Guerlain's Vetiver has always been the most popular fragrance of its class. Here is my personal view on the history of Vetiver.
It must have been an idea of the late 1940's to use Vetiver as the main note for a gent's cologne. It seems it was Carven who first came out with such a perfume in 1949, not Guerlain. For some reason, these dark, green and earthy colognes must have hit the Zeitgeist of that time. They did not stand alone. Next to the Vetivers, another dark green fragrance, the coniferous Acqua di Selva was tremendously popular – at least in Germany. I have always seen a close relationship between both - not only due to the fact that an amount of vetiveryl acetate may also go into AdS. For me, that Italian fragrance is a sort of role model for the classic Vetivers: it is dark, green and has the same “vibes”. The interpretations by the means of that tropical grass are just the more sophisticated way of expressing the same thing.
Vetivers begin with something even older - the concept of the forest. In my imagination I see old pine trees, spruces, larches and firs among other broad-leafed trees. Have you ever been in such a forest in summer on a not too hot day? Have you ever realized the beautiful murmuring sound that comes from the wind as it passes the branches, leafs and needles – only interrupted by a cuckoo or the echoing sounds of a woodpecker? And last but not least, did you sense the multiple scents that the summer breeze brings to you – of pine needles, tree resin, earth, brake and anthills?
In my country, the “Deutsche Wald” (German forest) was first invented as a place of longing by the poets and intellectual representatives of the romanticism. On their way to find the “Blaue Blume” (blue flower) some of them found the forest instead: “Wer hat Dich, du schöner Wald, aufgebaut, so hoch da droben?” (Who has built you, you beautiful forest, there so aloft?) - these words by Josef Eichendorff, transferred into music by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, soon became a popular folk song.
Aloft is the key-word here, it has a second meaning.
Entering a dark forest is a bit like entering a cave. The vastness is gone – instead, trees and foliage come close and give the surrounding a more intimate appeal. Leaves provide shelter from rain, storm and sunlight, and so, there is protection. On the other hand, thick foliage may hide the unknown that also comes closer to us. The poet however looks at high growing trees and thus, focusses on the grandness and sublimeness of the forest – and he relates it to the privacy of a forest home.
Intimacy and sublimeness, protection and the unknown – how can this go together? I think such contradictions was just what the romanticists were looking for. Like any other logical contradiction it can open a crack in reality and so - in the case of the forest - fairies, trolls and korrigans can enter and maybe reveal themselves to those who are able to see.
Spending time in a forest means to be in an environment with confusingly opposing aspects, and it is up to you how much of it you are able to sense. When the weekend came, there was no Italian Andiamo alla piazza - my parents took me to the forests.
Back to Vetiver. I remember wearing Guerlain's vintage Vetiver when I drove through the countryside some twenty years ago. It was summer, rain had fallen and now, all the forest scents evaporated and filled the fresh air. These well-known scents mingled together with my Vetiver, and suddenly, it made sense to me. The Vetiver was just one more forest note, it belonged there, it was part of nature, and it fit in. Even more, it amplified all the memories and the divergent moods that came with the forest air. This was the moment that Guerlain's vintage Vetiver became a favourite of mine.
It is hard for me to define the magic of it but it may have to do with some ingredients that are restricted today – evarnia prunastri? Anyway, the old Vetiver by Jean Paul Guerlain was the best of all. There was the forest character of an Acqua di Selva but without being downright coniferous. Very likely, there was something mossy. It was dark and noble, but it was anything but rough like so many contemporary Vetivers are. It was too elegant to be called earthy.
It may not have been the original intention to create a forest fragrance and as far as I know, Vetiver was never marketed as such. However, I do think that the vintage Vetiver may have touched all the wearer's multiple connotations with the forest, very often without reaching the state of consciousness. This includes that Vetiver never directly smelled like forest, but, figuratively, it somehow included all the magic and the concept of the romantic forest.
We will not get it back. A few years ago, I attended a meeting with Sylvaine Delacourte, Guerlain's art director. I asked her about Vetiver, and she complained about the IFRA restrictions. Still, I am not sure if the IFRA was the only reason. The reformulation may also have been a marketing decision after Guerlain had been as sold to LVMH. The version in the riffled bottle is still good, but the excellence and the respectability of the vintage Vetiver are gone.
Lately, Guerlain dropped the modern riffled flacon of the year 2000 version and went back to the old flacon. The only difference is that it has a silver cap now instead of a gold cap. Also, the badge on it is light green, not dark green. There are various accounts about the content of it. When I tested it I found no difference to the 2000 version. However, other Parfumo users found evidence of another reformulation – more smoke, more tobacco. For me, the question is still open. Maybe they changed the flacon but then filled it with different batches. I am not sure what exactly I will get if I should buy a bottle of it.
So, as Guerlain went only halfway back, what other choices do we have?
For me, Guerlain's Vetiver Extreme is the successor. I find it somehow muskier, more up-to-date and although completely different, a very respectable new approach. A very earthy, forest soil style Vetiver comes from Etro. Annick Goutal's Vetiver (recently discontinued) transfers us to the shores of Scotland with its most unusual salt and spindrift notes. The Vetiver's by Lubin, Tom Ford and Creed are all closer to the contemporary Guerlain Vetiver than to the vintage. Dominique Ropion's Vetiver Extraordinaire is a very dark and intense one, highly recommendable. I find Frédérick Haldimann's Vétiver interesting as it combines vetiver with a classic fougère note – a true gentleman's cologne. The Vetivers by Carven and Givenchy were released well before Guerlain's but then pushed aside by the superior Guerlain fragrance.
But - isn't there any left that somehow kept the vibes of the vintage Guerlain Vetiver? Well - what about Royall's Vetiver? It is just a cologne, and very bland – but I think it has got it.