Vetiver (Vetiveria zizanioides) is one of perfumery’s most ambrosial and unique raw materials. Valued for its natural fixative properties in olfactory compositions but most of all for its alluring and seductive scent that can range from smoked grasses, China caravan tea and monsoon rain gardens to sweet stripped willow, aged leather, freshly turned earth, gardening gloves, candied lemon peel, marijuana and cinnamon spiced apples.
Like rose, it is a note I have grown into. I never appreciated its charms when I was younger, I think I avoided it as I imagined it to be overtly masculine and too verdant for my skin. So, like the sound of the cello, the soprano voice and a love of sequestered silence, I have come to appreciate a more robust presence of vetiver in fragrances. Like it’s citric counterpart, neroli, vetiver is used in a large amount of perfumes, nearly 40% of the world’s compositions. Due to its high solubility in alcohol, it works very well with a number of fragrance styles. Its versatility allows it to be used in fizzing head notes, glowing hearts, all the way down to the solidifying comfort and stability of base notes.
The well-known fixative properties of vetiver ease out the drydown and subtleties of countless niche and high street formulae. However, as a soliradix, it was until fairly recently rarely served well. The reference point has always been Vetiver by Guerlain launched in 1961 (1959) and again in 2000 in a new (and uglier) bottle. I used to wear it from time to time, but I never really liked the zippy freshness of it. There was always a nagging sensation I was wearing something too old for my years. It just smelt awkward and wrong. Even now when I sniff it, it has a scent of dated rather bland rooms and hairstyles just out of time. It smells reformulated too, the dryness and warmth has been sucked out of it and there has been too much citrus pumped into the top notes.
It therefore fell to niche perfumery to start shining a light on the radiant rooty glories of vetiver. With a reported 500 mods and his legendary nose for the esoteric and the sublime, Dominique Ropion unleashed a path-clearing new example of how to project a purity of note and still maintain a stability of crystalline beauty as it radiates off the skin. Ropion’s Vetiver Extraordinare for Editions Frédérick Malle contains a whopping 24/25% vetiver oil making it one of the most expensive scents to produce. It smells so rarified and special it simply expands to fill the air around you. Ropion’s trademark use of very high quality raw ingredients serves him well, allowing the vetiver to shimmer like sweet green fire across the other notes like myrrh, nutmeg, bigarade, cedar and sandalwood and slowly consume them to the point of exhaustion. It feels new somehow, cleansing and vital. Quite a portrait.
Céline Ellena’s Sel de Vétiver for The Different Company is a salty, sedge-whipped take on the note, whispering in a melancholy Breton night. It is oddly floral at times, then bitter and twisted, the vetiver note lost like a cry in the wind. I like any attempt at salinity in scent, and this grassy saltiness is near perfection, I just have to be in the right frame of mind to wear it.
The perfume that really turned me onto vetiver was L’Encre Noire, created by Nathalie Lorson for Lalique, a heft of peaty, smoky denseness. For me it feels like a scented reflection of black Indian ink dripping softly onto parchment and spreading out like the darkest, most beautiful blood. I had seen it around for ages and never really wanted to try it and then one damp cold evening wandering around Terminal 5 at Heathrow waiting for a delayed flight I picked up a bottle in the reduced section at Duty Free. The bottle is a heavyweight weapon in the hand, now sitting on my shelf like an ancient inkwell. Lalique has been working with crystal for over a century so a beautiful flacon should be de rigeur mind you. L’Encre Noire is a tricky scent to decipher; it is much thicker than many other vetiver fragrances on the market, a vision of smoke and dense, woven roots. I wore it for ages and it took me a while to realise the distinct absence of light. It is all darkness, like a night sky without stars.
Then in 2010, L’Artisan Parfumeur launched a very unusual and sweetly aromatic twist on vetiver that I fell in love with. Created by Karine Vinchon who had authored the shimmering organic Eau de Jatamansi for the French brand. Cœur de Vétiver Sacré was described as a journey to the heart of the vetiver. Apparently Vinchon wanted to explore the masculine and feminine sides of the vetiver by working with high quality Haitian vetiver (masculine) and the more esoteric cœur de vetiver essence (feminine). There is deconstruction at play here, an attempt to echo the very nature of the vetiver note: the smoke, the spice and the more elusive glittering sweetness. The haunting indefinable quality of vetiver is cleverly masked amid Vinchon’s weaving of olfactory textures and effects. The more I have lived with it and worn it the more I have learned to admire and love the dry, sweet and shaded complications it weaves around me.
It is a complicated fragrance, with multitudinous layers and seems to willfully defy decryption as if allowing us in would spoil the secret of its compulsive charms. Vetiver has many facets: smoky, sweet, green, earthy and lemony. Vinchon touches on these aspects with admirable finesse, casting a light on each one, like candles highlighting faces in a darkened room. There are lovely hints of black tea, incense and osmanthus wrapped around the vetiver like a halo. The verdancy of bergamot and tarragon are striking additions to a mix of grasses and heavy woods. The base is rich in vanilla, birch tar and castoreum. Ordinarily these might be cloying, but Vinchon’s lightness of touch is that of a patisserie chef, delicate and assured. Birch tar is a stunning note, adding a rich burnt leather facet that reeks of dead trees and the Siberian trappers who render the stuff down and smear it on themselves and their animals as insect repellant in the summer.
