Even if you haven’t heard of vetiver, there’s little doubt that this complex fragrance note has stealthily caught the attention of your nostrils. Vetiver has been a major player in men’s luxury fragrances for a long time thanks to its classic masculine properties but – such is its charm – it’s now estimated to be present in about 40 per cent of women’s fragrances too. So, despite the swanky sounding name, it’s a bit of a people pleaser.
That’s not to say that vetiver is an everyman, however. Where oud fragrances can smack of lurid opulence, the smell of vetiver has been described as woody, deep, sweet, smoky and earthy – it’s precisely this ability to wear many different hats which is key to its appeal. Talk about a complex character, eh?
British perfumer Roja Dove even goes as far to crown it the king of all man-friendly fragrance notes, saying: “It really is the ultimate men’s scent. Vetiver showcases a refined, natural elegance that represents the ultimate in how a man should smell.” High praise indeed.
Nowadays, vetiver is among the classic scents that defy the peaks and troughs of perfume popularity (you’ve probably worn it without realising), but way back when it was the fragrance world’s rank outsider. Carven lay claim to producing the world’s first vetiver-based scent in 1957, but it was Guerlain’s Vetiver two years later which gave the ingredient its breakout role, producing a scent so compulsively smellable that it still gets regular name checks some 60 years later.
To help you sniff out vetiver in a line-up, here’s our guide to getting to know the Mr Popular of the perfume world, as well as our pick of the vetiver scents available today.
What Is Vetiver?
Like all the best things in life, vetiver oil is all natural and can’t currently be synthetically replicated – authenticity, check. Scientifically speaking, vetiver (or chrysopogon zizanioides as it’s known to boffins) is a long tropical grass native to India. The grass itself isn’t what’s important though, it’s the long web-like roots that yield the good stuff: vetiver oil.
Although this tall and fragrant grass is still sprouting in its native India, commercial production has seen vetiver farmed further afield with Haiti, Indonesia and Réunion in particular muscling in on the action to distil the prized oil from the grass’ roots. In fact, some communities depend on vetiver exports as their primary source of livelihood, so each time you spray this scent rest assured that you’re helping provide industry in underdeveloped areas blossom. Smell good, do good.
Vetiver In Fragrance
Owing to the fact that it can’t be imitated and needs to be farmed, vetiver ain’t cheap. It takes 200-250kg of vetiver roots to produce 1kg of vetiver essence, which means that whole fields of grass produce surprisingly little vetiver essence. Chuck in turbulent tropical weather and destabilising geopolitical influences in the regions where it is primarily grown and you’ve got yourself one elusive ingredient. Yikes. Despite this, vetiver’s fragrant smell is too good to go without.
Paola Paganini, product development and innovation director at Acqua di Parma, explains the scent’s constant popularity: “Vetiver is one of the main notes in classic perfumery. Its warm and luminous accents have always been used to convey a sense of timeless and discreet elegance,” she says. To the unfamiliar, that means that vetiver is a mature, grown-up smell which says “I’ve got a buck or two”, but in a Savile Row tailor kind of way, rather than a just-signed-my-first-major-football-contract kind of way.
Don’t think that vetiver means old-fashioned and OAP-friendly though. The fact that it boasts many different qualities means the smell is a bit of a shapeshifter, and only heavy when paired with other intense ingredients. The best vetiver-based scents balance fresh smells with vetiver’s trademark masculine aroma, making it ideal for office to evening wear.
“Vetiver has a less ‘dry’ effect than other woods such as cedar,” Paganini says. “On the other hand though, it brings a smoky-earthy note in drydown.” In short, vetiver is bringing a little bit of everything to the table, which means it’s hard to pigeonhole. That’s good news for guys who don’t want to mess around with the bother of different day and evening scents. Dove is also a fan of vetiver’s versatility. “Vetiver is commonly associated with freshness in a scent, but what it is actually doing is bringing sophistication and depth to make them more universally enjoyable,” he says.
