Monday, August 18, 2008

Vetiver Series: 3.the Historical References ~Carven, Givenchy, Guerlain

Vetiver seriously entered the consciousness of the West at some point in the 19th century, along with its brotherly Indian counterpart patchouli (brought to England in 1850), as exotic plants that smell good and keep precious silk cloths free of insects (nevertheless, vetiver iteself is not immune to the occasional beetle and to termites, in arid regions). Their noli me tangere soft message to moths and other pests made them valuable and prized and their exotic ancenstry the topic of romantic daydreaming about the edges of the Empire on Which the Sun Never Sets.
More importantly, vetiver was purposefully collected and transplanted as a potential agricultural commodity. Like so many other species, vetiver probably formed part of the colonial economic plant exchanges and, somewhere, the records probably still exist. Though these plant exchanges began in earnest around 1500, and continued an ancient tradition, two "hard" dates stand out: 1809 and 1843. In 1809, the first chemical analysis of vetiver oil was done in France on extracts from roots imported from the Indian Ocean island of Réunion, where vetiver is not native. Second, since 1843 a vetiver perfume called Kus Kus has been produced continuously in New Orleans, Louisiana, which in 1803 was purchased from the perfume-loving French by the recently independent United States, where perfumery was then considered elitist and undemocratic. Vetiver occurs in all the old French colonies, and it most likely arrived in Louisiana when it too was French ... vetiver is still most-popular there among people of French descent. The important point is that by 1843, at the very latest, vetiver was in Louisiana at the extreme terminus of global trade routes, up a river as far from home as on earth vetiver could be.
Unlike sugarcane and citrus and other Asiatic plants, Spanish scholars of the Islamic Moors have found no evidence of vetiver arriving in Europe from the Moghul Empire or earlier via greater Arabia and North Africa (and thence to the New World following the Conquistadors and their multitude of plant introductions). In fact, the one place on earth in which vetiver seems historically scarce to non-existent is the fragrance-loving Middle East and North Africa. By one hundred years ago, vetiver seems to have been fairly uniformly distributed, although perhaps thinly, across the tropics, occurring in most if not all countries. It is possible that the ‘Sunshine’ genotype was then reselected in the World War II period as a "strategic material" for perfumes, which is why we now find it almost everywhere[1]

However the story of vetiver-focused fragrances coincides with the modernisation of fragrance wearing and the artificial segregation of feminine and masculine fragrances after WWI. With its fresh, earthy and sometimes woody aroma, vetiver soon became a signal of masculinity. Although the 20s and 30s were les années folles when any bender of societal mores was seen as adventurous, daring and to be tentatively embraced if one could (enter the androgynes), the more conservative times that followed WWII and the advent of the New Look prescribed clear-cut roles: women impecably turned out, talons painted and not a hair out of place, but with a roast ready in the oven and smiling, well-behaved kids in the nursery; men suave in their conservative suits and modest ties, men about business with attache at hand, clean-shaven and well-trimmed on the nape of their fedora-adorned head, a Technicolor vision in 3D.
Those were the 50s!
It might very well be that those women were secretly lamenting their crushed dreams and the hole of fulfilment in their personal lives like a vignette from Pleasantville or a Douglas Sherk melodrama; those men might just be travelling salesmen or con-men, even Cold War agents, clad in their anonymous dark suits, in the pursuit of atomic-bomb data gathering. Never mind; their perceived image will be forever be impecably put-together, down to the last detail, combed and buffed and shining like a new Cadillac in pastel colours smirking at you from across the street.

It was at that precise moment in time when classic vetiver fragrances encapsulated all the desirable qualities of this solid, dependable manhood, minus any really sinister touch but not without their own shade of doubt like one encounters upon viewing something that is suspect of being too good to be true. In a way vetiver-focusing fragrances were a natural progression from classic Eaux de Cologne in that they smelled good, made you feel fresh and were a seal of respectability in most millieux, but not without their own little twist deep down.
Vétiver by Creed was a pre-cursor, coming out in 1948. The three most classical and stellar however had always been the ones under the names of Carven, Givenchy and Guerlain.

