I adore patchouli. But is it necessary for me to own every iteration? No, of course not (she said sternly to herself). My problem is that, because I love patchouli so much, I am as vulnerable to each variant as my Nana is to phone scammers. One sniff of this intoxicating material and my critical faculties desert me, leaving me with a patchouli collection that is at least 60% redundant. (The fact that I just admitted to having a patchouli collection is another telling sign of bloat).
I think of patchouli fragrances in two broad groups. First, straight-up patchouli scents, the bellwethers, the patchouli flags in the sand, i.e., scents that exemplify what patchouli is all about. Within this group, the singular – some might say forceful – character of patchouli nudges the scent in one of three directions: soil, cocoa, or amber. Second, the group of scents where patchouli is a key player but not necessarily the whole point. These tend to be more abstract than the first group, and cover a range of derivations, from the rose-patch and patchouli chypre to the aromatic, the boudoir-ish, the peppery, and the animalic.
The article you are reading now talks about the first category, namely the more straightforwardly patchouli patchouli fragrances. This is the group I find most difficult to curate. I tend to like them all and can argue with myself into the wee hours of the morning about how this one has slightly more geranium or that one a drop more amber, and are therefore worth owning. But, really, to anyone who only has a broad sense of what patchouli smells like (most of which will come from some childhood association with head shops, hippies, or health food stores), they are much of a muchness. I wear perfume for myself, so this shouldn’t matter. But when even I have stopped being able to tell the difference between Patchouli Leaves (Montale), Patchouli (Reminiscence) and Patchouli (Mazzolari) – if I ever could – it is time to pare back.
Don’t mistake this for anything approaching a guide or a compendium. This is a purely personal approach to cultivation, a paring down to my must-have in each patchouli category I’ve decided there is room for in my collection. Even the categories are personal. You might not think it necessary to designate a spot for a rose-patch scent or a pepper-vanilla patchouli, but I do.
Further, I am perfectly happy to own more than one fragrance in any one category if I find something beautiful or different that makes that perfume worth hanging onto. I am not Marie Kondo. (Apparently, neither is Marie Kondo these days). All the same, any outright redundancies that I identify will be whittled from my collection and either gifted to family or sold on Basenotes or Parfumo.
My objective is to finally start fulfilling the original mandate of this site, which was do as Coco Chanel advised, i.e., to look in the mirror before going out and ‘take one thing off’. Now, I admit that it’s not great to be referencing anything that a famous Nazi-sympathizer says about style, let alone name a whole website after it, but hindsight is 20:20. The principle holds true, however. Rationalize your choices, allowing what remains the chance to shine. My hope is that by decluttering redundancies, my collection will be reduced to only the ones that make me shiver with pleasure. After all, if that’s not the point of perfume, I don’t know what is.
Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash
Cold earth. Fallen leaves. Dark, damp soil, unsullied by amber or vanilla or anything that might soften that patchouli punch. Usually Italian.
My pick in this category is Patchouli by Santa Maria Novella (full review here). This is cold, damp earth, with a snap-crackle-pop of camphor up front. Menacing, dark, and even a bit sexy, Patchouli is nonetheless thin enough to wear during summer. Flashes of rose, leaves, and leather mark it out as a perfume rather than an essential oil.
Saying goodbye to:
Patchouli by Etro. If I didn’t have Patchouli by Santa Maria Novella, I would hang onto this. It runs close to the Santa Maria Novella in that it is a rather plain, straightforward patchouli, but worn side by side, the Etro emerges as far greener (mint, geranium), woodier (cypress), and more bitter (artemisia, orange). I will admit that the ETRO Patchouli is the more evolved and elegant fragrance of the two, as it goes on with less of a roar and its pacing is more even over the course of a wear. However, as much as I hate to pitch my two favorite Italian houses against each other, the Santa Maria Novella Patchouli remains deeply evocative for me, while the Etro never strikes me as anything more than ‘a nice patchouli perfume’.
