Patchouli : Perfume Note

Patchouli

If there are smells that have an aura of particular time and place indelibly ingrained in their olfactory image, patchouli is certainly one of them. For many, especially those who grew up in the sixties, it is a smell of headshops, its earthy darkness masking the smell of marijuana. It is a smell that shows up in any blend bearing a reference to India. It is deemed as too earthy, too heavy, too overwhelming, too inappropriate for haute parfumerie. It is a misunderstanding, of course, because patchouli is one of the most unique scents and the basic building block of the many perfumery genres.

Patchouli (Pogostemon patchouli) is a two-three foot perennial bush with purple flowers, a member of the mint family native to the East and West Indies. The name patchouli originates from a word in Tamil, the southern Indian language, paccilai, which means “green leaf.” Leaves contain the oil, which is steam distilled either from fresh or dried leaves.

The scent of patchouli contains the same earthy element that is also present in vetiver, making it a dark and rich scent. It has an interesting structure, comprised of sweet herbaceous top notes, rich winey heart and balsamic woodsy base. The quality of oil will determine whether it will uphold its negative stereotype of musty and mossy or whether it will envelop one in an almost tangible cloud of sweet golden dust. The oil is often aged, which changes its olfactory profile, with a rich fruity note mellowing the spicy dryness. Experiencing a high quality patchouli oil is something a true fragrance lover should undertake, because it is one of the most fascinating essences. It is hardly a conventionally polite and elegant scent, however it is very haunting. The first rush of effervescent sweetness paired with the dark balsamic spiciness is quite memorable.

The usage of patchouli in perfume has been increasing since the 19th century. Recognizing its insect-repellant properties, the traders of silk and cashmere used patchouli leaves to fold inside their wares. Upon receipt of the products in Europe, the scent of patchouli would have permeated the fabric, thus adding an additional layer of allure to the precious and exotic items. Indeed, in the 19th century, patchouli become an integral part of various Indian fabrics made for export, which led producers of unauthentic paisley shawls to layer them with patchouli leaves, thus being able to pass them off as genuine. Empress Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III was among the first to favour shawls to protect her against chill, without obscuring the beauty of the gowns designed for her by Worth. Soon, patchouli redolent shawls become fashionable in the 19th century France, paralleling the rise of patchouli as a fragrance ingredient.

In perfumery, patchouli is often used a base note in chypre, oriental and powdery fragrances, marrying particularly successfully with sweet floral tartness of bergamot, chilly sweetness of lavender, voluptuousness of rose and smoothness of sandalwood (Morris 1984, 242). In aromatherapy, it is often employed to treat stress and fatigue.

Fragrances dominated by patchouli: Byblos Patchouli, Bond No.9 Nuits de Noho, Caswell-Massey Aura of Patchouli, Dana Tabu, Etro Patchouly, Gobin Daudé parfums Jardins Ottomans, Jalaine Patchouli, Keiko Mecheri Patchoulissme, L’Artisan Parfumeur Voleur de Roses, L’Artisan Patchouli, L’Artisan Fragrances Patchouli Patch, Lorenzo Villoresi Patchouli, Lush Karma, Mazzolari Patchouly, Molinard Les Scenteurs Patchouli, Montale Patchouli Leaves, Santa Maria Novella Patchouli, Serge Lutens Borneo 1834, Thierry Mugler Angel.

Some fragrances containing patchouli: Azzaro Pour Homme, Balenciaga Homme, Bond No. 9 Bleecker Street, Caron French Cancan, Caron Tabac Blond, Chanel Coco Mademoiselle, Christian Dior Dune, Christian Dior Miss Dior, Christian Dior Miss Dior Cherie, Clinique Aromatics Elixir, Coty Chypre, Givenchy Gentleman, Guerlain Jicky, Guerlain L’Instant Pour Homme, Guerlain Quand Vient l’Eté, Jean Patou Câline, Jean Patou Enjoy, Lalique Eau de Lalique, L’Artisan Timbuktu, Maître Parfumeur et Gantier Parfum d’Habit, Miller Harris Terre de Bois, Montale Aoud Lime, Parfums de Nicolaï Maharadhah, Prada, Rochas Lui, Serge Lutens Fumerie Turque, Serge Lutens Muscs Koublaï Khän, Serge Lutens Un Bois Sepia, Thierry Mugler A*Men, Viktor&Rolf Flowerbomb, Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche Pour Homme, Yves Saint Laurent Kouros.