One of the first soliradix vetivers was Vetiver by Carven, issued in 1957. Its fresh character bode well with a generation that was optimistic after the vagaries of war, especially in view of the scandalous technological advances and eager to present a fresh outlook on life.
I didn't have the good fortune to smell the original, as it was so far back before my time and although I had a grandmother who wore Carven's Ma Griffe faithfully, my grandfather was loyal to fine fragrances by other houses (notably Givenchy's Gentleman in later years). Therefore it would be difficult to imagine the depth and clarity of the vintage composition going by only the rather pale and limp-wristed version that is circulating now -although pleasantly fresh, it doesn't ring a bell as one of the three greatest classic Vetivers.

Notes for Carven Vetiver:
lemon, lavender, jasmine, vetiver.

Hubert de Givenchy issued his own take on the refreshing earthiness of vetiver two years later, in 1959. A masculine so chic and so straight-foward to the nature of the material itself that it became his own personal favourite and a beacon in the world of perfumery. Luca Turin in his NZZ Folio column ("Grass Roots") had stated a propos:
"Experts agree that the best classical vetiver of all time was Givenchy’s, which never sold well but was kept in production because Hubert de Givenchy wore it. When he passed away, so did the fragrance. Next best was a tie between the strikingly fresh and carefree Carven and the excellent, darker and richer Guerlain. Then came the Lanvin, a bit more cologne-like, and all sorts of no-holds-barred vetivers from niche firms".
He swiftly corrected the mistake in his Perfumes, the Guide, though, while talking about the re-issued fragrance: Hubert de Givenchy hasn't passed away just yet, thank heavens, but he retired from his house in 1995, sadly marking Vétyver's discontinuation. According to Hubert's nephew, although the fragrance was greatly respected among connoiseurs, it was a slow seller and was only kept in production for the sake of his uncle.
Luckily, after 12 years, the re-issue of Givenchy Vétyver in the line Les Parfums Mythiques (relaunched classics in new uniform packaging) is reputedly excellent as it always has been; cause for rejoice among the many perfumephiles who cherish the precious tradition as well as the seal of approval communicated by Turin!
The classic, an understated, well-blended, both classic and classy fragrance starts with citrusy, cooling vetiver quickly segueing to a dusty, smokey rooty aroma, due to its use of three different varieties of the roots. It remains soft, discreet, understatedly luxurious and patrician always, mirroring its patron Hubert de Givenchy ~a man who when interviewed by Harper's Bazzar upon his retirement had exorcised vulgar modern practices with this sad -and very truthful- eulogy:
"Sure, it is head-turning,but one could not step out of the house like that. It's a false image. Balenciaga always told me, 'Hubert, the most important thing when dressing your clients is to be honest.' He was a man with total integrity. We made dresses that women could wear. Today we make dresses to sell handbags, shoes, accessories. When you go down the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, you see only store windows filled with sacks and shoes. What does that mean? I'll tell you what it means: There is no fashion."
Notes for Givenchy Vétyver:
Top: bergamot and vetiver
Middle: coriander and vetiver
Base: sandalwood and vetiver.
Givenchy Vétyver retails at $65 for a 100ml/2.4oz bottle.
You can read a detailed review of the re-issue on Pere de Pierre.

And then, just when the 50s were slowly exhaling and with Jean Paul Guerlain freshly on the reins of the historical house, Guerlain came up with their own version, Vétiver, which was to become the classic of the classics. It sold so forcibly well, that women everywhere were usurping it from the husbands' and boyfriends' dressers to don it on their own soft curves. But more on that shortly on a seperate review!

Pic of Russell Crowe in film Rough Magic. Pic of Givenchy Vetyver bottle and box courtesy of Fragrantica.
[1]source: the Vetiver Network


  1. Poor HG...the rumors of his demise were greatly exaggerated...

    It's always heartening to hear of a respected "vintage" scent being faithfully produced again, even if for a short time.

    Staying tuned to this series with great interest!

