“Sacred wood” steeped in mysticism, and coveted by shamen over the centuries for its ability to protect and purify through its aromatic, earthy, incense, and woody aromas — that’s how the Spanish niche brand, Carner Barcelona, describes the heart of its newest fragrance, Palo Santo. My experience, however, never once evoked images of spiritual shamen purifying the world through mystical, smoky woods. Instead, I was taken back to childhood with memories of sweet treats and hot milk.
Palo Santo is an eau de parfum that was created in part by Carner Barcelona’s founder and nose, Sara Carner. “Palo Santo” is another name for Guaiac Wood, which the company describes in the way mentioned above. It also adds a few more details on the fragrance and its notes:
“Warm caramel, sweet tonka bean and vetyver fuse with the intensity of Palo Santo creating a fragrance that calms the soul.”
Indian Davana [Artemisia or Wormwood], Rum Accord
Warm Milk, Paraguayan Guaiacum Wood, Venezuelan Tonka Bean
Moroccan Cedar Wood, Vetyver from Haiti, Dominican Republican Amyris
As a side note, Fragrantica adds sandalwood to the mix but omits mention of the cedar and amyris. It also calls one of the two top notes “Artemisia,” probably to avoid confusion with the Indian davana flower which smells quite different. For those who are unfamiliar with Artemisia, Fragrantica describes it as a “bitterish, herbal and strong smelling plant note known as wormwood which aromatizes absinth and vermouth.”
Palo Santo opens on my skin with a thick blanket of white sugar granules and clean white musk lying atop creamy, beige woods. Moments later, the mix is dunked in sweet, equally sugared milk that has been infused with vanilla, then sprinkled with a few cedar pencil shavings. The main wood note is generally indistinguishable except for tiny curlicues of smoke that puff up, often smelling like burnt autumnal leaves which is one of guaiac’s characteristics. The quiet smoke signals attempt to cut through Palo Santo’s intense sugariness, but rarely succeed. Almost the entire opening bouquet in the first few minutes is nothing more than sugared white musk, sugared vanilla, sugared milk, and sugar-coated white woods. There is no artemisia or vetiver. In fact, at no point in Palo Santo’s development is there any herbal, mossy, green, or bitter accents to offset the multiple forms of sweetness.
Palo Santo soon shifts to take on another core element. A small undercurrent of flour appears after 5 minutes, and grows stronger every moment thereafter. It’s a soft, occasionally wheat-like, foodie note that works really well with the warm, sweetened milk. The combination evokes childhood bedtime treats or breakfast ones, images of hot milk to help you sleep at night or sweetened Cream of Wheat in the morning. I’ve never tried L’Artisan‘s Bois de Farine, but I understand perfectly why two people on Fragrantica voted for it as a comparable scent. On my skin, it takes a mere 15 minutes for Palo Santo’s creamy, sugared flour note to become the sole focus of the scent trail from afar.
Up close, the layers reveal themselves and aren’t quite so pleasant. There is so much granulated sugar and white musk, it sets my teeth on edge. I have a low tolerance for sugariness in fragrances, so the quantity here is a struggle that only becomes harder as the various sugar (and musk) accords intensify further. 30 minutes into Palo Santo’s development, the back of my throat feels coated with a thick layer of sugar granules. At the same time, the clean musk feels shrill, pointed, and sharp.
The whole thing leaves me feeling torn. I really like flour notes in perfumery, and I think I must be a sucker for the childhood innocence themes conjured here because I enjoyed this one aspect of Palo Santo — so long as I never smell my arm up close and too carefully. That’s not an ideal trait for a $130/$195 fragrance, but there is such an appealing “cozy comfort” aspect to the notes wafting from a distance in the first hour. If only Palo Santo weren’t so ridiculously unbalanced and painfully cloying in its sugar, white musk, and Aquolina/Pink Sugar-style vanilla, it would be very pretty.
