Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Vetiver Series 5: the Straight, the Strange & the Sweet

There is just something about empyreal vetiver that makes it the perfect transitional olfactory module between an Indian summer of bright blouses and the more serious tweeds of truly autumnal weather. Vetiver's shades of green oscillate between the pale jade of cooler citrusy or milky-soapy variations of the note to the subterranean raw umber of earthy persuasions, through warm hazel with the golden flecks of sweet renditions. Sometimes this improvised colour schema is dictated by inherent personalities that emerge like leprechauns out of the flacon. Othertimes it has to do with my own sensibility when I am matching a fragrance to a current mood and letting it take me over the edge of perception.

The cooler end of the spectrum has the zestiness of hesperidic touches that end Cologne-like pick-me-up mode for days when the daze of summer holidays hasn't fully escaped my mind and the rush of the academic beginnings hasn't set in properly yet. The classic Vétiver by Guerlain is such an example, while I Profumi di Firenze Fresco di Vetiver with its bright yellow Sicilian lemons pushes the boundaries of freshness even more ~hard to picture it in cooler weather~ while still having vetiver sing its persistent basso continuo. On the other hand Vetiver by Floris although pleasantly grassy and citrusy lacks the distinction of more bracing compositions.

Some fragrances that bear the grassy root name on their fancy bottles bear little relation to the smell of either the dried roots or the potent essential oil rendered from them. You would expect from Le Labo, makers of Patcouli 24 that smells perversely of tarry leather, to compose a scent that bears no accuracy between label and juice: their Vetiver 46 is cool incense smoke with no root in sight! Patricia de Nicolai's Vetyver buttresses the root with jolting spice (black pepper, clove, coriander and cumin) and lemon tartness to assuage the earthiness in an scent that seems misleadingly labelled, interesting nonetheless. Creed's Original Vetiver opts for a lathery approach which comes and goes like whiffs of a foamy bubble-bath escaping through a closed bathroom door. Although the root is present, the alkaline smell of soap and the crispness of citrus that wafts nicely make this more office-appropriate than rolling on the forest floor after an improptu picnic a deux. When Lanvin decided to ressurect Vetyver L'Homme from oblivion (originally it launched in 1964) they engaged Francois Robert from Synarome who used 10 all-natural ingredients out of the alleged 14 to render an understated, slightly fruity variation that makes me wonder how the original might have smelled. As it is it's not corresponding to the expectations I formed reading the detailed descriptions of the Lanvin site. But if Lanvin's is meak and sterile, Annick Goutal's Vetiver is the other face of Ianus, the non-smiling one. Its iodine ambience with salty overtones puts it firmly into the territory of atypical and thus stimulating.

Direct vetiver fragrances emphasize the character of the root in a straight-arrow way, hitting bull's eye every singe time. The prototype Vétiver Extraordinaire by Frédéric Malle (composed by Dominique Ropion) contains possibly the highest levels of vetiver essences on the market today: it resembles verdant wet patches amidst cobblestones in a Medieval Italian town where students of medicine sharpened their pencils with knives. Route du Vétiver from Maître Parfumeur et Gantier bursts forth with the buoyancy of a surgical scalpel: it almost cauterizes the olfactory nerve with the raw sharpness of its Bourbon vetiver, upholded with a little blackcurrant, lots of patchouli and woody accents. The dark liquid that nests inside L'artisan Parfumeur Vetiver is pure; strong and earthy Bourbon vetiver joined by oakmoss and patchouli in an engaging conversation of earthy personae with the merest hint of hesperides. In the dimuniation of the citrus effect, Santa Maria Novella went one better with their own Vetiver: earthy, strong, especially for an Eau de Cologne concentration, with not a lemon rind in sight.

Smoke often compliments the green side of vetiver with an ineffable elegance. The classic Vetyver by Givenchy murmurs the way a well-bred gentleman of another era might. Sycomore by Chanel Les Exclusifs has a celestial beauty beneath its auspicious smoke rings. Etro Vetiver opens with a strong, earthy, true vetiver note that is dry and straight with a resemblance to the one by L'artisan minus the citrusy top and little clouds of smoke in the background. The very dark-coloured Vetiver from Lorenzo Villoresi bursts forth with less grace, unapologetically and emasculatedly strong, buoyed by bergamot while sandalwood and pepper lend an appealing backdrop that peters out in smoke.

Perhaps the most interesting addition to vetiver for me is spice with its hot-cold interplay which keeps me alert and bypasses the risks of being maudlin. Andy Tauer used both clean notes (such as a composite of lily of the valley aromatics and clary sage) and strong spices sashaying around his vetiver in Vetiver Dance, a composition that is destined to become beloved.

