From harlots & hippies: how patchouli got cool again

Patchouli might as well be called the ‘Marmite of the perfume world’ as those of us who fall firmly in the LOVE IT camp have our passionately held views matched only by those who devoutly HATE IT. But perhaps if you have always languished on the loathing side of the fragrant fence, you might have your mind changed by this book we’ve recently added to our Fragrant Reads bookshelves…?

Part of a series of extremely informative ‘naturals notebooks’ on some of perfumery’s key ingredients, written and published in conjunction with NEZ (the French olfactory magazine) and LMR (Laboratoire Monique Rémy – one of the world’s leading producers of naturals used in the fragrance industry); Patchouli is a fascinating read for anyone who wants to take a deeper dive into their favourite fragrance notes. As confirmed patchouli-heads, here at The Perfume Society, of course we had to begin with this one!


‘Once seen as a scent favoured by courtesans and hippies,’ NEZ explain (hello, yes, we feel seen) ‘patchouli has become a key ingredient in today’s perfumery. Its warm, woody and complex fragrance provides the perfect setting for fresher notes to run free, especially in chypre and oriental perfumes.’ (Two of our favourite fragrance families there, so yes and yes again). An easy read, it manages to walk that fine line between interesting snippets of fragrant facts and a more in-depth and technical look at the processes behind how patchouli is produced. Indeed, NEZ say they wanted to ‘Explore every aspect of this exotic plant, from botany, history, art, gastronomy, literature, agriculture and chemistry, to the perfumers who use it and the perfumes they create.’

FYI: If you’re looking to learn more about patchouli, do have a look at our always-useful Ingredients section.

We really enjoyed the quotes from perfumers who adore patchouli – Bruno Jovanovic saying that ‘…if magic had a scent, it would smell of patchouli!’ and describing why he chose some of the other notes he added to his composition of Monsieur for Éditions de parfums Frédéric Malle, ‘To clothe, enhance, envelope the patchouli so it could become a flagship fragrance in Frédéric’s catalogue.’ With diagrams of historical timelines and distillation techniques, along with reviews of key fragrances to try patchouli in, it’s a short but fact-filled book that’s great to dip in and out of rather than read cover-to-cover, perhaps.

Patchouli NEZ + LMR the naturals notebook, £15.99
Buy it from

By Suzy Nightingale

So you think you hate… patchouli?

Ah, patchouli… Deep, dark, earthy and present in plenty of Oriental perfumes, patchouli’s still somewhat tainted with a hippie-dippy aura, even now. (It’s been called ‘the scent of the Swinging 60s’, because the essential oil was often worn neat on the skin of music-loving, party-loving – and sometimes drug-loving – youth.)

It’s always blown our minds that despite it’s earthiness, patchouli isn’t a wood, or a root:  it’s actually a frilly green-leafed, purple-flowered member of the mint family, called Pogostemon patchouli.

Amazingly, from those fragile-looking leaves comes a sweet, spicy, smoky, cedar-y scent so powerful it has to be handled with care:  patchouli is the most powerful of any plant-derived essence. But perfumers wouldn’t be without patchouli, for the richness that it gives to fragrances – and not just those heady Orientals: patchouli makes its way into many chypre and powdery fragrances, swirling exotically alongside lavender, sandalwood, labdanum and bergamot, clove, clary sage, as well as vetiver. (It’s a little like vetiver, if you close your eyes.) Used alongside rose, it extends and ‘fixes’ rose’s sweetness.

The name, quite simply, comes from the old Tamil words patchai (‘green’) and ellai (‘leaf’). It originated in India, Malaysia and Indonesia and made its way to the Middle East via the exotic silk route: patchouli is a fantastic insect repellent, effective against flies and other bugs. (We’re going to try it out on our cashmere, and will report back.) Paisley shawls were traditionally layered with patchouli leaves in transit. Frenchwomen in the 19th Century swathed themselves in these patchouli-scented shawls against the cold – a fashion started by the Empress Eugenie – and patchouli became desirable, as a fragrance ingredient.