Already yeeted from the Patchouli Patch:
Patchouli Antique by Les Néréides. Despite buying one of the pre-reform bottles from an eBay seller in Italy (back in 2014 when everyone was buying their Les Néréides bottles from the same source), I never quite understood the rapturous praise for this one. It smells, well, like patchouli, with only that incredibly dusty cedar note to distinguish it from the rest of the pack. The much advertized vanilla and benzoin finish is disappointingly wan even in the vintage version (their Opoponax, on the other hand, delivers the goods), so if you are feeling saudade for a version that has now melted into the ether of time, don’t worry – you’re not missing much.
Patchouli Patch by L’Artisan Parfumeur. I was never able to perceive the fruity-floral effect of the osmanthus in Patchouli Patch. In fact, because it wore so similarly to Etro’s Patchouli on me – a wash of cold, dry earth, enlivened here and there by tiny flourishes of herbs and woods – I sold it off not two months after purchasing it.
Patchouli EDT by Molinard. Sour patch, kids. I had a 2000 edition bottle, the clear glass with the smoky central label. Though undeniably good value and solidly constructed (like all Molinard scents), the dry, almost bitter herbalcy of Patchouli EDT always smelled ‘old mannish’ to me. This dusty air of decrepitude stopped me from luxuriating in the minty patchouli that lay at its core (there’s a process of one’s own skin becoming one with patchouli as the day wears on, and that didn’t occur for me here). It is a solid, unadorned patchouli for those of you who don’t want the distraction of rich ambers, chocolate, or vanilla. Unfortunately, for me, once these things are stripped away, all I smell is neglect.
Photo by Tetiana Bykovets on Unsplash
Patchouli in the guise of cocoa or chocolate. Bitter, earthy, oscillating between edible and inedible.
Borneo 1834 by Serge Lutens (Dark Chocolate); Coromandel Eau de Toilette by Chanel (White Chocolate)
Borneo 1834 was one of the first niche fragrances I ever bought, and one that never fails to trigger a swell of emotion in me. Its dark, musty, camphorous opening reminds me of the day I bought it – a blustery day in Rome, walking in dark streets before they turned the streetlamps, still slightly drunk from the wine indulgently but unwisely ordered at lunch. The cocoa note here is the dark dust soldered (with heavy machinery) off a black block of 97% chocolate, turned greenish at the edge by either mold or galbanum resin. Though there are gourmand nuances fluttering around the periphery – a hint of caramelized labdanum resin perhaps – the overall impression is of a cocoa that is as dry and medicinal as anything found in Chinese medicine.
The dustiness of the cacao reminds me of the shut-up rooms and papers in my childhood home, a decrepit old thing built originally as a forge the year the Irish Famine began in 1845. All the rooms were cold and damp. My brothers and I would routinely wear up to five layers of jumpers to survive the winters (we looked like genderless Stay Puft marshmallow people from a distance). My mum, a teacher, kept all her school papers and homework in a study, where it was left to gently decay over the years. Borneo 1834 smells powerfully of this noble rot – greenish-blackish spots of damp colonizing reefs of forgotten papers. Where Coromandel is creamy, luxuriant as a cat, and comforting, Borneo is raw, dry, and confrontational. I used to think of Coromandel as the better perfume, more wearable – but over the years, my parameters have shifted. I now think of Coromandel as a wonderful perfume, but of Borneo 1834 as an emotionally intense experience that I cannot imagine ever tiring of.