Sweet cadenzas with hints of gourmand delights flank some of the vetiver fragrances that can be shared by both sexes: From the slight sweetness of old-fashioned feminine Kus Kus by Bourbon French of New Orleans, which recalls the aldehydic powdery facet of Ma Griffe to the roasted French blend served with caramellised sticks of Black Vetyver Café by Jo Malone. Carlo Corinto Vetyver is darkish in hue, earthy and aromatic, but with the intrigue of licorice upon twisting the cap which makes it peculiar. Although it might seem like it has some of the sharpness of Route de Vetiver initially, it softens considerably thanks to sandalwood. My personal default gourmand vetiver is none other than the nutty, almost boozy Vetiver Tonka from the Hermessences composed by Jean Claude Ellena: its coumarinic sweetness well tempered by the grassy aroma, it's easy to wear in any weather, thus panseasonal and wafting a tasteful sillage as my arms brush against my clothes. And then there is the majestic anise and sweetly-buttery amber delicacy of Vetiver Oriental by Serge Lutens, an oriental at the edge of foresty that leaps into winter effortlessly.

Last but not least there are scents including a hefty dose of vetiver so magnificently evocative of places and situations that they defy a simple pigeon-holing; you're at a loss on how to begin to describe their arresting strangeness. Onda by Vero Profumo is such a fragrance that has the power to obliterate seasons and moods.

Pic of Alain Delon courtesy of Lilydebretagne/flickr. Pic of Asian forest courtesy of Trekearth.


  1. Phew.
    I feel like a seasoned and passionate guide has just led me through a bustling bazaar, and now I am able to gaze down from the rooftop and recognize certain stalls, calling up visual and tactile images of their wares.

    Vetiver is completely new territory to me, territory I initially thought I was not going to be interested in exploring. I had already changed my mind somewhat, thanks to some (repeated) initial sampling and your series. This article really piques my interest, though...thank you for being such a pleasant and knowledgeable enabler, er, guide.


  2. Guerlain's Vetiver will probably remain my favorite, I wish I had better luck with Andy's Vetiver Dance but the LOTV note completely dominated on my skin, recently though I was lucky enough to get a sample of Ayala Moriel's Vetiver Racinettes, which was a delightful earthy tonic.

  3. I have to admit that this vetiver series has given me pause to reconsider why my collections has such a huge gap...to be rectified immediately.

  4. I have been wearing the Guerlain Vetiver today- it's so classic but modern.

    I haven't tried all these but want to and I like the idea of testing one fragrance family at a time rather than confusing yourself with lots of different notes.

    So far I have to say the Sel de Vetiver is still my favourite, I am quite obsessed with getting a bit of this at the moment.

  5. Another great post in this series, E. I am shocked at all the tempting vetivers I've never tried. This post makes for a great "to sniff" list.

    I also found the Lanvin to be a disappointment. It opens in a very promising way--much less citrus-y than the Guerlain. Unfortunately, the Lanvin devolves into something very dull and, as you point out, fruity.

    Bourbon French, by the way, also does a single note "Vetivert" which is marketed to men. It's still in the powdery, sweet category, but it has more root-y character than Kus Kus. The other NOLA perfumer, Hove, has a vetiver that is extremely earthy and smoky--nice, but much too butch for me, at least in parfum.

  6. LOL, hope I haven't made you want to try every stall in the bazaar though! (great imagery btw!) Thank you for your trust :-)
    Vetiver has been a richly represented field recently: there seem to be hundreds of fragrances that are focused around it.

  7. J,

    the Guerlain is very wearable, I agree. Pity about the Tauer (I mostly get the spices on my skin, which is great by me), but glad you found VR: it's quite good!

  8. S,

    don't let me give you ideas, LOL: this is a huge field, like I said above.

  9. R,

    it's certainly educational to go through scents within a specific genre: I was more able to discern nuances when I was testing vetivers one after another.
    Sel de Vetiver should probably get its own review (as do as others): it's very good, isn't it? Limpid.

  10. M,

    thank you, hope the article is a bit useful.
    I bet those NOLA perfumeries have aces up their sleeves. That "much too butch" vetiver sounds like something!

  11. Anonymous11:30

    Oh Elena, what a list, i am with bittergrace here: busy eagerly taking notes formy snifflist. Thank you! Great as always!
    Which vetiver, if i may ask, do you personally like best?
    Greetings, lillie

  12. N,

    thank you for your most complimentary words. Hope I am not enabling, LOL!
    I think you should take notes of some, you'd probably like Vetiver Oriental or KusKus by Bourbon French (because it's rather chyprish and retro).

    I have been using Vetiver Tonka like mad this past summer (this should say something!) and am also quite smitten with the refreshing quality of Sel de Vetiver and the elegant smokiness of Sycomore. I also loved Tauer's (think I will get a bottle along the way).

  13. Excellent series. I entered into the dream-like Oscar Wilde conveys when Dorian Gray sifts through his collections.

    Very much enjoyed Andy Tauer's Vetiver Dance from your vetiver drawing. Thank you.

    Wanted to add Vetiver Hombre by Adolfo Dominguez: A very 'clean' green, summery vetiver and Creed's Bayrhum Vetiver which LiquidArt described as "what a well-dressed pirate would wear." Distinct bay rum. Definitely for winter with a tweed skirt and jacket.

  14. Thank you V!
    That DG collection was quite good from what I recall (musks, violets, all sort of things).
    And am I glad you got and enjoyed the VD! I am always a little worried when sending packages in case they might get lost or something but luckily they haven't.

    Thank you for the additions: I haven't tried these out. They seem antithetical to each other! (wow, what a well-dressed pirate would wear: anyone we know?)


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