The quality of the oil can vary hugely. The very best stuff comes from the three or four top pairs of leaves, where the highest concentration of the fragrant oil is found. Once cut, they’re turned frequently to prevent them breaking down too quickly.  Then the leaves are stripped and placed into woven baskets, where a process of fermentation takes place that releases the incomparable fragrance. Then the leaves are either CO2-extracted, or steam-distilled. It’s highly skilled work, and only a few distilleries produce patchouli of a high enough quality to please a VIP ‘nose’, or creator. On a blotter, meanwhile, a single drop of patchouli can last for months.

For many today people, it’s still a love-it-or-hate-it ingredient, evoking plenty of prejudice. But we happen to adore it, and think even if you’re a naysayer: if you give some of these scents a try, you’ll likely develop a passion for patchouli…

In Bella Oudh there’s an exoticism of precious spices from Venice’s Trade Route, married with unashamedly plush flowers – all tempered by the mélange of sweet, earthy patchouli, slinky as a black velvet dress, and the freshly polished woods glowing warmly in the base. A fairytale of a fragrance, it’s impossible not to succumb to its colourful, overlapping dreaminess.

Tiziana Terenzi Bella Oudh £250 for 100ml eau de parfum
OR try a generous 15ml mini in our glorious collaboration of the Harvey Nichols & The Perfume Society Discovery Box (with TEN luxury size niche fragrances for only £45!)

Intriguingly smoky, velvety wine-dark petals unfurl in the heart of A Rose For… Revealing a sophisticated sprinkling of powdered iris root (orris) and a wisp of carnality with the rich seam of smouldering patchouli. The amber-y base swathes you in vanilla’s gossamer embrace that makes you feel is the way your skin should always smell.In hot weather it absolutely blooms, and in cold, you’ll want to cuddle closer.

Floris A Rose For£160 for 100ml
OR try a sample in our Launches We Love Discovery Box £19 (£15 for VIP Club members) with thirteen fragrances and three beauty extras, and make this patchouli-infused rose most definitely for… you.

In Fortitude, we find ‘The art of magnetism and sensuality, for those with a bit of swagger’ – a green Swarovski crystal-eyed horned ram atop the magnificent cap, and a clue to perfumer Ilias Ermenidis’s uninhibited, rambunctious composition. Overtly addictive tobacco absolute segues to rich, sticky patchouli swirled with creamy, almond-like tonka beans – a distinctive blend that’s seriously hard to resist.

Robert Graham Fortitude
£260 for 200ml eau de parfum,
OR try a sample size, with two other Robert Graham fragrances and seven other niche scents in our Harvey Nichols & The Perfume Society Discovery Box for only £45 (scroll up for a picture, above).

L’Homme Idéal Cool wraps the original almond olfactory signature in three utterly refreshing accords. At first whoosh, experience the effervescence of bergamot, orange and a handful of mint leaves. In the heart, neroli makes a reappearance, with aquatic notes lapping alongside. And in the base – ensuring this has staying power on the skin – encounter vetiver and the dappled shade of that so-welcome patchouli.
£56 for 50ml eau de toilette

Here’s proof that patchouli can throw off its deep, dark and sometimes dark past to be reinvented as something sheer, summery and fresh. Unexpected bedfellows of pear, Bourbon pepper, jasmine and white musk – as well as more expected notes of bergamot in the top, guaiac wood in the soft base, offer further proof of perfumer Nathalie Lorson’s talent for reinventing notes, the better to delight and surprise our noses.
£175 for 125ml eau de parfum

Whichever of these fragrances you seek out, we urge you to try them on your skin and cast aside those ‘hippy’ preconceptions about patchouli. Truly, so many fragrances have patchouli in them that we bet many you already love contain the ingredient somewhere in the mix!

By Suzy Nightingale

Charlotte Tilbury's top secret scent is unveiled today – and we snuck behind the scenes at the launch

Charlotte Tilbury is unquestionably the hottest thing to happen in make-up for a decade or more. Never seen without lipstick, high heels, voluptuous in a va-va-voom frock, this life-enhancing (also: cheekbone-enhancing) dynamo hurtles through life leaving lesser mortals trailing in her wake – who will soon be enjoying her debut scent, as they do so. (It launches on 15th August, but the news embargo lifts today.)

