Olfactory Deconstruction: Vetiver

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We often talk about ‘notes’ or materials in fragrances and how they come together to create a multi-faceted composition. But these materials are incredibly nuanced themselves and each one brings not one, not two, but a multitude of different things to fragrance, meaning that there is always a lot to learn when one goes back to the source materials. I always think that the best way to understand a perfume material is to break it down into facets and that’s exactly what these olfactory deconstruction pieces are for – to dissect each material into little parts so we can really understand what makes it tick, and what makes it smell so good.

Perfume is like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Each fragrance is made up of specifically shaped pieces that lock together. Perfumers match up the pieces, locking them together facet-to-facet, tessellating each nuance to either enhance or contrast them, or in some cases, create something entirely new. The great thing is that, unlike jigsaw puzzles, where there is one way of piecing things together, perfumery is open-ended and the perfumer can tie things together in whichever way they see fit. This means that the picture at the end can be whatever they dream up. There are endless possibilities and to me, that’s pretty damn exciting.

After my iris deconstruction earlier this year I thought long and hard about which material I wanted to dissect next. I knew I wanted to do something that was out of my comfort zone – a note that I wasn’t as familiar with, and for that reason I ended up at vetiver. I realised that I’d never written a vetiver-centric piece for this blog and that I didn’t own many vetiver fragrances (other than the obvious ones). So I wanted to explore vetiver myself and get to grips with the material to see whether I could find a new appreciation for it. Spoiler alert: I did.

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So what is vetiver and what does it smell like? Well, I’m glad you asked! Vetiver (Chrysopogon Zizanioides) is a fragrant perennial bunch grass that is native to India, but grows in a number of places, including Haiti. It has been used predominately in masculine fragrances to provide a green depth and richness. There are natural and synthetic vetiver materials, all of which will have variations in their odour profile, but for a general sense, the smell of vetiver can be described as; grassy, green, earthy, rooty, salty, spicy, mineral, with facets of; citrus (grapefruit), liquorice, spice, smoke and nuts. It is a wonderfully complex material and as I have learned whilst compiling this piece, it’s one that is remarkably distinct yet strangely versatile. ‘Versatile Vetiver’ sounds about right, actually. Let’s go with that.

In this post I intend to deconstruct vetiver into its many facets, guiding you through a compilation of fragrances that showcase each of these nuances in an intriguing way. This is not a guide to the best vetiver fragrances out there because there simply are too many to list, instead this is an olfactory deconstruction that aims to showcase the versatile odour profile of a material that is beautiful and iconic. We will vivisect vetiver to separate its many facets, inhale its smell and shine a spotlight on those fragrances that let these specific elements of vetiver shine. So don your lab coats and safety googles, and get those scented scalpels out (also known as your noses) because it’s time to make the first incision.

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Facet: Vetiver All-Rounders
Scents: Vetiver by Guerlain & Grey Vetiver by TOM FORD

We start, as we always should, with the all-rounders. These are two vetiver fragrances that display many of the elements that compile the material’s kaleidoscope of nuance. They are the go-to examples of the vetiver – those that are easily accessible, but also incredibly affable to. For the vetiver all-rounders I’ve picked two classics that showcase the multi-faceted beauty of an ancient note.

Now, if I had started this post with any fragrance other than Guerlain’s Vetiver I think I would have had my perfume card well and truly rescinded. It is, after all, the most famous and timeless vetiver fragrance – one that has been passed down from generation to generation. But what makes it so good and so timeless? Well, Vetiver simply accents the beauty of the vetiver note perfectly by bolting on other materials that accentuate its spirit. The sharp, tangy citrus element is bolstered by a plethora of citrus notes (bergamot, mandarin & lemon), whilst the spice is intensified by nutmeg and pepper. The earthiness of vetiver and toasted sugar nuances are matched with tobacco, creating a dry warmth that is undeniably masculine. If you smell but one vetiver ever (which I hope will not be the case), it has to be this one.

My other submission for vetiver all-rounder is something more modern: Grey Vetiver by TOM FORD. What I love about Grey Vetiver is that it does much of the same as the Guerlain but it places its eponymous note in a barbershop context. So whereas Guerlain’s Vetiver begs to be paired with comfortable casuals (maybe a white t-shirt or something khaki), Grey Vetiver demands bespoke tailoring. It’s a little sharper and more crisp, giving the impression of tidiness and an overall smart look. It’s a detail focused fragrance that boasts beautiful, citrus-soaked vetiver and a warm, aromatic base. The big question is, are you dapper enough to wear it?