Coromandel Eau de Toilette by Chanel shifts the paradigm on Borneo 1834 by re-using the same basic template, but switching out the dark, musty 97% cocoa for the silkiness of white chocolate and adding a gorgeous rich, antiseptic frankincense note. The opening has the harsh aldehydic sparkle common to all the discontinued Les Esclusifs eaux de toilette, accentuated by a touch of bitter orange, and for a while, I imagine I am wearing a tweed overcoat kindly offered to me by a man, with whiffs of some male muskiness and sharp cologne still lingering on the scratchy wool. But the green-brown earthiness of the patchouli soon sinks back into a giant pillow of orris, vanilla, and woods, for an effect that teeters between powder and cream. What I love about Coromandel is its fatty, warming richness. It feels generous and kind, the perfume equivalent of drinking a bath-tub-sized mug of hot chocolate spiked with Irish whiskey on a winterish day, or taking off your high heels and feeling your sore feet sink into the folds of a thick cream carpet. Though it is not as evocative for me as Borneo 1834, and is therefore far more of a perfume than an experience, I firmly consider Coromandel EDT to be an essential part of my collection, as the yin to Borneo 1834’s yang.
The post-2016 eau de parfum and 2022 parfum versions of Coromandel are fine (with the balance between bright, fizzy incense and creamy chocolate a little off-center in both), but neither are an adequate replacement for the balanced specialness of the 2007 eau de toilette. Therefore, when my bottle runs out, I won’t be replacing it. That means that, within a year or two, I will have to content myself with only one choice in the cocoa category (Borneo 1834).
Saying goodbye to:
Psychédélique by Jovoy. By God, this is good. Thick, creamy swirls of dark (but not too dark) chocolate underpinned by a rich, boozy amber that just beg you to sip it rather than spray it on your skin. The patchouli is clearly patchouli – green, dirty, earthy as hell – but a transubstantiation of sorts occurs as you inhale, transmuting the soil to a fine-boned, liquid mass of chocolate, dried fruit, double cream, and whiskey. Spray-on truffles by way of Pierre Hermès. Despite the glut of gourmand notes, Psychédélique veers towards masculine, possibly thanks to the hand of Jacques Flori, who did many of the Etro fragrances, and whose signature (if he may be said to possess one) is the addition of mint, geranium, and carnation to keep even the most ambery of drydowns fresh and lively. In the end, however, Psychédélique cannot sustain the rich chocolate truffle accord for very long, soon devolving into a pleasant but standard ambery-patch, of which I have shamefully multiple variations. Therefore, as much as it pains me, I am compelled to vote Psychédélique off the island.
Already yeeted from the Patchouli Patch:
Patchouli Noir by Il Profvmo. I confess that I bought a (secondhand) bottle of this only because the great Darvant of Basenotes fame always spoke so highly of it. What I liked about it: the mint, the dusting of dark cocoa over (unadvertised) spacey white musks, and the gentle spice of carnation or clove. What I didn’t like about it: the tendency of the mint and vanilla mixture to come tantalizingly close to the wonderful scent of mint chocolate chip gelato but never quite get there because the accord’s impact is immediately diffused into scads of fluffy white musk. Sigh. Cock-blocked by white musk once again.
Photo by Alexander Grey on Unsplash
The earthy bitterness of patchouli balanced by the caramelic sweetness of amber (labdanum, benzoin, opoponax, vanilla).
Inoubliable Elixir Patchouli by Reminiscence. This is my absolute favorite in the ambery patch category, and every time my wandering eye alights upon other ambery-patch scents, and I head off to explore, I return to Inoubliable Elixir with my tail between my legs. I’m going to call it right now – Inoubliable Elixir is the Joanne Woodward to my Paul Newman. So, what does the steak of patchouli scents offer that the hamburgers of the category do not?
My answer is depth. Now, the basic structure of the ambery patch template never changes that wildly. With two such heavy, rich accords – patchouli and amber – there can always be minute variations in pacing (i.e., adjusting the point in the scent’s development at which the amber turns up to dunk the patch in its much-needed bath of hot, resinous caramel) and decoration (spices, floral notes, citrus), but the crux remains that balance between the leafy earthiness of patchouli and the voluptuous sweetness of amber.
