Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Vetting Vetivers


If you don’t count New Orleans or Mexico, I haven’t spent much time in the Tropics, but my family did. My mother grew up there, in Panama Canal Zone. She’d tell me about the way it would rain, as a sort of watery silk that would drench you momentarily, but once it was over the tropical breeze would dry you so quickly you’d never know you’d been wet. (That’s my great-grandfather, looking like a Graham Greene character in his white linen suit, taken in 1916 on some veranda in Panama.)
I had never heard of the tropical vetiver root until I began to explore perfume. The idea that fascinated me most was that window blinds and floor mats could be woven out of this tangled rooty mass, and, when dampened, would release an earthy, cooling scent. I love the earthiness of vetiver root. It’s cheap and plentiful, so still appears in fragrance as a natural ingredient, which is heartening nowadays. I wonder if you can get vetiver floor mats now. Anybody know? In the meantime, I’ve gone through my ever-expanding samples collection, looking for vetivers to, er, vet. Here are a few, some new and some not.
Vetiver Extract: I have this as part of an aromachemicals kit I bought a couple of years ago. It doesn’t list the type of vetiver used, but my guess is Haitian. I found it to be useful in comparing the various vetiver-based scents I tried. This scent on its own opens sweetish and a little nutty, with an “umami” (meaty) mid -- a surprise -- and a slightly sour drydown. It’s earthy, rooty and green.
Guerlain Vetiver: How could I skip this one, and why would I want to? My decant is about two and a half years old, so may be an older formula than what’s available now. A couple of months ago, I saw several big bottles of this at TJ Maxx, which can signal a reformulation. I wish I’d bought one now!
This is the reference vetiver for men, proper anywhere. Lots of citrus notes on top make it smell clean, freshly bathed and shaved. It seems much more British than French, somehow. It’s beautifully cooling, rooty but never dirty, and approaches floral but never quite gets there. Guerlain makes a vetiver for women -- Vetiver Pour Elle -- which adds jasmine and other florals, but the original couldn’t be more perfect in a hot humid climate, which makes it perfectly unisex, too. Perfumer: Jean-Paul Guerlain.
Christian Dior La Couturier Vetiver: One of the newish “La Collection” Diors. A slight, transparent thing. Reticent, especially when compared to other vetiver scents, but that might be a plus for some. I’d call it Vetiver Lite, and it doesn’t last long on me. It’s pleasant, true to the root in its way, slightly sweeter on drydown -- supposedly due to a robusta coffee note --  but I can’t think of a really good reason for its existence other than having a vetiver in the “La Collection” line. Perfumer: Francois Demachy.
Tom Ford Grey Vetiver: Another one you can wear to your job at the bank. Easily the most “masculine” of these. Bracing, with lots of alcohol up front, and lots of grapefruit. It reminds me (a little) of Chanel’s “Sycomore” but without that one’s grapefruit-on-fire cojones. That being said, it’s a very pleasant, slightly smoky manly vetiver, and apparently was a big hit for Ford. Other “notes” include sage, nutmeg, pimiento, “amber woods” and oakmoss, which may be why it lasts well. A great Father’s Day present. Concocted by a group at Firmenich.
Bourbon French Kus-Kus:  I included this one because khus-khus is one of the names for vetiver. This is a very old fragrance, from the Bourbon French perfumery in New Orleans. That city’s history of heavy trade with the Caribbean makes it likely that a Haitian vetiver was originally used. What I smell in my sample is heliotrope, with only a slight edge of vetiver, but lots -- and lots -- of powder, which eventually retreats somewhat. The company doesn’t name the perfumer, but it was likely to have been August Dussan, the founder.
Tauer Perfumes Vetiver Dance: This is beautifully blended, and the vetiver is just part of the mix. It came out with great perfume-community fanfare a couple of years ago. Tauer’s reputation for using the best ingredients is confirmed here, as I can actually smell the clary sage, cistus and ambergris that give this scent its body-but-better drydown. It has held up well. Perfumer: Andy Tauer.
Le Labo Vetiver 46: This one is smoky and meaty and, although I’ve read elsewhere that it doesn’t smell much like vetiver, it sure does to me! The opening is cool and a little bit minty to my nose, although the “notes” don’t mention mint. The do mention clove and cedar, bergamot and black pepper, frankincense, gaiac wood and amber. It’s a chewy, woody, take-no prisoners vetiver, and my favorite of the newer vetivers I’ve tried. Perfumer: Mark Buxton.
There are so many vetivers I haven’t tried. I’d love to explore some from the natural perfumers (note to self: place order) and, of course, Frederick Malle’s. I’ll get around to it. It’s warm and stormy out. The treetops are swirling, just a little. Time to batten down.


Do you wear vetiver fragrances? Do you have a favorite one and, if so, what is it? 
"Robusta" coffee is common but full-bodied, made from lower-grade beans. Supermarket coffee, like Maxwell House, is generally made from robusta beans. 

The photo is of Elwyn Greene, my great-grandfather, who went to Panama in 1912 to work on the Canal. 

Disclosure: the samples and decants are from my collection, bought or received as gifts or in swaps.

26 comments:

Isa said...

I own a FB of Diptyque Vetyverio, and I love vetiver fragrances. Parfums de Rosine has a rose + vetiver which is gorgeous on my skin (Écume de Rose) and I love Encre Noir too.

olenska said...

Wonderful overview of one of my favorite scent elements! I love Breath of God, and also pure Vetiver essence from Attar Bazaar, which smells to me like an autumn bonfire condensed into a tiny bottle. (You really hit the nail on the head with the observation that full-strength vetiver is "umami". SO true-- salty, meaty, high-calorie, almost a form of nourishment in itself. :)

Rappleyea said...

