Poor patchouli, how misunderstood you are! It seems that you are destined to be that one member of the perfumery family that will never outgrow its bad reputation; forever doomed to be inextricably associated with long-haired, tye-dye wearing hippies. So where did the unholy union of patchouli and hippy come from? Patchouli has been used in perfumery for centuries and was known to Europeans as far back as the 1800s.
However, it was the 60s and 70s that saw its popularity explode, when it found its way to the United States in the backpacks of hippies returning from the famous Hippie Trail through South East Asia, India and the Middle East (it is in the tropical regions of India and South East Asia where the Patchouli plant originates, its fragrant oil extracted by the steam distillation of its dried leaves). Considering the hippies’ preoccupation with spiritual awakening, mysticism, lack of materialism and free love, it’s not hard to see why the members of this counterculture took such an immediate shine to this essential oil. After all, the scent of patchouli is as unpretentious, green, earthy and sexual as hippies themselves.
Unfortunately for Patchouli, like everything that has become a victim of its own success, people only tend to focus on the negative and not on what made it so popular in the first place. The earthy, herbaceous, and in my opinion, exceptionally sexy smell of Patchouli has made it a key ingredient in the world of perfumery, and people who hate the scent would be surprised to know how many fragrances actually contain it. It is even an essential ingredient of the Chypre olfactory group, along with labdanum, oakmoss, and bergamot.
Patchouli is an amazingly provocative scent, evoking strong reactions from people, and this is exactly what I love about it; it’s not bland, safe or boring, it’s loud, bold and audacious. In saying that, I too was one of the many for whom even the word “patchouli” induced a gag reflex. However, after discovering some quality examples of the scent, I went from hating it, to falling madly in love with it. Like all fads, I believe it’s due to make a comeback, but this time I’m sure it will return in a classier, more subdued interpretation. For this blog entry, I have chosen four beautiful examples of patchouli based scents which I think just might assist in the resurgence of Patchouli.
Javanese Patchouli is the fragrance that helped me to fall in love with the ingredient I had been so fervently avoiding. Even though it’s the most subdued fragrance on the list, this beautiful scent still showcases patchouli in all its glory, doing so in a very refined and gentle way. It has all the classic hallmarks of the scent, earthy, green and sensual, without ever being harsh, allowing it to be enjoyed by even Patchouli’s biggest critics. While it’s marketed as a masculine fragrance, I think it’s much more unisex than all the other scents on this list and I see absolutely no reason why it could not be worn confidently by a woman
Next, we have Patchouli Absolu by Tom Ford. This for me is like Zegna’s Javanese Patchouli on steroids and is only for true patchouli fans. The patchouli here shines like a star and all the other ingredients only serve as supporting acts. It’s a classy, luxurious patchouli fragrance, bringing to mind images of gentleman’s lounges, with hardwood floors, but at the same time, it smells as earthy and sexy as a forest floor. I absolutely adore this scent.
The woody earthy notes of vetiver and Patchouli make them perfect partners, and Incident Diplomatyque by Jovoy is for me one of the nicest examples of a vetiver/patchouli combination. However, be warned. This is certainly not a scent for the fainthearted and is only for people with a mature nose; you’ll definitely not find any youngsters wearing this out. My initial reaction when I first smelt it was, a sharp, almost abrasive, blast of patchouli and vetiver, but then, the earthy, green and woody notes unfolded, creating a wonderfully smoky, sophisticated and classy scent, without even a trace of sweetness. This is a unisex fragrance, however, its lack of sweetness means it can come across as a bit masculine for some people.
If Incident Diplomatyque is smoky, then Patchouli 24 is a full-on, raging bonfire. Rather than patchouli, it’s the tarry notes of birch which dominate this fragrance. You will experience that smoky, leathery campfire smell for at least an hour before the scent slowly mellows out, releasing the rich earthiness of patchouli and, finally the slight sweetness of styrax and vanilla. Patchouli 24 smells very similar to my favorite candle by Diptyque, Feu De Bois (their famous candle that smells of a comforting fireplace). This scent needs time to be fully appreciated, and even then, for many, it will be completely unwearable. However, on the right person and occasion, this stuff is pure magic.