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Facet: Earth
Scent: Encre Noire by Lalique

It’s not surprising that vetiver has an earthy facet, seeing as it grows in the earth, but the smell of earth may not be the first thing one thinks of when they smell it. Vetiver is rooty,  dry and redolent of earth. It can smell dark, damp and dirty, but not in the animalic sense, no, in the mineral, cold earth under the fingernails sense. So earth is perhaps one of vetiver’s most important facets because it is, in itself, a very complex and varied nuance.

Lalique’s Encre Noire is another classic vetiver and it’s one often associated within ink (the name is ‘Black Ink’ in French) rather than earth however, whenever I smell Encre Noire my mind instantly pictures dry earth. The portrait that Encre Noire paints is one of a barren, arid landscape where the earth, devoid of moisture, is cracked and grey. Great caverns scar the landscape like veins or roots that travel right to the heart of the land. Through these channels the dry plant-life is connected to the earth via strands of muddy vetiver. How’s that for earthly evocative?

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Facet: Spice
Scents: Vetiver Extraordinare by Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle, White on White by Illuminum London & Infusion de Vetiver by Prada

When I smelled real vetiver for the first time (as in the grass not the associated oils) I was taken aback by just how spicy it was. There’s a strong pepperiness to vetiver that gives it a liveliness and effervescence that can often get lost amongst the bright citrus notes. But this spice can be interpreted in fascinating ways and to demonstrate the spice element of vetiver, I have picked out three fragrances that each showcase an intriguing type of spice, including cumin, ginger and salt.

Let’s start with cumin because that’s the really funky stuff (and the truly funky stuff is always the most fun). For my dirty spice I’ve opted to feature Vetiver Extraordinaire by Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle, also known as the ‘mack daddy of vetiver fragrances’. I dare you to find me something more refined than this, and if you do, well power to you, my friend. Anyway, Vetiver Extraordinaire boasts a very dry, rooty vetiver note (its intensity is due to the fact that vetiver makes up 25% of the fragrance’s overall composition) against a backdrop of woody notes and spice (not to mention a touch of grapefruit but we will get to that later). It’s the type of fragrance worn by the best dressed man in the room – a gent with perfect designer stubble, natural charm and a magnetic allure. It’s that funky spice, I tell you – it draws you in.

As we’ve already established, vetiver can be somewhat of a parched material. It is dry to the touch and even has a savoury, salty quality that is really dehydrated. One vetiver fragrance that nails this saltiness on the head perfectly is White on White by Illuminum London. Here the vetiver feels as if it has been roasted for a good amount of time, but not in an oven, no, this vetiver has baked in the sun for days. It’s almost as if the vetiver has crystallised, absorbing any moisture it can from the earth, coating itself in a hard crust of salt, making for the most savoury vetiver I’ve ever sniffed. It’s fascinating and from Illuminum London, a complete surprise.

Our final spice is ginger and it’s perhaps a bit of a cheat submission from me (but if you make the rules you get to break the rules, you feel me?). Vetiver doesn’t necessarily possess a natural gingeriness, but the note can provide a link between vetiver’s spice facet and citrus character (which is up next) so I think it’s a worthy one to explore. In Prada’s Infusion de Vetiver, the top-billing v-note is redressed with a big splash of ginger, together creating this fizzy, zingy, juicy take on vetiver that is wonderfully fresh and beautifully full. It’s so refreshing and just a little bit soapy (in a good way) I just want to tip it over my head and shower in it. I feel that would be socially acceptable.

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Facet: Citrus
Scents: Molecule 03 by Escentric Molecules & White Vetiver by Abel Odor

Now for some citrus and also two fragrances that are on opposite sides of the synthetic vs natural debate.  Both of these submissions amplify the natural citrus nuances of vetiver, one of which is grapefruit. Kicking off with Molecule 03 by Escentric Molecules which contains nothing more than the half-synthetic, half-natural material vetiveryl acetate (Eccentric Molecules call it a “hybrid material”) suspended in alcohol. Vetiveryl acetate is a fraction of vetiver oil that is mixed with acetic acid to remove the material’s more bitter, darker nuances. The result is a beautifully smooth and round vetiver that has a raspy, mouthwatering dominance of grapefruit. Sniffing it one just wants to squeeze it and drink the juice!