So then, vetiver is sophisticated without being in-your-face overpowering and it’s a little bit earthy, and sometimes smoky – don’t mistake it for a fresh, green scent though. “Many people refer to this odour as green because the first commercial vetiver fragrance, by Carven, came in a green box,” Dove says. “This resulted in the incorrect association between the ingredient and the colour, which continues today.”
Fun fact: it’s not just the sweet smell of vetiver that’s keeping this ingredient on necks and wrists – it pulls its weight behind the scenes too thanks to its ability to increase the lifespan of a fragrance. “While [vetiver is] known as a traditionally masculine note, it is used in nearly half of all feminine compositions, thanks to its excellent fixative properties and its ability to provide a ‘backbone’ on which to work with other materials,” says Dove.
What To Look For In A Vetiver Fragrance
Vetiver’s relationship with other ingredients should be your first consideration when picking a vetiver-based scent. As vetiver contains elements of warmth and dryness alongside various earthy, leathery and smoky aspects, a fragrance which also incorporates light, citrusy freshness will add balance and further complexity to this already intricate note.
“[Vetiver] is notorious for blending beautifully with citrus materials to add warmth and depth to a fresh accord,” say Dove. How much you want the vetiver to dominate your fragrance, however, is ultimately a matter of your nose’s natural inclinations, so get sniffing.
The Best Vetiver Fragrances
Acqua Di Parma – Note Di Colonia II
Acqua Di Parma is the thinking man’s perfumer with a well-deserved reputation for putting artistry into fragrance making. The Italian brand’s Note Di Colonia II blends vetiver with sandalwood and musk alongside fresher notes such as orange and grapefruit to give a deep and intense yet woody and uplifting finish with no one note overpowering the next. Plus, in terms of staying power, it’s potent without being overbearing.
Serge Lutens – Vetiver Oriental
In Serge Lutens’ Vetiver Oriental, you’re going to have to wait a while for the star of the show to make an appearance, and that’s all a part of this fragrance’s appeal. Sandalwood, chocolate and musk all feature before the fragrance rests at vetiver, resulting in a combination that’s bold, masculine and elegant in an old-school kinda way.
Tom Ford – Grey Vetiver
You don’t need us to tell you that Tom Ford scents are something of a gold standard in the fragrance world, so Grey Vetiver comes with a reputation to uphold. Without overcomplicating things, in this scent vetiver is the dominant note with spice and citrus serving to balance things out. It’s sophisticated and suave yet simple and unfussy, not unlike the man himself.
Guerlain – Vetiver
Guerlain’s 1959 vetiver may not be the first of its kind, but it’s certainly the one which sent the scent stratospheric. After an initial hit of citrus, this fragrance offers up peppery spiciness before settling on the titular vetiver. It’s the original benchmark for the balance of freshness and warmth prized in vetiver scents, and it hasn’t aged a day.
At some point over the last few years, Terre d’Hermes went viral and it seemed at least every other guy was doused in the stuff. It’s easy to see (or smell) how it became a contemporary classic. Vetiver stays in the background while citrusy lemon and orange oils lighten things up; patchouli and cedar add earthy woodiness; and pepper brings the spice.
Roja Parfums – Vetiver Pour Homme
Proving that our continental neighbours don’t have a monopoly on fine fragrance, British perfumer Roja Dove has created a home-grown vetiver-based scent that rivals the skill utilised in marquee-name fragrances. Vetiver Pour Homme is dry and smokily warm and resists the urge to restrain vetiver’s distinct scent, instead complementing it with a supporting cast of floral, citrus and spicy notes. Best of British.
Creed – Original Vetiver
Not content with plundering the goodness from the roots and clearly subscribing to the waste-not-want-not mantra, Creed’s Original Vetiver is infused with all three parts of vetiver grass (leaves, root, heart) to give a fresher, greener overall finish. Lighter than your usual vetiver-based fragrances, it sticks around long after it’s been sprayed, making it ideal for would-be summer vetiver wearers.