References: Morris, Edwin T. 1984. Fragrance: The Story of Perfume from Cleopatra to Chanel. E.T. Morris and Co., New York.

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28 Comments

  • Octavian: Tabu has a wonderful “love story” between patchouly and carnation – an accord that changed the future of oriental fragrances. Opium was a modern variation of this theme. August 29, 2005 at 4:43am Reply

  • Sisonne: Dear V, your article contains so many informations that I didn´t know before – thank you very much! I wouldn´t consider myself as being a patchouli lover – though I do like perfums that contain patchouli – so far I haven´t found a fragrance dominated by patchouli that I love or could imagine to wear. I´m looking forward to your reviews 🙂 August 29, 2005 at 6:22am Reply

  • Laura: I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t know/have forgotten exactly what patchouli smells like. I’m going to Wholefoods today and will remedy that situation ;D. August 29, 2005 at 9:23am Reply

  • Lost in Jersey: I must admit I am Patchouli adverse. It brings back memories of my college days – although not in the 1960’s and I find the scent overwhelming and heavy in general. I detest any Patchouli focused fragrances but enjoy it as a base note. In Nuits de Noho, my skin picks up the jasmine more than the patchouli but I know it’s there – and like it in that version. The same is true for Tabac Blond although I never detected it in Jicky. I no longer dismiss a fragrance for containing Patchouli but it still gives me pause. Thanks for another great article. August 29, 2005 at 9:25am Reply

  • Robin: Ack, patchouli!!! Still working on that one. I’ll get there some day 🙂 August 29, 2005 at 9:33am Reply

  • Anya: Some patchoulis are quite rank because they are distilled in iron pots. They are also dark brown/red in color and can turn a perfume red. Those distilled by more skilled workers are made in stainless steel pots and are a lighter, sometimes even golden color. I don’t have all my notes on hand, but it can vary greatly from country to country, also. Indonesians are apt to tweak the oil with a balsamic oil. I have some 100 year-old golden patchouli and it is wonderful. I also have some dark brown resiny stuff that is overwhelming. All depends on the source, like wine. August 29, 2005 at 9:37am Reply

  • Tania: Marvelous post! But I think it’s a fool’s errand to try to list fragrances merely containing patchouli. It would take up your whole blog! I certainly smell a grassy, earthy resemblance between some patchoulis and some vetivers. I had the pleasure of rubbing an actual patchouli leaf recently, in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and smelling the fresh oil on my fingers. It was light, with a warm, clean scent, like a freshly mown suburban lawn. I’m betting that the headshop, resinous, fruity character we associate with potheads must come from an aged oil. August 29, 2005 at 10:15am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Octavian, I agree–Tabu is one of those trendsetters. As for Opium, I recall a Russian fragrance called “Red Poppy” that came out before Opium, yet it smelled very similar. I wish I had more information about it. August 29, 2005 at 11:12am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Dear C, thank you. I am glad that it was interesting. I like patchouli as an accent note, but my mission is more to change the negative stereotypes. There are so many different kinds that it is impossible to generalize. August 29, 2005 at 11:16am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: L, I am awaiting the report. Or else, come on over–my mini lab is open. 🙂 August 29, 2005 at 11:17am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: F, I think that it is one of those notes that is present in a great number of fragrances. The more I smell patchouli oils, the more sensitive I become to the note. Thus, I discover it in all types of fragrances. Some compositions are too difficult for me to wear, though. I also like patchouli to have an earthy note, which some modern patchoulis do not. August 29, 2005 at 11:19am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: R, I like following your relationship with this note! 🙂 August 29, 2005 at 11:19am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Anya, I cannot agree more. The variance is so great that one find difficult to generalize. I like aged oils very much, and I can only imagine what 100-year old oil would smell like. Most aged oils I have tried seem to be smooth and mellow. August 29, 2005 at 11:22am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Tania, it is true–listing fragrances merely containing patchouli is not something I am willing to undertake. However, I listed some fragrances–some that I like and some where patchouli is obvious to me.

