June 7, 2011

Patchouli Part 1 - Vintage

Patchouli is a scent associated with times past.  I love the old associations.
As we know, the ancient Indian arts of perfumery often combined the beneficial with the beautiful.  Patchouli is a perfect material for hot humid climates because it naturally repels the abundant numbers of insects that such weather attracts.  Insects will naturally look to devour the fine wool carpets and silk clothing hand woven and embroidered with artistry and care. It was proved by observation that certain grasses and woods were distasteful to destructive insects, and the use of patchouli and vetiver and others woven into window screens and stuffed into upholstery and beds used the action of wind pressure and the pressure of the human body to release the essences and protect the home environment from insects.
The Europeans of the Victorian era loved the magnificently large hand-made Indian shawls, which were perfect for use as cloaks for crinolines, and highly scented with patchouli.  The scent protected the cloth from being eaten away by moths, and I imagine them packed with layers of patchouli leaves in the tight holds of ships, to make the long trip by sail half way around the world through varying climates.  The patchouli imparted its scent to the fine wool, giving the fabric its stamp of Indian authenticity, and the ladies wrapped themselves in this scented warmth in the cold seasons of the North.
As a perfume element it is soft warm and dark, with a hypnotic, sedative effect.  The aromatherapists say it should be used cautiously because it can be sensually over-stimulating and cause breathlessness.   At the same time it is beneficial for the skin because it balances oils and dryness and is antiseptic and soothing. The intensely sensual effect can always be balanced by a citric tang such as grapefruit.
The Victorians were drawn to a sense of complex ornament sensed through half darkness. The dimness could give room for the personal touches of imagination.  So it is with patchouli, a soft dark sensual perfume that inclines towards the imagination of the wearer.  As a tenacious base it holds other notes to greater length and in this way so lends itself as an expressive medium for the personality of contemporary perfumers.  As a basenote, its tenacity will influence and last through all the other elements it combines with.
The English, because of their long colonization of India, imported so many Indian artifacts and materials that their qualities became incorporated into the spirit of British aesthetics.   After the end of the colonial era, and a space of time, the young of the sixties rediscovered many of the artifacts of Victorian England, and through that association came back to India. Patchouli answered a craving for sensuality whose tenaciousness could withstand hard use to  enhance the experience of both chemical and natural sensual experiences.
Then also, the  U.S. opened itself to a pop cultural British Invasion, and along with that came the styles of scent, patchouli becoming the most identified with the sixties and early seventies. 
Recently I was so fortunate as to have the opportunity to try a sample of truly vintage patchouli, given as a gift by Mandy Aftel, who collects fine perfume materials, to a friend (Deana Sidney of the gorgeous lostpastpemembered) who shared a little with me.  It was incredibly smooth and deep, both soothing and exciting in its beauty.  I believe it was between 50 and 100 years old, and NFS (not for sale).  Certain scent substances will improve with age, as fine wine does, especially if it is of fine quality to begin with.
Monica Miller of PerfumePharmer has put together a special event, with more than a dozen modern perfumes based primarily (at least 25%) on patchouli, and sent them out to be blind tested and appreciated by perfume writers, acting as the proverbial patch-test bunnies.  Next time I will give some impressions of these modern interpretations of patchouli.
Paisleys above, from My Stuff & No Sense, from a fashion post on the use of paisley in modern couture.


Monica said...

beautiful and informative. I love your historical perspective Lucy although I feel always a stab of guilt at my British ancestry and the colonization of India. The value of patchouli is so far beyond the "unwashed hippies of the 70's", let it be known! thank you!

Lucy said...

Monica - Ihave never held with the concept of the sins of the fathers to be visited on the children --
be that as it may, this project is super cool and I am so glad you have all the energy it takes to steer it forth! Thank you for the kind words. I love patchouli.

mandy said...

your writing in this post is so sensuous and beautiful -- even a patchouli hater would be moved to give it one more sniff.

Lucy said...


that vintage Patch was divine. That would be a whole division of perfume essences people would die for, vintage sandalwood, patchouli, etc. Thank you for your encouragement and the beauties you bring to us all.

chayaruchama said...

No one writes quite so beautifully as you !
What a delight; and such pleasure to play with vintage patch.

Lucy said...

Thanks C, I do see that there are so many wonderful writers on perfume these days -- I did get a touch of that super old patch - I see there is a vintage patch on Mandy's site available for sale now. I think what Deana had was the super old Patch tho, and it was stupendous! Still want the vintage form tho, if it is anything even remotely resembling the very antique stuff, it's so gorgeous you want to have it with you at all times.

The Alchemists heart said...

just discovered your lovely blog...Patchouli aged by 50 years or more? I would have LOVED to sample that..

tarleisio said...

Once upon a time, I had all the wrong associations with patchouli. It ranked with musk as one of those scent elements I detested most of all.

I've grown since then...;-)

Because if it's done right, patchouli can add so much depth and so many facets - earthy, spicy, dark to everything it touches. As for vintage patchouli, I can't even begin to imagine how glorious that would be - patchouli taken to the next level of divinity! Lucky you that you got to experience it!

Isn't it amazing that patchouli was used as an insect repellant for those beautiful paisley shawls, and once it was, the West became aware of its beauty and the two were associated ever after? Paisley bhuttis are a symbol of abundance, luck and fertility in India, and for me, patchouli is a scent of earth and dark and grounding.

Thank you!

Lucy said...


True! The real thing, especially given some time to age, and used by a skillful perfumer is a dreamy olfactory experience that will seduce even those who have bad associations from too much exposure to poor quality. It's like the difference between good coffee and instant coffee, or a candy bar and real chocolate, or milk and cremora, etc etc. This is a rediscovery of a powerful perfume element. So glad Monica put this together. More later!

Lucy said...

Alchemist's Heart - thanks for stopping by! I and a passel of other perfume writers will be doing reviews of more than a dozen patchouli fragrances in the next few weeks, (see the link in the post from Monica's Perfume Pharmer site) and I expect many of them will be released. At this moment, they are in a blind test stage for us. I think there will be some very dreamy patchouli perfumes available to all in the near future. Also, Mandy Aftel is offering some vintage Patchouli on her site, for sale, vintage if not antique, so it is time to get over there and get some before it's too late, that's what I think....

lostpastremembered said...

I was a patchouli hater until I smelled the antique version... revelatory. Great post Lucy... I am learning so much!

Lucy said...

dear lost past/Deana, thank you for sharing that divine antique patchouli with me -- confined within the space of the car coming back from Olana it was the end...

Mary said...

Great info !
Perfumes are an integral part of a person's whole life.Perfumes are a key to what is exactly going on inside a man, what he/she is feeling and its emotional status. On the other hand it helps in changing the mood of a person.


Sandy said...

Dear Lucy,

We are huge fans of Indieperfumes over at Glam Media! We’re one of the top 10 online media companies in the US and would love for you to help pilot our new Health & Wellness Community at Bliss.com, slated to launch in the coming weeks.

If you’re interested, please contact me about joining our community for the launch!


Sandy Hayashi
Community Partners Editor
Glam Media

Lucy said...


I definitely use perfume for mood enhancement, one of the best aspects of perfume as far as I'm concerned.

Lucy said...

Thank you Sandy, I definitely want to know more about what you're up to. I appreciate the kind words.

Mark said...

It is informative....Perfumes are an integral part of a person's whole life.Perfumes are a key to what is exactly going on inside a man, what he/she is feeling and its emotional status. On the other hand it helps in changing the mood of a person.