Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Search for...

My search for the perfect fragrance was a search for authenticity. Raised in the Eighties and Nineties in an affluent suburb about fifty miles from the city, I had learned about fragrances at an early age on trips with my mother to the local Saks and Bloomingdale’s. I had learned that they were about how you looked, how you made your money and how you attracted the opposite sex. By and large, they seemed to be about fulfilling the expectations created by magazine advertisements. The formula was something like that dress, that car, that house and that man. And the formula was a work of genius. Everybody wanted evidence of it in their daily lives.

It wasn’t until much later, in graduate school, that I began to think about fragrance as something that expressed the individual or that gave its wearer pleasure before anyone else. I had smelled a very fine patchouli fragrance on another guest at an East Village dinner party. Earthy, dark and pungent, it complemented her little black dress, her silver jewelry and her foreign accent. The next weekend I made a point of visiting the women’s fragrance counter at Barneys and asked the salesperson to guide me through the various renditions of patchouli. After about an hour-and-a-half I put my finger on Etro’s Patchouli, a complex patchouli with citrus and floral notes. It became my winter scent. Friends would pull me close for a kiss and then linger over my overcoat collar or cashmere scarf. Some would comment on the strangeness of it, the singularity of it. After all, it was 2001. The era of innocuous aquatic men’s scents was in full swing. If something didn’t reek of Dolce & Gabbana Pour Homme, it was exemplary.

That spring, as the weather changed I realized that the patchouli wasn’t working. This time, instead of going to Barneys I went to the Etro boutique. I tried about five more of their fragrances and this time bought a bottle of Vetiver. Little did I know how important that bottle would prove to be. Vetiver, I learned, was a root much prized in India, Southeast Asia and Indonesia for staving off erosion. In many of those same places, it was used to make floor mats and shades, which incidentally worked well against mosquitoes. On me, it was austere and manly but in an introverted sort of way. I decided it would be my fragrance signature. I still knew relatively little about its importance in perfumery.

As the years went by and I came closer to finishing my doctorate, I acquired a number of different styles and “arrangements” of vetiver. There were the classical ones, like Givenchy and Carven; the wildly popular tobacco-inflected ones, like Guerlain; the dirty, sweaty ones like Maître Parfumeur et Gantier Route du Vétiver; and the seaside ones, briny and brisk, like Annick Goutal Vétiver and The Different Company Sel du Vétiver; and even the seductive Oriental ones, like Montale Vétiver Sables and Serge Lutens Vétiver Oriental. At each step of the way, I yearned for a vetiver to call my very own. Earthiness here appealed more to me than high polish. Somehow a touch of dirt brought nature back into my life in the concrete jungle and didn’t toy with my own body’s scent. But this dirt––this root system, rather, with the dirt still clinging––was maddeningly elusive.

And then, this past summer, I found it. After sniffing hundreds of different vetivers, I came upon a new one right back where I had started ten years before: Nasomatto Absinth. It was an unexpected surprise. Rooty, nutty and mushroomy, it captured my attention immediately. Finally, I thought, here’s what the French call sous-bois (“undergrowth,” “forest floor”). But the real surprise came when I realized that the unadulterated vetiver for which I’d yearned all those years was unattainable without the help of things like patchouli, bergamot and wild fennel. Where Paradise was lost, the art of perfumery had begun.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Vetivresse,

I guess this is my first comment on your blog. I was a little bit shy to leave a note here, because I don't speak so well English. I hope to be understood. This time, I wanted to say how much I like the way you talk about your passion about perfume. You like Etro's perfumes, so do I... You have tried many vetiver scents, and I would like to have your opinion about Encre Noire from Lalique. I would like to write a vetiver-week on my blog, and as far as I know, you really like those ones. What are the most important vetiver-perfumes to smell to have a good idea of the material, and what are, for you, the "must be smelled" perfumes for a vetiver addict?

April 22, 2008 at 3:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post!
I love the opening and the first fifteen minites of Absinthe, then it gets too masculine all of a sudden on me and reminds me of Yatagan. A lot. Did you detect anything like that?

Dear poivrebleu,
I think it's a brilliant idea to do a week of vetiver reviews. Now I wish I was fluent in French:)I think Lorenzo Villoresi Vetiver is an intresting one to try, if you haven't yet.

April 22, 2008 at 8:35 PM  
Blogger Vetivresse said...

Thanks. You make complete sense in English. I love Encre Noire, and there are days when I think it is a sort of contemporary holy grail of vetiver. It captures the rootiness without going musty or loamy. And, yes, I think Etro does a very good job. Heck, I like their fragrances more than a lot of their loud clothes. As for a list of must-smells, I'd put Etro Vetiver on there, as I would Sel du Vetiver, Annick Goutal Vetiver, MPG Route du Vetiver, Carven Vetyver, Lubin Le Vetiver, Montale Vetiver Sables and the new Chanel Sycomore. Also, Santa Maria Novella Vetiver cologne and soaps. Let me think some more...

Veronica, I remember coveting my boyfriend's LV Vetiver, but now I realize it's so much else besides vetiver and perhaps to its detriment. I've always liked it as a summer vetiver, but prefer his Uomo profumo. Thanks!


April 22, 2008 at 10:11 PM  
Blogger Vetivresse said...

Funny that I always forget to state the obvious: Dominique Ropion's indubitably magnificent Vetiver Extraordinaire for Frédéric Malle!

April 23, 2008 at 7:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're right, there's a whole kitchen cupboard in LV Vetiver! I like the opening a lot but then agian, later on it gets a bit too sour due to the bay leaf that I smell in there(at least I think it's the culprit).
Never tried Uomo,does it contain veriver too?
I recently tried Underworld by Liz Zorn and was completely wowed by it! It's similar to Onda, but more earthy and dirty and at the same time a bit sweeter and not as forceful.
P.S. I can't figure out a way to log in with my name showing. Do I need a blogger account for that?

April 23, 2008 at 11:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Allright! I took some notes. With all those names, I think there is work waiting for me. Thanks for the information!

April 23, 2008 at 11:36 AM  
Blogger chayaruchama said...

Fleur de Sel, by Miller Harris, is a lovely and unusual one-
Givenchy's is yet one more-
And I think I'm going to HAVE to buy MH's Vetiver Bourbon-
Even as it singes my ciliae...

We share thatsame dirty, dirty passion , mon semblable, mon frere !

Bonjour, Poivrebleu !
I always enjoy your thoughts....

April 23, 2008 at 12:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am just beginning my journey with vetiver and I do love the Serge Lutens Vetiver and the Hermessence Vetiver Tonka even though I get more of the Tonka than the Vetiver in that one.

April 28, 2008 at 7:08 AM  

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