Beckoned by a cascade of flowers into the inner sanctum at Charlotte’s launch

Knowing Charlotte (and we have, for longer than we care to mention), her signature scent was never going to be ‘ordinary’. It is, Charlotte explained to a most definitely spellbound audience at the ICA Galleries, ‘magic’ – created via working with ‘visionary experts within the fields of neuroscience and fragrance.’ (And it was certainly the first fragrance launch we’ve been to where an expert in sacred geometry (Dr. Christina Oakley-Harrington) was seated alongside a leading scientist working with the sense of smell (Dr. Andreas Schaefer).
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François Robert, left, with UCL olfactory scientist Dr. Andreas Schaefer, right

The perfumer behind this floral-Chypre creation is François Robert, who has applied his own magic to creating perfumes for Hermès, Missoni, Lanvin, and Paris’s Les Parfums de Rosine. Perfume, rather than blood, may indeed flow in François’s veins: his great-uncle Henri Robert was the man responsible for creating Chanel No.19, while François’s father was responsible for Hermès Calèche and Madame Rochas.
For Charlotte – probably the most relentlessly positive person we know – the fragrance he created always had to be ‘mood-enhancing’ as well as downright beautiful. So she’s broken the traditional ‘pyramid’ down into ‘The Joy Notes’, to create a confidence-boosting aura (lemon, peach, black pepper, mandarin, bergamot and saffron), ‘The Fleurotic Notes’, to ‘trigger love’ (tuberose, frankincense, violet, patchouli, muguet, orange flower, rose oil, tea rose, magnolia and green ivy), and ‘The Psycho Active Notes’, which Charlotte maintains are akin to a pheromone, stimulating desire (precious woods, amber, cistus Iso E Super, hedione, Ambrosian and fire tree). And with all that going on, what else could she call it but ‘A Scent of Attraction…’?
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A chandelier of ‘sacred’ bottles at the ICA

The bottle was then interpreted by the expert in sacred geometry for the assembled audience. An octahedron lid, representing air. Pointy-topped (it’s technically ‘The Spire’, in shape), it aspires to your highest and purest spiritual state of mind. The starburst of never-ending lines, meanwhile, represents reaching your dreams. And circular in shape, it is deemed to be associated with the beginning of the universe, ‘helping to realise your dreams, rebirth and love’.
The meaning of the bottle design, according to sacred geometry

So far, so New Age. But what does it actually smell like? Well, gorgeous, actually. Quite ‘intimate’: more of a come-closer skin scent than one with the sort of 80s ‘room-rocker’ sillage that we were confidently expecting. The patchouli note – ‘the scent I grew up with, having hippie parents, which made it an absolute must-have for me’ – is downplayed though definitely present, while the florals wrap you in a veil: more organza than velvet, airy rather than heady. But yes, it lasts on the skin: still there next morning, the scent equivalent of a smudged smokey eye you’ve naughtily slept in.
The bottle – based on ‘sacred geometry’ – in a florabundant setting

After Charlotte’s mile-a-minute presentation, we were ushered out of the beautiful launch room overlooking the Mall to look at the Christmas goodies she was unveiling in an adjacent room. But by special permission (and after all but signing our names in blood not to break any embargoes), The Perfume Society was exclusively allowed back to take pictures, which we thought we’d share with you here.
Meanwhile, the clock’s ticking. The ‘magic hour’ approaches.  And when the scent launches mid-August, we’ll be sharing the really rather stupendous ad., starring Charlotte’s friend Kate Moss.
We assure you it’s worth the wait – and with Charlotte waving her magic wand over the project, destined to
Scent of a Dream from £49 for 30ml
Find it from 15th August 2016 at and Charlotte Tilbury stores, together with Selfridges and Brown Thomas
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For the ICA Galleries launch, archives were plundered for scent-making memorabilia

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The sort of perfume shelf we probably all long for (and an Instagrammer’s dream)

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Up close with some of the ‘archive’ bottles which only The Perfume Society got to photograph