The notes that bind me to this delicious incarnation of vetiver though are the dried fruit accords. Bertrand Duchaufour used candied dates in his dauntingly beautiful Al Oudh to add stickiness, a moment of gourmand contemplation amid the sweaty miasma of spices, woods and animalic urgency. Vinchon plays a similar olfactory card here with dates again and a dried apricot note. I love the smell of apricots; their leathered succulence compliments the osmanthus and the weird coconut rice aspect you sometimes get off saffron. The texture and lift that the fruit notes lend to Cœur de Vétiver Sacré are key. It is magical and thoughtful fragrance making.
What I find interesting with vetiver is the distinct lack of smell associations for it. There is a general consensus it smells rooty, earthy and green, but beyond that we generally struggle to pin down its actual variety of olfactory guises. Roses, lavender, lilies, citrus, sandalwood, vanilla etc., these elements have anticipated notions of how they will smell, we have odour memories of them somewhere inside our brains. The trick of course for perfumers is to re-invent these odours, surprise us with an aspect or facet we had only imagined existed. Or sometimes just simply to remind us how beautiful the pure note can be. I was quite taken aback years ago smelling real perfumery grade patchouli oil for the first time. In my brain I searched and measured it against the memories or imaginings I had of patchouli and simply failed. It was like re-learning to smell again. The shockingly pungent shrubby green oil that rose from the bottle smelt like minted cocoa and bore very little resemblance to the patchouli of my memory. It changed my perception of Pogostemon cablin forever.
Vetiver was similar. I had a vague idea of what I thought it smelt like and each time I added another quality vetiver-based scent to my limbic palette, I realised the enormous complexity of this raw material. Geographic factors play a part too, vetiver from Réunion (Bourbon Vétiver) is considered the finest, but the crops from Java, India (where it is known as Khus), Indonesia and especially Haiti all have different qualities and aromas. The highest quality oil is extracted from roots that have been matured like game for 18-24 months. Steam distillation is used and the oil produced is allowed to mature further, the deeper rounder facets of the oil appearing as the vetiver ages.
The Haitian vetiver in Cœur de Vétiver Sacré has a tart dry lemon aspect that emerges as the scent settles. It plays well with the ginger and orange and sets the scene well for the lusher smokier elements that follow on. I have learned slowly to love this strange note, not as a supporting player where it certainly has a role, but as a principal character, fully formed, multi-facetted and ultimately keeping just a little back for each performance. It’s a similar journey I took with iris/orris and white lilies, sampling, breathing, wearing and loving. So even though I have a much clearer emotional set of associations in my head, I hope I can still be surprised by incarnations of vetiver to come.
It’s been very wet and cold here in the Athens of the North recently and I have been wrapped up in this wonderful fragrance again. Its grassy sweet inhalations are superb doused on scarves and skin. The cashmere I wound on this morning smelt incredible, of crumbled soil and yoghurt-coated apricots. Sadly, L’Artisan Parfumeur have decided to discontinue it (along with Bertrand Duchaufour’s glorious Vanille Absolument, Fleur de Liane and Verte Violette). The official line that it doesn’t sell and is very expensive to make (the default excuse these days for discontinuing anything..)is easily countered with: Make less of the more expensive perfumes then when they sell out, aficionados will wait for new batches of their favourites.* Its all about exclusivity and specialty. Niche has this advantage over mainstream and high street fragrance. I like wearing something different, many of us do, we search out the obscure so we smell leftfield. If I had to wait for bottles of my beloved Vanille to arrive back in stock then I would, at least I would know I would be wearing it again. Now for the second time in three years I will have to look for something to define my skin. I have of course stocked up on the delicious boozy Vanille…
I don’t wear Cœur de Vétiver Sacré everyday; it is part of my wardrobe of perfume I choose from depending on my mood, clothing, season etc. Right now it’s a scent for cold and unpredictable squally days. It stabilises me. I’m mixing it with Voleur des Roses from L’Artisan or Velvet Rose & Oud from Jo Malone, both of which have sweet earthy rose notes that marry well with the smoky fruits and grasses of Cœur. But I would like to know I could still get it. Of all the vetiver fragrances I have tried, it is the one that loves my skin the most. I will mourn its passing.
For now I will savour what I have left of my Cœur de Vétiver Sacré and the bottle I have put aside in my cellar. I have realised over the years there is little point in making a scented fuss as the decisions have already been signed off and implemented. But I wanted to write this post to celebrate the understated and enveloping beauty of one of the most elegant and interesting portraits of vetiver I have worn. RIP, Cœur de Vétiver Sacré.
*Since finishing this piece, I have heard that L’Artisan intend to do just this, create small batches of some of their fragrances to keep connoisseurs content and scented in their favourites.
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