Family: woody, spicy
Notes: bergamot, orange, lemon, neroli, vetiver, pepper, nutmeg, coriander, capsicum, tobacco, oakmoss, wood, tonka bean
Foggy mornings and salty ash
Period: The début years
Jean-Paul Guerlain was the first (and last) family member to create several fragrances for men, and Vetiver was his début. Ever since the company's great cologne period, Guerlain hadn't made any men's fragrance except Mouchoir de Monsieur and Jicky. Vetiver filled this gap. In fact, Vetiver was first meant for Mexico, one of the biggest consumers of Guerlain's old vetiver extract — a staple since 1840. In 1957, Carven's vetiver scent became a threatening presence on the market so director Jean-Pierre Guerlain planned for a modernization, a job assigned to his 22-year-old nephew Jean-Paul since Jacques Guerlain didn't find it very prestigious. Little did he know that Vetiver would become one of Guerlain's most popular fragrances.
Being madly in love with the aroma of his grandfather's ever so green chypre Sous le Vent, it wasn't difficult for Jean-Paul Guerlain, who had been designated as Guerlain's new nose just the year before, to choose a guiding idea, mentioned as "the smell of the gardener": tobacco and grass. Vetiver Eau de Cologne was launched in 1959, and its earthy astringency instantly proved successful. The way mandarin, coriander, nutmeg and wood played upon the stout, licorice-smoky vetiver grass root like a hoarse, dry cello was very unique, deeply satisfying and at the perfect point between sophistication and virility, suitable for both cufflinks and chaps. Jean-Paul Guerlain wanted the beginning of the fragrance, slightly aldehydic, to resemble the cool, hazy freshness of foggy countryside mornings; he came so close it gave you goosebumps.
The drydown was a chapter of its own, as though perfumery had produced a whole new inexplicable salty-ashy note, golden and clear like semi-dried tobacco leaves. "When Jacques smelled it, he said that it was too marvellous to be sold only in South America," the then Guerlain UK spokesman Roja Dove reveals. "Jean-Paul had created a superb vetiver note inspired by a gardener who worked on the family estate. He smelled of the country and the grass and carried a pipe in his pocket. It was the mixture of the pipe tobacco and the smell of nature that stimulated Jean-Paul's imagination." (According to Jean-Paul Guerlain himself, it was actually the gardener of a friend, not of the family, and he smoked Gitanes cigarettes, not a pipe. Just to be historically correct.)
Bottle. Vetiver Eau de Cologne was introduced in the so-called travel bottle, a very simple square splash container made to fit into a train case, hence its name, which had become the standard bottle for all Guerlain's perfumed Eaux de Cologne after Ode. At that time, its label was in fact not green but red, so when red-jacketed Habit Rouge was instituted in 1965, Vetiver got a noble racing green label and an addition of oval atomizers with green plastic covers in true sixties style. (All perfume houses, following suit of Carven's success, have sold their vetivers in green-coloured boxes. That's why vetiver scents are often described as "green" despite the fact that vetiver oil doesn't smell leafy but smoky.) In 1988, as Vetiver Eau de Toilette was prepared, Guerlain commissioned sculptor Robert Granai to design a new bottle, simply named the Eau de Toilette bottle, still square and masculine but more elaborately handsome than its predecessor. This bottle is still today emblematic for the fragrance Habit Rouge, to the extent it's often called the "Habit Rouge bottle". In 2000, a totally different look for Vetiver was advertised, with a modern bottle, still by Robert Granai, a greener juice colour, and a youthful packaging. The bottle was shaped like stacked irregular slats of clear and frosted glass, meant to symbolize the many layers of a man's life. As of 2011, Guerlain has moved back Vetiver into the classic Eau de Toilette bottle. The bottle's metal cap is in 2016 replaced by a coloured faux wood design that matches the exclusive Parisien line.
EdT. The EdT version of 1988 generally passes for "the reference vetiver" among perfume experts. Although it was a welcome alternative to the milder cologne, some men hung on to the latter until it was phased out in the late 1990s.
Reformulation. With a little pedantry, up to three generations of Vetiver EdT can be pinpointed. The first one from 1988, about which Luca Turin "could write volumes", was melodiously round, and green in the brownest sense of the term, with a raspy, windblown, natural warmth of dried grass and damp roots, and just the slightest possible soapiness whispering behind. When inhaled today, more than twenty years later, inquiring minds are asking themselves — and Guerlain — whether this high-finesse fragrance is more a question of juice ageing than of composition, a puzzle which probably never will be solved on any official basis since Guerlain stubbornly maintains that Vetiver's formula has stayed unchanged over the years. Vetiver's second bearing, the "new look" from 2000, had a brighter and merrier radiance with intensified citrus, and treemoss as substitute for the endlessly delicate but banned oakmoss, effecting a tar-like tightness up top, slightly hard and medicinal, which one also finds in new Mitsouko. But whereas it had a stiffening impact on Mitsouko's soul, it worked great with Vetiver, and people who can't stand any hint of sixties men's soap embraced the adjusted version. Its only major drawback was a loss of the foggy-morning feeling, altogether appearing more polished and less raw. The very latest bottles of Vetiver have downright any moss removed from the allergen list, counting as a third adaptation, and whatever is there instead smells a bit like black rubber. But, to do justice, it's still very much Vetiver, not least at its drydown which is as amazing as ever. Only maybe has the sturdy gentleman become a little younger.
Variations. Young fragrance enthusiasts seem to regard Guerlain's Vetiver as a bit of a grandpa's scent, and the brand has tried to draw on Vetiver's classic status in a couple of modern-man interpretations. Vetiver Eau Glacée, or so-called "Frozen fragrance", (2004) was a minty-nutty and minimalist rethinking that compared to the original seemed somewhat faint. This fragrance later reappeared in a limited Sport edition. Vetiver Extrême (2007) retains the pleasurable grass and tobacco accord of the original but in a darker mood, adding a strong, peppery mix of bitter herbs and sweetened cedarwood.
We love: that it still smells great despite the changes
Vetiver doesn't know gender
Irreproachable, however you are dressed, day and night, all year round
Some images courtesy of guerlain.com
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