    As for the balsamic headshop scent, it is really a function of how it is distilled and whether it is adulterated (cheap oils would definitely be tempered with). Anya mentioned the distillation type effect in her comment above. Aged oils are very smooth and mellow, with the haunting earthy note that makes patchouli so unique. New oils are spicy and green, more vibrant and astrigent. August 29, 2005 at 11:36am Reply

  • Sisonne: Dear V, of course, it´s always a bad thing to generalize – & I´ll give every patchouli that gets along my way a chance to impress me 🙂 Perhaps someday I´ll find one that I like – I really hope it! August 29, 2005 at 1:14pm Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Dear C, I look forward to hearing what that one patchouli might be! 🙂 August 29, 2005 at 6:27pm Reply

  • prahlada rao sudhindra: sudhindra from bangalore(south india). Patchouli information is very encouraging. Though i grow patchouli herd and also distill the oil, i was not aware that so many leading fashion/perfumery houses used it. Thanks a lot February 17, 2006 at 3:48am Reply

  • BoisdeJasmin: Sudhindra, welcome! Yes, patchouli oil is used extensively in many preparations, and there are many fragrances that contain it. Good luck with your distillation! Sounds very interesting. February 17, 2006 at 11:40am Reply

  • Linda: I have enjoyed wearing a hint of Patchouli oil for many years. Recently I was in a major department store, and as I walked past the famous maker cologne counter, I spritzed myself and walked on. The scent was perfect for me, and I know it had a base of Patchouli. I wish I had noted the name of the cologne. Any clues? March 10, 2006 at 7:16am Reply

  • Gid Gabriel: Hi,
    In the perfumes containing Patchouli,or where Patchouli is dominant you forgot :
    HABANITA from Molinard, created in…………1924 !
    thanks.
    GG June 15, 2006 at 4:56am Reply

  • Patsy: Patchouli- A old timer from the 60’s I had never smelled it until the 90’s. I’ve not been the same since first I smelled on a co-worker. You either love it, or hate it. I can’t imagine anyone hating it. Fabulous, Fabulous, Fabulous! Rock on March 14, 2007 at 7:32pm Reply

  • david: There is also Santa Maria Novella Patchouly. Not for the faint of heart. One of the few things that doesn’t go sweet or powdery on me. I’ve worn it for years, and never noticed it on anyone else – even in a major city like San Francisco. September 12, 2007 at 3:58pm Reply

  • LostArgonaut: Wonderful article!
    Farmacia SS. Annunziata’s Patchouli Indonesiano is the first patchouli dominated fragrance I’ve sampled so far. The whole scent composition of the pure parfum is devoted solely to patchouli. This exotic scent was at first very appealing to me, but then, I seem to be tired of its monotonic composition. February 27, 2011 at 9:36pm Reply

  • Victoria: I also get tired of something so monotonous. Plus, there are so many different patchouli based fragrances today on the market, it is not hard to find something interesting. February 28, 2011 at 8:26am Reply

  • Brian Shea: AH, patchouli! One of the most polarizing of scents. But I have to admit, I am right in the middle. I like it, but it’s not my favorite. I used to use it in almost every blend I made; I eventually got patchoulied out. But, I’m experiencing a patchouli renaissance. What got me started was finding an organic patchouli from Sri Lanka that smells like dark chocolate cake! Like a deep, rich devil’s food! I don’t find that much difference(only a little) in the different varieties of patchouli, but I noticed that it has different nuances every time you smell it. Sometimes I get a transparent, yet earthy smell, which I love. It smells just like fresh turned earth to me, and as a gardener, I love that. I get woodiness sometimes, richness, even camphor sometimes, however, I don’t get ‘wine-like’ or ‘fruity’ ever. I dug up a soap I made last year for Halloween, a black bat, and it definitely was ‘aged patchouli’ in scent. I’ve been happily bathing with it most of the month. All that being said, I really don’t prefer it alone, I like it mixed with things, especially sandalwood. Actually I consider the trio of patchouli, sandalwood, and vetiver to be the holy trinity! LOL! Also patchouli and oakmoss go together like peanut butter and jelly, actually better! October 28, 2014 at 8:31pm Reply

  • Nick: Hello, Victoria. I recall getting from Prada Eau de Parfum sweaty, camphoraceous whiffs before the earthy woodiness — I have used those to define patchouli. However, when I had the chance to smell the molecularly distilled patchouli oil from the personal olfactorium of a perfumer, I described it as ‘woody, damp, earthy’ as it seemed to lack the camphoraceous facet. Does this lack thereof have to do with the grade? February 5, 2016 at 6:06am Reply

    • Victoria: Depends on the distillation. Some new patchouli essences are purposefully distilled without the camphorous aspect. February 5, 2016 at 6:11am Reply

      • Nick: Thank you! February 5, 2016 at 10:02am Reply

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