To some extent, a very small one, the guaiac’s curlicues of smoke grow stronger as the sugar and flour accords develop. Yet, for the most part, it manifests itself merely as a subtle smokiness on my skin, more like the autumnal bonfire of leaves that I mentioned earlier. It stands out like a jarring anomaly and sore thumb amidst the waves of sugared, slightly foodie flour dunked in warm, vanillic, sweetened milk.
Then, for a brief hour or so, Palo Santo shifts its focus slightly. At the start of the 2nd hour, the flour retreats to the sidelines and the fragrance turns slightly woodier. It’s now basically a simple bouquet of highly sugared white woods, smudged faintly by a few dabs of smoke, flour, and sugared vanilla, then enveloped in a cocoon of clean white musk and more white sugar.
When the 4th hour rolls around, the drydown begins. The flour returns from the sidelines, switching places with the guaiac and its smoke. The latter remain for a short while longer as faint whispers, but Palo Santo is back to being sweetened, milky flour and faceless, abstract, undefined beige woods slathered with vanilla sugar and sweet, sugared, clean musk. I keep thinking of childhood puddings (and even porridge), doused with sugar and accompanied by a glass of warm milk. To my relief, both the sweetness and musk feel fractionally softer, less screechingly unbalanced, but it’s a very relative thing. Still, it’s a cozy scent (when smelt from afar), even if it is still excessively sweet for my personal tastes and filled with too much white musk. On the other hand, do I really want to think of porridge or Cream of Wheat (Farina) when I wear a fragrance? Hm. I’m a little dubious about that, especially at $130/$195 a bottle.
Palo Santo doesn’t change much until its final hours. For the most part, its notes simply become blurrier and softer. By the middle of the 7th hour, the scent merely smells of sugary sweetness that is vaguely woody and clean. At the 8.5 hour mark, all that is left is sugared musk. In its final moments, Palo Santo is merely a smear of laundry cleanness. All in all, it lasted 10.25 hours with 2 very large smears equal to 2 sprays from a bottle. In the opening minutes, the projection was 3 inches and the scent trail about 5-6 inches. The projection hovered just above the skin after 3.5 hours, and the fragrance turned into a skin scent about 30 minutes later.
Palo Santo has no reviews on its Basenotes page at this time, and very few comments on its Fragrantica page. There, only two people write about what the scent actually smells like and neither one likes it, though for very different reasons:
- Milky, stodgy rice pudding. Thick, syrupy and cloying. [¶] A huge misfire from this house.
- Very creamy milky vetiver scent. Sweet, and still very woody and grassy from the vetiver. I hugely dislike the grassy scent that comes from vetiver, so this is a miss for me.
I honestly don’t know what to say about Palo Santo. It has some nice bits, I suppose, and people might enjoy it depending on their nostalgia for childhood treats or their love for gourmand, foodie twists on the woody genre. When I smelt the Carner Barcelona line in Italy, it was El Born which caught my attention and my interest, though that is a fragrance with other issues. (I will try to review that one later this week if I can.) Both scents are incredibly (and excessively) sweet on my skin, but Palo Santo suffered in comparison because it’s not bold, boozy, or rich.
Your reaction to Palo Santo will probably depend on what notes your skin brings out and your tolerance for sugariness. I suspect anyone who is anticipating a smoky, woody fragrance laced with vetiver and drizzled with rum and herbal artemisia might be quite disappointed if they get hot milk and flour pudding. On the other hand, Palo Santo might appeal to anyone who loved the rice pudding in Etat Libre‘s Fils de Dieu or sought a sweeter, non-citrusy, more vanillic version of it, not to mention those who like Bois de Farine. If you’re a vetiver lover, maybe you’ll be lucky and experience a large amount of it, since 20 people on Fragrantica voted for vetiver as Palo Santo’s main note, but you better like a lot of sweetness and milkiness to go along with it. (On Fragrantica, the milk came in second with 17 votes.)
Bottom line, Palo Santo is not for me, but you may want to try it for yourself if you like gourmand or foodie twists on woody scents.