Notes on Notes: Vetiver

Welcome to this month’s installment of “Notes on Notes”, a monthly collaboration between this blog and Australian Perfume Junkies! Every month, we pick one fragrance note and write about it, posting on the first Monday of the month — fragrances we like that feature it, what we like or don’t like about it, anything else we know about it, whatever takes our fancy. For February, the note is vetiver.

Notes on Notes logo
Notes on Notes; image by Portia Turbo.

As regular readers here know, another of my longstanding interests is gardening, and I love to learn about plants. Combining that with my interest in fragrance, I’m particularly interested in the use of plant materials in perfumes, and the accords that use various materials, natural and synthetic, to evoke fragrant plants. Vetiver is one of the most important plant materials traditionally used or evoked in fragrances. It is a clumping grass that can grow as high as 5 feet, and just as wide. Originating and still cultivated in India, vetiver is now grown in many other tropical regions, including Haiti, Indonesia, parts of China, and Réunion.

Vetiver is a highly useful plant in addition to the oil extracted from its roots, which is used for fragrance, cosmetics, skincare, aromatherapy, soap, etc. The plant itself is considered to make for excellent erosion control, because of its deep roots, which also penetrate and loosen compacted soil. It mitigates surface water runoff, and is used as a mulch to increase the filtration of water into the soil, reduce evaporation, prevent weeds among various crops, and protect against “splash erosion.” It has anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties; some countries in Africa have traditionally used its roots to steep in water jars, reducing bacteria growth. Its leaves can be used as animal feed for livestock. On top of all that, dried parts of the plants are used to make fragrant mats and fans, and vetiver grass is used as roof thatch and in making mud bricks.

Vetiver grass; image from Wikipedia

In perfume, the essential oil of vetiver is considered to have excellent fixative properties. Depending on where it is grown, and conditions of soil and climate, the oil can vary widely, from more floral to smoky. Vetiver has been used as a central note in many fragrances, mostly but not only masculine, such as Dior’s Eau Sauvage, Guerlain’s Vétiver, Ormonde Jayne’s Zizan, Lalique’s Encre Noire, and many others. Fragrantica has a wonderful article on vetiver fragrances, by Sergei Borisov, reminding us of the many different perfumes that would smell completely different without vetiver, including floral-green chypres like Chanel No. 19, Jean-Louis Scherrer, and Aromatics Elixir.

In preparation for this post, I went to a department store and sampled SO MANY vetiver scents! I also dug into my current collection. The following is a random selection of vetiver-forward fragrances I sampled in the last month, in no particular order.

Vetiver Pamplemousse, by Jo Loves for Zara. One of the most interesting recent collaborations in fragrance is that of the bargain-fashion chain Zara with the niche perfumer Jo Malone and her brand Jo Loves. The collections combine a few simple ingredients or accords, I assume mostly if not entirely synthetic for cost reasons. They are very affordable. One of the first fragrances for this project was Vetiver Pamplemousse, and I think it’s terrific. It is a simple citrusy cologne, grapefruit and mandarin orange accords with a base of vetiver. The grapefruit dominates, especially in the opening, but its bitterness is sweetened by the mandarin orange accord. I love grapefruit in fragrances, so this opening makes me very happy. The vetiver anchors the composition the way vetiver roots can stabilize soil and water. As the citrus notes take a step back, you can smell the vetiver accord adding a green earthiness that ends up being most of what one smells, while the citruses discreetly vanish, leaving behind just a hint of bitter rind. As with her original Jo Malone line (now owned by Estée Lauder), Ms. Malone suggests other scents in the collection to layer with Vetiver Pamplemousse, such as Waterlily Tea Dress and Tubereuse Noire. I think Vetiver Pamplemousse would layer well with any fragrance where one wants a boost of citrus and the grounding of vetiver. And for less than $7 for a 10 ml travel spray, why not try it? If you like it, the larger sizes are equally affordable.

