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March 1, 2005

"Grassroots" By Luca Turin

"Grassroots" By Luca Turin

Vetiver has a status apart in perfumery. It is one of the few materials for which there is no good synthetic substitute. It comes from a weed beloved of civil engineers that grows like hell, has a huge root system (where the smell resides) and so holds earthworks together. It has such a strong personality that vetiver fragrances are basically arrangements rather than compositions, which is why almost all are named Vetiver with different spellings. The big question is, as with cocoa, just how much arrangement is enough. Some say none: vetiver has its “black chocolate” fanatics, forever searching for something in a bottle which smells like the dried roots. Nothing does. When I was a kid, my mother used to send me down the street to buy bundles of vetiver roots from a proto-hippy store to put in linen drawers. No extraction method known to man gives that light, fresh, liquorice-and-earth, warm but austere, in a word intelligent smell. The perfumer has two options: retreat and declare victory, i.e. add a touch of lavender and call the result Vetiver (black chocolate); Or earn his keep and compose full-score for bass clarinet and orchestra (Milka with nuts and raisins).

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, among which Annick Goutal (spicy and salty), Maitre Gantier (patchouli-like), and others. More recently some serious work has been done at both ends of the spectrum. Dominique Ropion has composed a Vetiver Extraordinaire for Frédéric Malle which sets a new standard for accuracy. In a very different vein, Serge Lutens’ Vetiver Oriental focuses on one of the hidden facets of vetiver, a ginger-like, buttery sweetness. At the other extreme, I received in the mail a few weeks ago an excellent durchkomponiert vetiver called One by Hannes B. which Google tells me is a Zurich men’s outfitter. Lastly, Guerlain has just released what they call Vetiver pour Elle which is basically the pour lui with a touch of added jasmine. It smells wonderful. In its infinite wisdom, Guerlain wants to sell it only in duty-free shops and for a limited time, so take a cheap flight to somewhere interesting and get it.

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