(image, Anouk Van Kalmthout)
Perfumer Jean-Paul Guerlain
Guerlain avoided the Vetiver Trap and chose to make the vetiver root conform to perfumery, not vice versa. Vetiver is a demanding note, and some of the producers of vetiver perfumes of the past 20 years have elected to make it the heart and soul of their perfumes. While there are so many obvious angles of vetiver to emphasize (woody, rootlike, oily, smoky, earthen) they are so imposing that using vetiver in any sufficient quantity in a composition pushes everything else out of its way.
To focus on tobacco seems an obvious way to fall into this trap and wind up with a musty, earthy density. But Guerlain’s Vetiver uses licorice and a tart bergamot to make the tobacco note bloom, giving Vetiver an effervescent upper register. The real trick is that from the top through the basenotes Vetiver has a dry gin-like hissy pervasiveness that is far more durable that this range of notes typically is. The cool quality doesn’t actually feel mentholated or camphorous, but rather sheer and glassy, suggesting that it is cool to the touch. It’s the perfect storm of notes to create a rich, dry, cool atmosphere.
The chill seems to have become pronounced over the various reformulations. I seem to remember that the Guerlain Vetiver a French friend wore in the late 80s and early 90s focused more on the dense, oily vetiver note itself. I know the lightening of a fragrance as a result of reformulation is generally panned, but this cooler, more gin-like Vetiver * 1) lets me keep my cool in my warm climate and, 2) lifts the register of the tobacco note, making it effectively floral. The lightening doesn’t have to do with dilution, but an increased emphasis on the tenor range of notes.
Prettier than it was, and still pitch-perfect, I find Guerlain Vetiver more appealing than ever, and exceptionally successful in its manipulation of a difficult botanical note. Vetiver uses its eponymous note in the same manner that Chanel No 5 makes a floral perfume with jasmine: it makes a balanced abstraction that smells of vetiver but does not smell like vetiver.
* The Vetiver I wear is the ‘millenial’ Vetiver in the frosted glass/horizontal striped bottle. I prefer it to the current version.