  2. Anonymous13:48

    Your blog is very much good. I am very much impressed by your blog content, i also come across number of sites for the perfumes for the cheap colognes and discount perfumes, you can also check these are also very much useful for everyone.

  3. Scentscelf,

    indeed, on both accounts. Poor Hubert, it sounded as though retiring equals death (which is such a depressing thought!).
    Thanks for the interest in the series; I am enjoying myself a lot, so hopefully my readers will too!

  4. Steily,

    thanks for the kind words, but advertising is not something we go about in that way here. Hope you understand :-)

  5. Sometimes I forget how much I enjoy vetiver and then I have some wonderful encounters. You know I don't usually find Russell Crow attractive, but that photo you find he is quite charming in. I'll have to go find Givenchy re-issued vetiver along with Hermes Vetiver Tonka (I'm intrigued by a gourmand vetiver), Le Baiser du dragon is vetiver and iris on me which I realized I really don't like together.

    -Helg remember that layering I've told you about that I love Guerlain's Vetiver with Molinard's Mure, well someone beat me to it in bottling it, MPG's L'eau du Gantier.

    -Tried Magnifique this weekend and I know stuff is going to be thrown at me, but I think it is better than Sensous. For quite a few hours I had the incredible experience of smoky javanese vetiver and nagarmotha entwined together. But I have come to the conclusion that as far as mainstream perfume houses go I think I am rather a lancome girl.

    -Got to take a vetiver (javanese) bath too. As I put the vetiver in the hot water I was amazed by a chocolate not that came out, then the smokiness, and finally just a hint of lemongrass. Will have to do again.

  6. Anonymous23:07

    Dear Helg,

    I'm glad there's another serie :) keep up the great work.

    Just wanting to add a quick point: is the newphew Turin was referring to James de Givenchy? James is now a NY-based high-end jewelry designer now. I think his brand, Taffin, is one of the most exciting brands these would make a lot of sense if Turin talked to James.

    Anyhow, talk to you in a bit.


  7. Anonymous23:09

    Wow, just realized it's Coco Chanel birthday today! Chanel No. 19 has its share of vetiver in the formula, no?

  8. Fun read, Helg. Thanks.

  9. Jen,

    thank you for a most interesting comment!

    I will have to try L'eau de gantier then! (or is it re-try? Oops, I don't recall!).

    To be perfectly honest, I don't expect Sensuous to be groundbreaking either; this genre is nice, but a bit boring (to me) after all the fuss they make about how it's like "a river of woods", the wardrobe and cedar chest coming alive and singing a seductive a capella tune, etc etc. :-)

    Thrilled you liked the vetiver bath!! (that was my first ever use of pure vetiver) Indeed there is a dark chocolate edge to it, isn't there? Mmmm...

  10. Dear A,

    nice to see you!

    Yup, James Taffin was the one. I recall seeing his diamond pieces at an auction at Sotheby's; must have been a couple of years ago?

    And yes, CC's birthday... I love the EDT in No.19 exactly because it highlights vetiver allied to iris so much. (parfum is even richer in iris!)

  11. You're very welcome D!!

  12. Anonymous10:30

    (Couldn't resist googling James Tuffing, and what stunningsly beautiful pieces he makes! I love the bright colours and appealing shapes.)
    Didn't know why I like no. 19 so much. Now I understand that vetiver may have something to do with it, in comb with iris..
    Is lemon grass and vetiver close in scent? have some bath products containing lemon grass, and they smell deliciously!

  13. Good on you dear S!

    Lemongrass is sharper and with a more "cutting" edge to it; vetiver is earthier (quite musty in some essential oils), but still "fresh" and not sharp. They're close in horticultural terms!

  14. I enjoy the recent incarnation of Carven Vetiver and find it quite enjoyable although one has to spray a lot of it to get any sillage.

    It has a pleasant citrus opening and a floral middle with a soft but rooty vetiver base. Great for summer or if you just enjoy the comforting nature of vetiver.

  15. Thanks for stopping by Cologne Lover! Perhaps I need to give this another try: after testing several stronger, more full-bodied vetivers it has seemed a little too ethereal. Thanks for the suggestion!


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