The sight of them displayed in the intense heat of summer was bordering on the surreal and I recall wondering how they kept them from fading in the intense blare of the sun and from the instects that were sure to manifest their presence in the warm cocoon. My mother was diligent in keeping her furs under high-thread cotton wraps in closets scattered with bars of olive-oil soap (it keeps the moths at bay but imparts a delicate "clean" smell to them). The answer was a revelation: they were using small sachects of vetiver roots, apparently a very old custom. Caressing the soft pelts and inhaling the earthy/grassy nuance lingering was a sublime epiphany: here was a combination of smells I came upon for the first time!
Ever since I have been hankering for vetiver. Of course I had surely smelled it in perfumes unknowingly, as it is one of the most popular building blocks, reputedly used in the vast majority of fragrances for both sexes (whether listed or not); it is excellent in lending tenacity and rather economical to procure. But the discovery of the pure material was an adventure I wasn't planning on missing on.
The uses of vetiver in aromatherapy center on its calming, centering, relaxing effect, which has been exploited in India for thousands of years. Vetiver is known as "oil of tranquility", due to its psychological effect in eliminating anxiety and soothing insomnia and depression. A couple of drops of vetiver essential oil in your bath water will make you feel relieved of all burdens and totally relaxed. Ayurvedic medicine prescribed vetiver for heatstroke, fevers and headaches in times when more advanced techniques were sorely lacking. Somewhat less talked about is vetiver's stimulating effect to the immunity system, an advantage that is welcome even in our state-of-the-art technological times.
The essential oil is viscuous, dark brown in colour with a very potent, thick earthy smell -sometimes and, in some varieties, even acridly yeasty- that shouldn't however scare you. Diluting it heavily (a couple of drops in 30ml/1oz of Everclear/perfumer's alcohol) should give you a liquid that can be used liberally to mix with other essentials or aromatic oils for enjoyable escapades into fragrant exploration.
Acquaintances of Eastern and Morrocan lineage used to concot an aromatic red sherbet that was using vetiver as a lifting, cooling touch. I had also heard of the "vetiver water": Indians use a Kooja or Kujo, a clay pot with a narrow neck for storing water, much like the ones used by the ancient Greeks since glazed clay acts as a natural coolant and keeps the liquids fresh. Boiled water is poured into the kooja and a small bundle of vetiver root is added. The mixture is left to marinate for a few hours. Vetiver will thus impart a sweet smell and lightly citrusy taste like that of citronella to which it is related; it's an acquired taste but delicious once you become familiar with it. A similar epiphany must have befallen Celine Ellena, while tasting it at a friend's appartment in Paris, when she came up with the concept of her Sel de Vetiver for The Different Company.
The cooling effect of vetiver, apparent in fragrances too, is further used in scenting mats sprinkled with water to lend a light, refreshing ambience to houses, which acts as a welcome respite in the hot summer.
But the most divine use of them all has got to be the wonderful bed linens that are made with weaving vetiver threads into the fabric: cool, sweet-smelling sheets to caress your body in the warm days of summer, what could be more pamparingly decadent? Aida Duplessis of Mali has been working with West African cotton and vetiver (V.nigritana) to develop a whole line of linens. The company is Africatable (firstname.lastname@example.org, phone : 00 223 668 36 54).
I hope these personal reminiscences have inspired you to seek out vetiver and get familiar with its exceptional qualities. We will continue with more in depth focus on the actual material and the nuances of its varieties used in perfumery in the second part of the Vetiver Series...
Pic of Vetiver infused water courtesy of Enulagam blog. Pic of vetiver linen through Africatable.