On the opposite side of the citrus-vetiver spectrum we have the 100% natural White Vetiver by Abel Odor. Natural perfumes often smell flat to me, with too much density, but  this is not the case with Abel, due to the fact that the brand uses isolates (materials that are naturally derived). In White Vetiver citrus comes in the form of a party-like mojito accord which is filled to the brim with lime, allowing for an explosion of citrus. The vetiver sits very much in the background, underpinning the tang with a rooty, salty quality that feels like the savoury component in this mojito’s tequila slammer. Delightful and all-natural too (if that’s important to you).

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Facet: Smoke
Scents: Timbuktu by L’Artisan Parfumeur & Fat Electrician by Etat Libre d’Orange

I encountered the note of vetiver early on in my perfume exploration and I’ll admit that I thought it was pretty weird at the time. If I had used a word to describe it back then, I would have probably called it ‘smoky’, largely because smoke is perhaps the most dominant facet of the material. What’s interesting is that this smoky element can be treated in different ways, with fragrances that interpret this smoke as either warm or cold.

For a cool smoky vetiver there is none better than Timbuktu by L’Artisan Parfumeur. This Bertrand Duchaufour-penned creation pairs rooty green vetiver with ice-cold incense. Together they smell vegetal and tangy, wafting up in plumes of smoke coloured in a delicate shade of yellow. If it’s a warm, smoky vetiver that you’re in the market for then Fat Electrician by Etat Libre d’Orange is your man. Created to represent the sad reality of beauty lost to age (he used to be a handsome midnight cowboy, but now he’s a portly electrical in New Jersey), Fat Electrician utilises myrrh and vanilla to rub up against the vetiver (a little bit sensually, I must add) to create a sweet, but salty smoke with a touch of creaminess, resulting in an unctuous, substantial vetiver. I think it’s handsome, regardless of its BMI.

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Facet: Gourmand
Scents: Sycomore by CHANEL, Vetiver Tonka by Hermès & Vetiver by Carven

Now we’re really going for the good stuff because it’s time to celebrate the gourmand facet of vetiver. You can’t eat vetiver (why on Earth would you want to?) but you can pair it with other materials to bring out its roasted, nutty facets. Now that is something you should want to do.

Let’s start with the nice and nutty, and a bit of CHANEL, shall we? For years I’ve listened to people raving about Sycomore from Les Exclusifs de CHANEL and now that I’ve tried it, I totally understand why. There’s something in here that gives the impression of roasted nuts crushed into a soft yet luxurious paste. Continuing the nutty theme there is also Carven’s classic Vetiver, which treads similar ground to the CHANEL (accenting the nuttiness of vetiver) but in a sweeter manner, evoking almonds with some caramelised lavender for good measure.

If you want something a little less nutty and a bit more dreamy then there is Vetiver Tonka from the Hermès Hermèssence collection. I’m not supposed to pick favourites in this piece, but this is my absolute favourite vetiver in the bunch (sorry, not sorry). There’s a whole heap of stuff in here to accent the sweeter, nutty facets of vetiver, namely; blond tobacco (a touch of cherry), praline (toasted hazelnut), caramel and something hay-like, perhaps tonka bean. It all comes together in Jean-Claude Ellena’s signature watercolour style, creating a gourmand vetiver as smooth as an auburn-coloured cashmere sweater. It’s a stunning piece of work that proves that gourmands do not need to send one reach for the Gaviscon to be successful – they can be light and ethereal too.

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Facet: Liquorice
Scent: Homme L’Eau Boisée by Guerlain

Now for something a little bit surprising to finish off with: liquorice. Some vetiver oils I’ve cast my nose over have had a wonderfully dark character to them – a thick, rich quality that possesses the intensity and odour of liquorice. It’s not a facet I see explored in many perfumes but there is one of note: Guerlain Homme L’Eau Boisée. In L’Eau Boisée the mint, lime, rum and sugary syrup of Homme receives the addition of vetiver (as a nod to the brand’s classic Vetiver) and woods. The vetiver blends seamlessly with the sugary syrup, using black liquorice as an anise tie to the earthy vetiver roots and effervescent cocktail notes. It’s delicious and a fitting way to finish this post, which starts and ends with vetivers by Guerlain. As it rightly should.


Join the Discussion!

What is your favourite facet of vetiver? What is your favourite vetiver fragrance? Let me know in the comments box below!


Disclaimer

Samples via; Guerlain, TOM FORD, Lalique, Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle, Illuminum London, Prada, Abel Odor, Escentric Molecules, L’Artisan Parfumeur, Etat Libre d’Orange, CHANEL, Carven and Hermès. Images are my own. A big thank you to Paul Schütze for generously donating some vetiver for the photos.

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