Patchouli-themed Perfumes (Part 2)

Personally I prefer wearing mixed-media perfumes (synthetic ingredients mixed with natural ingredients) to all-natural perfumes because they are much more interesting and exciting to me. (Aldehydes, metallic notes, fantasy notes, etc.) Some time ago I have heard a perfumer say that a lot of natural ingredients are mini-perfumes themselves and not easy to finesse; and all-natural perfumes if not well-designed often smell “muddy” or “brown”.

Maybe patchouli essential oil is one good example – to me it is a mini fragrance. It is strong, full of character, herbalness, earthiness, and nuisances, but It also gives me uneasiness for I find them smelling “too close to nature” – too earthy, deep and aromatic, almost the exact opposite of smelling a synthetic white musk detergent. I can imagine a perfumer either using just a little of it in a perfume to add some character or “darkness”, or “go big or go home”, using a lot to make a patchouli-themed perfume with some complementary notes.

There is a patchouli-theme fragrance that I have recently discovered that makes me feel that the perfumer has tamed patchouli and turned this hobo into a fine gentleman – Dior’s Patchouli Imperial. The opening is smooth, ambery, sophisticated, mildly spicy, but undoubtedly patchouli, yet constrained. It is so impressive that I feel like I want to stay close and talk to him for hours, as if he has seen the world and now he is back to tell stories in tuxedo and sandals, but really, I should leave this handsome hobo alone after taking a selfie with him. As the perfume reaches dry down, there is something in it that’s really synthetic and borderline nauseating. (Synthetic vetiver, maybe?) But crazy enough, the opening is worthy of my purchase of a full bottle.

Then I rediscovered Chanel’s Coromandel (“Asian lacquered partition screen”). You didn’t know how much I disliked this perfume when I first discovered Chanel’s exclusive line of perfumes. It smells like… you are trapped in a wet, wood cabinet and forced to eat white chocolate flavored TUMS to survive. I threw the sample across the field like a quarterback superstar and hoped not to see it again. One day, while reorganizing my sample drawers here it was again, I sprayed some on the back of hand. The epiphany arrived – it’s a powdery patchouli scent. It’s as weird as avocado milkshake in a Vietnamese restaurant, but now I have seen through the unusualness and found it amazing. Hurrah for white-chocolate and patchouli flavored TUMS! (Amazing yuck.)

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Patchouli-themed Perfumes (Part 1)

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Patchouli perfumes: Noir Patchouli (Histoires de Parfums), Ylang 49 and Patchouli 24 (Le Labo), Patchouli Imperial (Christian Dior), Coromandel (Chanel) © Victor Wong

Three years ago, when my perfume journey just began, I had no idea what patchouli was, and what it smelled like. A small perfume shop sales lady had asked me many times what it smelled like too, for she thought I knew a lot about fragrances. (No I didn’t.) She was a bit embarrassed that she had no clue when her customers asked her to show them some patchouli-themed perfumes. I was more embarrassed; but I procrastinated almost two years before going to a all-natural supplement store and bought a small bottle of patchouli essential oil to smell. Now I know! (Dramatic lighting and a stern face.)

But before all that, my first patchouli perfume was Le Labo “Patchouli 24” (2006). This is the worst perfume to learn what patchouli smells like; as if someone shoves you a book on calculus when all you want to learn is multiplication. The smell of patchouli in this perfume is heavily masked by stronger smelling ingredients, and a lot of people argue that they can’t smell any patchouli it. (Now I can, thank goodness.)

Patchouli 24 is a challenging perfume, and I am grateful that it appeared at the beginning of my fragrance learning/appreciating journey – it has broadened my perfume palate, and set the possibility of what a $250 bottle of perfume could smell like. I didn’t have many perfumes back then, and I had spent considerably more time testing Patchouli 24 than I would for any perfumes today.

To me, Patchouli 24 is a heavy, tarry, medicinal perfume that smells like Chinese medicine pills with no sugar coating, and is made out of tree barks, 3/4 spoonful of tar, and one burnt tire of a Matchbox toy car. My love for Patchouli 24 suddenly sparked when I wore a sample one day while raking my garden. It was a cold, moist day, and I was perspiring heavily, and streams of P24 steam rose from under the neck of my hoodie. It was a beautiful melancholic “picture”; I stopped raking, and looked at all the bare trees around me standing in silence in front of a big grey sky. I dropped the rake and got back in the house to order a bottle.

My second “patchouli” perfume was, interestingly, Le Labo Ylang 49, but I didn’t know it until I blind-bought a second-hand bottle of Noir Patchouli from Histoire de Parfums from a friend. In fact, I remember some Youtube reviewer talking about Ylang 49, calling it a scrubber and a strong patchouli perfume. When I first smelled Noir Patchouli, my initial reaction was, damn it’s Ylang 49, except it’s cleaner, smokier and less floral. To me Ylang 49 is Noir Patchouli in drag and he fakes his tropical ylang ylang smile like the giant head of a theme park mascot. By that time, I had a strong idea of what patchouli smelled like and how it’s usually used in a composition.

To be continued…