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Patchouli: Musty Woods, Damp Soil, Camphor, and Dark Chocolate

The journey of PATCHOULI from Southeast Asia to Europe and its evolution in fine fragrance is a fascinating story intertwined with textile trade, fashion, spirituality, natural disasters, biotechnology, and confectionery. Practically a perfume itself, the unique scent profile and characteristics of patchouli oil have secured its place as a timeless and crucial ingredient in the realm of perfumery across all fragrance families.

 

 

Patchouli Plantation

 

ORIGIN, HARVESTING, AND SCENT PROFILE

 

Belonging to the Lamiaceae family (mint family), patchouli (Pogostemon cablin) is a bushy herb native to India, Malaysia, and Indonesia. In a labor-intensive process, its leaves are harvested, dried, and fermented. The oil from the dried leaves is obtained through various methods such as steam distillation (the most common), solvent extraction, and fractioning, each of which yields a different quality. The cultivation and processing of patchouli provide an important source of income for many small farmers and workers in these countries.

Patchouli has a complex odor profile: woody, earthy, musty, camphoraceous and musky, with a dark chocolate undertone. Due to its intensity, derived from patchoulol, its main component, patchouli has a polarizing, love-or-hate scent. However, the depth, complexity, rounding, and fixative properties of its oil provide perfumers with great flexibility. and versatility to use it in a wide range of fragrance styles.

 

“The Journey of Patchouli” by Givaudan

 

JOURNEY TO EUROPE AND FINE FRAGRANCE

 

Significant in various societies where it has been used in traditional medicine and rituals, patchouli became widely known in Europe during the 19th century through the textile trade. Indian merchants placed patchouli leaves between layers of fabric to protect silk and cashmere shawls from moths during shipping. This imparted the textiles with a distinctive scent, which became associated with luxury and exoticism. European perfumers quickly began to experiment with patchouli oil, finding it versatile, complex, and multifaceted. It blended well with various raw materials, providing depth and longevity to their creations, making it an excellent base note.

Patchouli became a key component in the development of the chypre and amber (previously known as oriental) fragrance families. Chypres, characterized by a main accord of bergamot, labdanum, oakmoss, and patchouli, pioneered by Coty’s Chypre (1917), wouldn’t exist without this ingredient. Amber fragrances, popularized by Guerlain’s Shalimar (1925), also highly depend on its exotic and opulent character, enhancing their depth through the combination of spices, resins, and vanilla. Patchouli also serves as a minor supporting note in florals like Chanel’s N°5 (~1% of the formula), as a complementary note in woody compositions along with vetiver, cedar, and sandalwood (5-20%), and as a “solinote” (the ingredient is practically a perfume itself, with its own top, heart, and base notes).

Between the 60’s and 70’s, the American counterculture movement, also known as the hippie movement, gave patchouli a different meaning and, consequently, created different olfactory associations. Hippies embraced it to mask body odor and marijuana, in addition to its connection to Eastern spirituality. The poor quality of the oil used also helped create a stereotypical image of an undesired smell in luxury products. Slowly, the ingredient resurged in the fragrance industry, with perfumers reinterpreting patchouli, using its unique and multifaceted scent with other notes to create sophisticated and well-balanced scents, rehabilitating its image. Early and iconic examples are Reminiscence’s Patchouli (1970) and Clinique’s Aromatics Elixir (1971).

More recently, the demand for patchouli increased due to the rise and popularity of gourmand fragrances, well-represented by Mugler’s Angel (1992), where it is crucial to counterbalance the intense sweetness of edible notes like caramel and chocolate. Additionally, the restriction of oakmoss imposed at the turn of the century led to patchouli compensating for it, resulting in a wave of modern chypres exemplified by Chanel’s Coco Mademoiselle (2001).

 

Patchouli Fragrances 1

 

SUPPLY ISSUES AND SYNTHETIC ALTERNATIVES

 

During the late 90’s and early 2000’s, Indonesia, the major producer of patchouli oil, faced significant weather-related challenges. Heavy rains and crop devastation caused by plant diseases and pests disrupted the cultivation and harvesting of patchouli, reducing yields and further contributing to scarcity. Combined with political and socio-economic issues, these factors led to significant disruptions in the supply chain. With less patchouli available, the prices of patchouli oil reportedly soared from an average of US$50 per kilogram to as high as US$400. This prompted the fragrance industry to advocate for the improvement of agricultural practices and the development of more resilient patchouli plant varieties.

The scarcity of patchouli oil also accelerated the development and adoption of synthetic alternatives, such as Clearwood® by Firmenich, a groundbreaking and innovative biotech-derived ingredient obtained via fermentation of sugar cane. Clearwood® captures the essence of patchouli with a more refined scent profile – cleaner and less earthy. More sustainable and environmentally friendly, in addition to being more versatile and relatively inexpensive, Clearwood® has become hugely popular.

 

ClearwoodFirmenich’s Clearwood®

 

EXAMPLES OF FRAGRANCES RICH IN PATCHOULI

 

Patchouli has been a beloved ingredient in many iconic fragrances over the years. Here are several examples that prominently feature patchouli. These fragrances illustrate the versatility of patchouli, showcasing how it can be used to create a wide range of olfactory experiences, from bitter chypres to sugary gourmands, and from rugged woods to sensual ambers.

Reminiscence’s Patchouli, 1970 (earthy, amber, spicy)
Clinique’s Aromatics Elixir, 1971 (herbal, mossy)
Givenchy’s Gentleman, 1974 (spicy, earthy, animalic)
Caron’s Yatagan, 1976 (green, smoky, animalic)
Mugler’s Angel, 1992 (fruity, caramel)
Chanel’s Coco Mademoiselle, 2001 (floral, fruity)
Guerlain’s L’Instant pour Homme, 2005 (spicy, cacao)
Serge Lutens’s Bornéo 1834, 2005 (earthy, cacao)
Le Labo’s Patchouli 24, 2006 (smoky, leathery)
Tom Ford’s Black Orchid, 2006 (floral, spicy, cacao)
Chanel’s Coromandel, 2007 (powdery, cacao)
Nicolaï’s Patchouli Intense, 2009 (aromatic, earthy)
Frédéric Malle’s Portrait of a Lady, 2010 (rose, spicy, amber)
Jovoy’s Psychédélique, 2011 (amber, spicy)
Gris Dior, 2013 (rose, earthy, mossy)

 

Patchouli Fragrances 2

 

(text by Daniel Barros)

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DANIEL BARROS

DANIEL BARROS

Editor-in-Chief

DANIEL BARROS is Brazilian, based in São Paulo, and the author of  ‘1001 Perfumes: The Guide’. He has been collaborating with ScentXplore since 2021, contributing to content production and management, as well as organizing the annual ScentXplore People’s Choice Niche Fragrance Awards. In addition to his editorial responsibilities, Daniel is actively involved in mentoring niche brands and fragrance enthusiasts all over the world. Click here to send him a private message or report an error. Follow Daniel on Instagram @danielbarros_1001perfumes.

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