‘A sack of potatoes’. That’s what legendary ‘nose’ Jean Kerléo told our Perfume Society co-founder Jo Fairley to close her eyes and think of, when smelling vetiver from a perfumer’s vial. And it’s so true: earthy, damp, woodsy and smoky all at the same time. Just like a hessian sack of potatoes that’s been left at the back of your grandfather’s shed, when you peel back the drawstring and b-r-e-a-t-h-e, actually.
It’s almost impossible to believe, actually, that this grounding, dry smell comes from the roots of a perennial grass – also known as Khus-khus grass – rather than a wood. Vetiveria zizanoides grows like crazy in marshy places and riverbanks in places that are drenched by high annual rainfall: countries like India, Brazil, Malaysia and the West Indies (Haitian vetiver is probably the most famous of its type). In some hot places, vetiver is woven into blinds and matting, which are not only wonderfully fragrant as the breeze wafts through them or they’re trodden underfoot: vetiver has cooling properties.
Used in perfumes since ancient times, vetiver’s more popular than ever and features very, very widely in the base of fragrances because it works brilliantly as a ‘fixative’ – and so far, nobody seems to have come up with a satisfactory synthetic alternative.
PS A relative of vetiver, Vetiveria nigritina, is also found in the Saharan areas of Africa, and is used to perfume clothes and fabrics – but it doesn’t make its way into the perfumes we wear.
Smell vetiver in: