Some years ago, I was asked to house-sit a little cottage in one of Scotland’s ancient forests. This tiny cottage was nestled amongst huge trees, gnarly with age and blanketed with deep green moss. I’ll never forget watching the sun go down on the emerald forest, relaxing in front of an open fire, single malt whisky in hand, breathing in the scent of vetiver incense.
I fell in love with vetiver then, and many years later while working in a stressful hospital environment, I found that the one thing to guarantee relaxation of an evening, was soaking in a warm bath with a few drops of vetiver oil. I find the scent almost magical – depending on where it’s from, or how it’s handled in perfume, it can have the astringent green bitterness of Echinacea essence, the freshness of citrus and the warm smoky depth of old wood.
A humble grass, grown in copious amounts, also one of the more affordable natural materials used in most perfumes; vetiver is truly a gift to perfumery. The scent of natural vetiver extract varies according to the soil it’s grown in, but generally the odour profile is described as green, rooty, grassy and smoky. Haitian vetiver is lighter, more green, Indian and Javanese, smokier.
In India, it’s common to add strands of vetiver grass to a pitcher of water, lending a lovely dry, green grassy scent, reputed to be most refreshing. You can imagine how inspiring such a complex material is for perfumers.
Think of the classics of perfumery and chances are they’ll contain a significant amount of vetiver; Chanel 19 (especially in pure parfum) or Arpege, for example. Although gender associations are less rigid these days, vetiver, as a more pronounced note in perfume, is associated traditionally with men’s scents such as Guerlain’s Vetiver. More recent launches, such as Tom Ford’s Grey Vetiver and Lalique’s Encre Noire have proved extremely popular, evidence of vetiver’s enduring popularity as a classic, elegant scent. I’m not alone though, in experiencing the scent of vetiver as absolutely unisex.
Recommending the best vetiver scents is tricky only because the way it’s handled in perfume varies so widely. Add citrus and it’s a perfect summer scent – astringent, clean and refreshing. Add leather and it becomes dark, lean, and elegant. Paired with iris, it suggests a more feminine aura – powdery, dry, and austere. With amber and vanilla, it becomes softer.
Let’s look at a few of the best vetivers that display unique facets, including a few recent perfume launches.
St. Vetyver, by D.S. & Durga
Launched in 2021, St. Vetyver is rounded and warm – a most unique perfume that draws out the dry grass aspect of vetiver – D.S. & Durga describe this as a ‘straw hat’ note! I’ve never experienced the aroma of fresh sugar cane, but those who have describe the green sweetness of St. Vetyver as the authentic scent of fresh sugar cane. It’s comfortable, yet elegant – a balance of sweet, smoky, and astringent – sure to be a favourite holiday perfume for those who enjoy vetiver scents, though I imagine this would work beautifully in autumn too.
White Vetiver, by Abel
If you want to experience natural unadulterated vetiver, Abel launched this delectable scent in 2016. White Vetiver’s opening is fresh and delightful as a sparkling glass of home-made lemonade, then it dries down to a clean, dry vetiver that will keep you feeling cool in the hottest weather. This perfume demonstrates the complexity of vetiver – all its aspects unfold on skin. Though this perfume is all about vetiver, it’s enhanced by mint, lime, and natural ambergris. Ambergris (a natural musk collected from the sea) is an inspired touch – lending depth, longevity and warmth to a simple perfume while still keeping it simple! I can’t think of a more perfect warm-weather perfume – truly refreshing.
Infusion de Vetiver, by Prada
Leaning perhaps more towards masculine in style, this is refreshing as a gin and tonic. Black pepper, tarragon and ginger give this light perfume a dry, clean herbal edge that works well as a discreet, daytime scent – what some might describe as a perfect ‘office-scent’ in that few would find it offensive. It’s not dull, however, and I can imagine it as an effective pick-me-up in a stuffy workplace of an afternoon.
Vetiver Extraordinaire, by Frederic Malle
Soft, yet deep, with a mood of effortless elegance, this unisex perfume contains a high amount of natural vetiver. The opening is fresh and citrussy but it’s the woody, mossy and subtly floral dry-down that’s unique and special – it reminds me of clean salty skin on the beach.
Original Vetiver, by Creed,
A beautiful classic, Original Vetiver highlights the green, smoky aspects of vetiver, but this is a rounded scent with depth. Although it’s traditionally accepted as a masculine scent, I’d happily wear this and can imagine the cosy pairing of Original Vetiver with a deep green wool dress. Natural ambergris and sandalwood lend a touch of warmth, and iris its cool powdery classiness.
Vetiver Tonka by Hermes Hermessence
Soft, creamy, and rounded, Vetiver Tonka is highly regarded by vetiver aficionados who enjoy sweeter scents. Vetiver Tonka perfectly balances the delicious nuttiness of hazelnut with soft woods and clean soapy lily of the valley. Tonka always lends perfume a smooth rounded sweetness, all of which creates an incredibly easy-to-wear perfume that’s classy, snuggly, and easy on the nose.
Encre Noire, by Lalique
There are two versions of Encre Noire, for women and for men. I prefer the homme version as it’s easier on the nose for me, simply because the women’s version has a freesia note which I never enjoy. That’s entirely subjective though and most women would enjoy Encre Noire Pour Elle’s clean floral edge. I can see why Lalique titled this Encre Noire (‘black ink’ in English). Having written and sketched with black ink and quill, I recognise that cool, wet astringent scent of black ink which echoes the clean dry aspect of vetiver. Clean and cool – I can see this scent on a Swiss architect or designer, wearing steel-rimmed spectacles.
Grey Vetiver, by Tom Ford
A supremely easy-to-wear vetiver, this has a plasticky note that’s deliberate and strangely pleasing – like the scent of ‘new car’ almost. It also reminds me a little of Cacharel pour Homme – a classic scent of the early 1980s which I loved for its generous dose of nutmeg and lemon. Grey Vetiver is like its hipper offspring. I like both, though I’d sooner wear Grey Vetiver as it’s more unisex than the leaner, more masculine Cacharel pour Homme.
Les Exclusifs de Chanel 28 La Pausa, by Chanel
Although 28 La Pausa might usually be described as a floral iris scent, I detect a generous dose of vetiver in this austerely elegant classic, named after Coco Chanel’s villa on Roquebrune-Cap-Martin on the French Riviera. Vetiver has both a grassiness and a skin-scent quality – a saltiness which pairs in a heavenly way here with iris. Iris was always used to scent face powder and lipstick, so to me this perfume is an evocative whirlwind of picnics in the grass, special evenings out and summer garden parties – it never fails to elicit an emotional response in me. If you like the elegant, minimal aesthetic of old-school Chanel, you’ll love this.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of the loveliest vetiver scents, but hopefully inspires readers to explore vetiver in all its diverse appeal. All the perfumes above can be bought online on the perfume house’s websites.