This almost drove me mad. I sprayed a bit of it on at night before bed, and then promptly forgot about it. Then the next morning, I smelled something really good on my arm – like a cross between the soapy sandalwood from the far drydown of Slumberhouse’s Vikt and the horsey, slightly sweaty leather from Chanel’s Cuir de Russie. I spent half of the next day rummaging through my decants and samples drawer furiously trying to remember which sample it was that smelled so damned good. When I finally figured out what it was, I have to admit I was amazed. Because the heart of this particular fragrance was so off-putting to me I could not believe that something so good had come out of it.
It got me to thinking that some fragrances are ripe for reverse engineering – you know, perfumes you wish you could swap out the middle or the end for other bits of other perfumes? Given the choice, I would go Frankenstein on Mazzolari’s Vetyver. The opening smells amazing – bright, bristling with citrus and aromatics. It strikes me as juicy, sweet, and green, but without any of the attendant bitterness I associate with vetiver root. The far drydown is a beautiful, soapy sandalwood that goes on forever and smells deeply comforting.
The heart, though, evolves into this strong, dank, fetid vetiver that I find difficult to enjoy. It has the whiff of damp underthings in a Ron Burgundy’s gym bag, faint BO, wet towels and all, left to fester over a period of a few weeks. Vetiver, when done like this, always reminds of me cheap men’s aftershaves you used to see at the drugstore – Brut, and the like. Somewhere deep within the DNA of vetiver (the material), there is a pong of rotting saltmarshes and roots that live half in and half out of stagnant water. It smells like the seventies all over again, and fills me with a creeping dread.
But, in all fairness, I think my reaction has something to do with my feelings about vetiver in general. It’s proving to be a bit of a bête noire for me. I am still gingerly feeling around to see where my upper limit is when it comes to vetiver. I wore Lalique’s Encre Noire for a few years, on and off, until it began to give me headaches and nausea every time I wore it. I used to think that might be the Iso E Super, but now I am starting to think it was just the vetiver. Maybe I just can’t stand vetiver. Well, if that’s true, then wearing Encre Noire probably wasn’t the smartest move. When you wince before you spray, that should be a sign you don’t actually like your own perfume.
I do love Guerlain’s superb Vetiver Pour Elle, which surrounds the vetiver with crisp white florals and a watery ‘summer salad’ accord that has the effect of making the vetiver deliciously light and vegetal, like a Pimm’s Cup for thirsty days playing croquet on the front lawn. But as it’s both discontinued and expensive to buy when one does find it, it is hard to recommend Vetiver Pour Elle to anyone. Actually, I read on Basenotes that Mazzolari’s Vetyver might be a very good substitute for Vetiver Pour Elle, and I think that’s why I looked for the sample. But, no – Mazzolari’s Vetyver is not even a little bit similar. They might share the floral notes and the nutmeg, but beyond that, I see no commonalities either in feel or smell.
Hermes’ Hermessence Vetiver Tonka is an interesting, quasi-gourmand take on vetiver. The opening is impressive – a very dry, nutty vetiver paired with tannic tobacco leaves that create a very rich, almost mouth-watering effect. The tonka, caramel, and hazelnut notes swirl in from underneath to soften and sweeten the earthy vetiver. The juxtaposition of earthy/dry/bitter elements with sweet/creamy gourmand notes is a familiar one, and used to great effect and in slightly similar proportions in Parfumerie Generale’s wonderful Aomassai and Serge Lutens’ Bois de Vanille. However, I am not as fond of Vetiver Tonka as I feel I should be. Something about the deliberate dissonance of notes turns my stomach if I put it on in the morning before my breakfast. There is something too intense in here, something too roasted in feel or smell, like coffee spilled and sizzling on a hot stove. I do appreciate it, but I have to be in the right mood to wear this comfortably.
On the far end of the vetiver scale lie L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Timbuktu and Etro’s Shaal Nur. These fragrances – both firm favorites of mine – pair vetiver with incense, woods, and aromatics, albeit to very different effects.
Timbuktu is the fragrance I use when I want to reset my nose or clear my head. There is something about it that induces calmness and stillness. It is a seemingly simple composition – dry woods, incense, vetiver, and a fruit note – but it has an ability to haunt me like no other. I really like the way that Duchaufour kept all the elements in balance so that the smokiness of the incense is moistened by the mango and the dryness of the woods balanced by the damp green rootiness of the vetiver. So, your nose perceives it as simultaneously dry and juicy, smokey-bitter and sweet, dusty and earthy. It’s a marvel, really, and one that draws my nose to my skin in fascination time and time again. But Timbuktu is less about the vetiver for me than it is about the red, damp earth of Africa. One of my brothers used to live in Chad and before the birth of my first child, he trekked out to a nearby village and after shopping around, bought a beautiful tablecloth that had been hand-embroidered by a cooperative of women from that village. When his thoughtful present got to me in Montenegro, all the way from Chad, I unfolded it and out of the corners of the folds fell this red dust. This dust smelled kind of like Timbuktu, and so wearing it is always a spiritual type of experience for me.
Timbuktu has a cold, shadowy, dark sort of presence that sets it in direct opposition to that other vetiver-based incense composition, Shaal Nur, which is sunny and extroverted. The opening is aromatic with herbes de provence, light woods, citrus fruits, and a blurry melange of soft florals. The effect is dry but not bitter, like herbal lemonade that has been made into a sparkly powder. The heart arrives quickly, and is both slightly creamy/soft with opoponax, and prickly/spicy with pepper, rosemary, and nutmeg. The undercurrent of vetiver runs through the scent from top to bottom, but is neither rooty nor sinister. Overall, it is woodsy in the dry, transparent style of Etro, slightly masculine with the vetiver and nutmeg, and quite powdery in the style of Habit Rouge or Shalimar. However, in overall tone and feel, Shaal Nur’s light, transparent woods and herbs feel is a million miles away from Shalimar’s creamy vanilla and heavy, smoky base. Shaal Nur is a cheerful daytime incense that will cheerfully rub along with you throughout the day, and feels like a precious piece of silk, both beautiful and weightless. There is no smoke, no dark thoughts here – you lift up the piece of silk and you can see the sun through it. That’s what wearing Shaal Nur feels like, for me.
So, maybe the lesson here for me is that I tolerate vetiver when it is deployed as a second string in a composition and not as the main player. But I persist in thinking (rightly or wrongly?) that there is something naturally difficult in the character of vetiver itself that requires perfumers to think carefully about how to “manage” it in a way that offsets its less pleasant aspects, namely, the sweaty gym socks and dank salt marsh elements that I mentioned above. As if there is something faulty in the DNA of vetiver that needs to be fixed somehow, for it to work. Then again, there are people who love vetiver for its strong, rooty, and slightly sinister aspects and who actively seek out the most straight-up versions they can find. I exhort those strange people to make me a list of their favorite vetivers so that I may avoid them like the plague. Mazzolari’s Vetyver is highly recommended to those people.