As an aromatherapist, I've used vetiver e.o. for years - there is nothing more relaxing in a bath than a couple of drops of vetiver mixed with a couple of drops each of chamomile and lavender in about 1 T. of vegetable oil.
I love the smell of pure vetiver so much that I've been a little disappointed in most of the vetiver perfumes I've tried. A drop or two of a good e.o. is a perfume all by itself!
WIth that said, I do have a very old bottle of Guerlain Vetiver cologne as well as their Vetiver Pour Elle. I also have a decant of Manoumalia, which has a pretty strong vetiver base.
Thank you for reminding me that I still need to try Tauer's vetiver though!
Great post!
Donna

Olfacta said...

Hi Isa -- Really? Ecume de Rose is a rose vetiver? (Makes must-try note) Thanks!

Olfacta said...

Hi Olenska -- The pure vetiver I have is a low-octane tincture, so it doesn't last long on skin. I'm going to have to get some EO from one of the botanicals companies...

Olfacta said...

Hi Rappleyea -- I didn't know you were an aromatherapist, interesting! I can send you a partial decant of the Tauer if you'd like to try it.

Rappleyea said...

Oh boy, would I!!! Thank you so much. My email is rappleyea11 at yahoo dot com.

Morag said...

Hi there - I have just discovered your blog and love it, having recently got really interested in fragrances ...
I wear 'Black Vetiver Cafe' by Jo Malone (I am British) and love it. She also has a 'Vetiver' scent and others of hers have it in too - I think it is one of her favourites.
http://www.jomalone.co.uk/cms/product/supercat/fragrances.tmpl
:)
Morag

Olfacta said...

HI Morag -- Thanks and welcome!

Angela Cox said...

I love Carven's Vetiver ( wooden top only). I havn't tried many but had some essential oil that was very like grass on fire a little too smoky. I mean to try others and then my budget sees something else !

Vanessa said...

Love the photo of your great grandfather! Have been digging around in our family archives and it is a lot of fun.

Vetiverwise, I also like the new Vetyverio but in general I think I prefer vetiver when it is playing second fiddle rather than as the main turn. I like the way it is used in Puredistance 1, for instance.

Joseph the Butler said...

I too just found this blog, by hitting 'next blog'! And I love it. Love this story about your family in Panama--rain as silk is a great image.

My favorite vetiver is from Comme des Garcons--Vertiveruu--lush, luscious, lusty. I found the large bottle in NYC when it first came out for a song, and snapped it up. Just wish i had bought the whole series at the time. I think it's been discontinued.

Barbara/Perfumaniac said...

Speaking of New Orleans — I love Hové's Vetiver. It's wild an wonderful...

The Left Coast Nose said...

My fav vetiver scent (while not a huge vetiver fan, but I'm coming around slowly) is The Different Company's Sel y Vetiver. The salt and grapefruit elements double down on the desiccant qualities of the vetiver-- it's crisp and bracing-- one of the best beach scents I know. (It's super quiet to begin with, and then doesn't last more than an hour on me, sadly...)

On the other end of the scale, and if you need your vetiver natural, do not bother. But Montale's Red Vetiver is a huge kick in the pants. I don't know if I'd wear this stuff. It smells somewhat like the very best car freshener ever. I do mean that in a good way, but I understand that that's a loaded statement. If you've spent any time at all playing in Mad Mr. Montale's sandbox, you'll know what I'm talking about.

Morag reminded me of one of the scents I've been thinking about tracking down for some time now: the JM Black Vetiver Cafe. Sounds tricky, but if it were right, I could imagine it being very, very right.

Great post, as e-vah. Hope you're doing swell, O.

Olfacta said...

Hi Angela -- I've also found that some vetivers are super-smoky. It's an interesting concept, but I'm not sure I want to go around smelling like a brushfire!

Olfacta said...

Hi Vanessa -- I agree. The day after I wrote this post I stopped by TJ Maxx again, and they had the Guerlain Vetiver, 125 mls for $29.99 (isn't it always funny, the .99?) and I bought it -- the last bottle. I expect to be trailing clouds of it this summer. I love the citrus notes in it.

Lately I've been recognizing vetiver as a background note in lots of things.

Olfacta said...

Hi Joseph -- Thanks for the comment, I love it when people stumble across the blog. I haven't tried the CDG, haven't heard of it before in fact, so it probably is discontinued. It might turn up on fleabay though -- it seems that lots of things do.

Olfacta said...

HI LCN! Well, well. I've wondered if you're still around. You did acquaint me with the only Montale Oud I've ever liked, Red Oud, so I'll try and be open to another Montale. I keep hearing about the JM, will have to try some.

Really good to hear from you!

Olfacta said...

Hi Barbara -- I didn't get to visit Hove on the most recent trip to New Orleans, but will on the next one!

The Left Coast Nose said...

I'm actually doing great!! (Sorry to hear about the head cold, and yes. When you have a sore throat, like the prospect of hanging, that does tend to focus the mind...)
I'm down with The Other Nostril in Buenos Aires for 10 weeks, and it's been great. I do miss the perfume blogosphere-- for a self-selected crew, you all couldn't be much nicer.

Hope you are feeling very much better soon, and I'll be around...

Perfumeshrine said...

Vetivers can be totally great! I love them to pieces, as they have an edge of cocoa sometimes and licorice which is so understated and remains cool...
Love Vetiver pour Elle (perfection), the classic old Vetiver for men by Guerlain of course, Vetiver Oriental, the beloved Vetiver Tonka and I suggest you sniff Goutal's Vetiver (very unique take) and Vetiveru.

Perfumeshrine said...

And I forgot to add that Tauer's vetiver is one of the most underappreciated ones: it's more than just a soli-vetiver, that's why probably.

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