing the process completely.
‘Oh, ok, and so you are not allowed to export from India then?’
‘No, but we can sell through our Dubai company’ he answered, rolling his head from side to side in a non-committal gesture.
‘So you must have a license for all this then?’
‘Oh, yes, it’s not a problem,’ he replied.
‘And we are able to see this license?’
‘No, it’s a trade secret.’ He said bluntly and sipped his drink menacingly, something I hadn’t seen done before.

Gradually we scraped away the layers and began to piece together the size of his operation. Unlike the previous conversations we had had, his answers seemed true and unabashed.
‘So how much oil is produced each month in India?’
‘Around 7- 8 tonnes’
‘Right, and how much do you produce?’
‘Around 5.’
‘Ok, so you must be the largest processor of oil in India then?’
‘Yes, I used to produce 10 tonnes, but since my stroke, I have reduced my business.’ In fact, now I could see the slight droop of his right cheek and lip; the cheek, which bore an ominous scar.
‘And what about these large US companies, do they still buy Indian oil?’
‘Well, they used to buy around 30-35 tonnes, but now they are moving to Indonesian, as the price is better’
‘Ok, so the Indian wood has had a reputation in the past, is it sustainable now?’
‘Well, I don’t plant any new ones, it takes too long. I will be dead when it’s ready. I don’t like the reputation of sandalwood; I tell people I am an essential oils seller, not Sandalwood, as they have perceptions of this.’

As the conversation continues, we get on to the increase in price.
‘Well, sandalwood is like property. It’s an investment. It never goes down.’
‘Well, if more sandalwood goes to the market, then the price would go down wouldn’t it?’ We ask.
‘No…’ He slurps at a bitter lemon juice before he continues. ‘I control the price. If it goes down, I hold back on supply, the price goes up.’
Legal or not, this guy effectively runs the sandalwood market place and has done since his father set the business up in the 1960s. It’s now that we realise the true extent of his reach. He is set to tour the world looking at other potential processing set ups, Tanzania, Indonesia, New Caledonia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Australia; no leaf is to be left unturned. If there are no problems with availability of Indian sandalwood, he’s certainly acting like there is. We joke with him ‘Veerappan must have been a nuisance for you when he was alive, though?’
‘Yes, he got us attention, bad attention’
‘But you must have been buying some wood, indirectly of course, from his logging?’ ‘No.’

We didn’t push it any further. There is no front to this man; he wasn’t interested in playing games or unnecessary attention, just in supplying sandalwood whatever the cost. He has been approached by multi-nationals companies before and been shot of them when they have argued with him, confident in his position on the market. Who knows the method he employs to collect and process the wood, but it’s clear that he wields great power on the sandalwood scene and is responsible, in part at least, for the depletion of sandalwood in India.

The meeting finishes, he shakes our hand softly and gives us all a friendly, albeit lopsided, smile goodbye. As he slips quietly out into the manic, Delhi traffic we all take seats and breathe a big sigh of relief.
‘Phew… he was the big guy,’ our guide says. ‘The Godfather of sandalwood!’