Zizan, by Ormonde Jayne. My reaction upon spritzing this was, Wow! Zizan comes at you strong, with a marvelous opening that combines Sicilian lime, lemon, bergamot, clary sage, pink pepper and juniper berry. One of the original Ormonde Jayne line, it was created by perfumer Geza Schoen and launched in 2008 (I believe it is now discontinued). It is a more traditionally masculine fragrance than many, but I find it very wearable and unisex. It helps that I really like the many herbal notes, both in the opening and in the middle phase, when bay leaf dominates but is softened a bit by accords of violet leaf and jasmine. When the vetiver shows up, it is more of a green, floral-leaning vetiver as opposed to the drier, dusty impression vetiver can create. Among the base notes of vetiver, cedar, musk and amber, vetiver is the clear winner — it dominates the drydown the way grapefruit dominates the opening of Vetiver Pamplemousse. I like the way Zizan straddles seasons: it works well as the climate where I live transitions from moderate winter to early spring. It reminds me of bare but fertile earth where the first green shoots are emerging from brown dirt and much.

Bal d’Afrique, by Byredo. This was one of my department store samples; I don’t own it either in a discovery set or in a full size. But the lovely sales associate at Bloomingdale’s made me a generous spray sample so I could try it more than once. Gotta say, though, Bal d’Afrique has cast a certain spell on me, somewhat to my surprise. I’ve never really gravitated to Byredo fragrances, I think I was turned off by the trendiness of its Gypsy Water. I really enjoyed the Mohave Ghost toiletries in our hotel on a recent trip to Las Vegas, though, so maybe I need to revisit and reassess Byredo! Bal d’Afrique, created by Jérome Epinette and launched in 2009, has an unusual opening that includes one of my favorite fragrance notes, tagetes (or marigold). It is stated in the notes list to be “African marigold” although most of the varieties we know today are actually native to Mexico. Tagetes has fallen out of favor as a fragrance note in recent years, but I love it. Another unusual note in the opening is “buchu”, which is the name of a flowering plant native to South Africa whose essential oil extract is said to taste (and presumably smell) like blackcurrant. That would account for the fruitiness that lingers after the marigold accord has faded. Middle notes include violet, jasmine, and cyclamen; the base includes accords of amber, musk, vetiver, and cedarwood. Of those, the vetiver is by far the most evident to my nose. I find it to fall on the more floral end of the range, which goes nicely with the preceding flower and fruit accords.

There are so many other great vetiver-forward fragrances I haven’t touched on here, though I own or have tried these: L’Encre Noire, by Lalique; Timbuktu by L’Artisan Parfumeur; Vetiver, by Commodity; Guerlain’s Vétiver; Tom Ford’s Grey Vetiver; Jo Malone’s Vetiver and Golden Vanilla; Jo Loves’ Pink Vetiver. What a versatile note vetiver is! Do you have any favorite vetiver fragrances?

Botanical illustration of vetiver and other grasses
Botanical illustration of vetiver and other grasses

17 thoughts on “Notes on Notes: Vetiver

  1. Loved reading this OH,
    Vetiver is so amazing. Both in scent and other ways.
    Byredo does some really good stuff but I don’t remember if I ever tried Bal d’Afrique. Thanks for the push. I’ll seek it out.
    Is that Zara fragrance still current? If the answer is yes, I’m going to find it too.
    Portia x

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I also like a good combination of vetiver and grapefruit! That reminds me, Between Two Trees by Floraïku is quite beautiful. I don’t remember it having a grapefruit note but the vetiver has a rooty sweetness.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I suspect I opted for the wrong Zara fragrance when I made my choice. I opted for Amalfi Sunray. I didn’t even try Vetiver Pamplemousse. My error! I love cheap thrills & grapefruit openings so I see a travel spray in my very near future.
    Thank you for these deep dives into Vetiver

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Phlur Greylocke
    1000 Flowers Reglisse Noire and Fleur no 1
    Cristalle has it as a note and so does Prescrptives Calyx and I adore both but don’t see them as vetiver dominant fragrances
    I also wonder about Clinique Wrappings, Estée Lauder Aliage and Private Collection
    Will have to research

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Valentine’s Day musings – Nose Prose

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