Inoubliable Elixir trounces its competitors by ensuring that its patchouli and its amber go miles deep in flavor. The patchouli is raw, pungent, and almost feral, its darkness lifted a little by a bitter, grassy vetiver, a material that sings in the same earthy register as patchouli but inhabits the surface of earth’s crust, when sunshine and water still penetrate. The basic amber accord has been thickened here with a generous dressing of both tolu balsam, a South American resin that smells simultaneously like liquidambar, crushed ‘hot’ spices like cloves and cinnamon, and melted beeswax candles, and tonka bean, which throws in its roughened, tobacco-ish, almond cream heft for good measure.
When the dirty, greenish patchouli smashes into this thick, sexy, red-gold amber, it smells like I wish my skin would smell like naturally. I wish to live in this smell, roll around in it, have my pores exude it. Mind you, I own only the original version of this and don’t know how the modern version (in the clear bottle) measures up. But if it smells anything like the stuff that comes out of my wavy gold bottle, then there is no reason to ever stray, as it is perfection. It is also, like, €45 for a 100ml bottle. Patchouli by Reminiscence is similar to Inoubliable Elixir Patchouli but much lighter (think 40% of the full whack of Inoubliable Elixir), so I like to wear that in summer.
Saying goodbye to:
Patchouli by Mazzolari. Similar to the Reminiscence but with a honeyed labdanum material that gives the patchouli a luscious, smoked toffee dimension. It is so rich and sweet that wearing it feels like sucking on a never-ending square of butter caramel. All the Mazzolari perfumes have this almost super-sonic richness to them, an old school sort of intensity that translates to nuclear longevity and sillage, and Patchouli is no exception. It would make the perfect starter patchouli for someone who isn’t quite ready for the purer renditions of the note, as the patchouli here is not the dank sort that reminds you of upturned earth and musty wardrobes, but rather a sort of outdoorsy, green grass note. The dry-down is all about the amber, which slowly transitions from a rich, caramelic amber à la Ambre Precieux (minus the lavender) to a dry, almost powdery finish with a spackle of resins remaining on your skin à la Ambre 1144. However, gorgeous as it may be, Patchouli by Mazzolari essentially skirts too close to Inoubliable Elixir’s overall effect for me to keep it hanging around.
Patchouli Leaves by Montale: The marketing copy for this boasts that the patchouli leaves for this fragrance were first soaked in vanilla extract and then left to macerate for two whole years in an oak barrel. The top notes, consisting of insanely rich but dry patchouli that has a raisin-like booziness to it, like aged cognac, suggest that the blurb might, for once, be true. The dark, boozy patchouli is joined very quickly by a buttery, warm vanilla and amber that serve to sweeten the mix. The final impression is of a warm, golden river of almost drinkable, spiced brown patchouli, boozy vanilla, and thick amber. The amber is slightly resinous, adding at parts a slight roughness to break up the smooth vanillic undertow and a touch of powder towards the end. It is as comfortable as putting on a great big woolly sweater over your work clothes when you come in from the rain. If I didn’t love Inoubliable Elixir so much, Patchouli Leaves by Montale would probably be the next best choice (for me personally) because it is earthier and less syrupy-sweet than the Mazzolari.
Already yeeted from the Patchouli Patch:
Patchouli Nobile by Nobile 1942. To be fair, Patchouli Nobile is a far more nuanced take on the ambery patch genre than anything else mentioned above. The familiar tandem of earthy patchouli and caramelic labdanum is elevated in two ways. First, by way of a fougère-ish accord – a textured umami brew of sandalwood, cedar, geranium (or lemon), and oakmoss – which gives it an unexpectedly masculine dimension. And second, with a touch of smoke by way of a cured ham guaiacol and a sharp, piney frankincense. Patchouli Nobile is not the first ambery patch to draft in some frankincense or myrrh for moral support – Patchouly by Profumum Roma also treads this path – but to my knowledge, it is one of the rare modern ambery patch scents that dips a toe so unabashedly into fougère territory. (This of course makes sense, as patchouli has drafted in as an oakmoss replacer by perfumers for both fougères and chypres since IFRA first started clearing its throat).
However, despite its substantial Italian charm, Patchouli Nobile is too on the shy and retiring side to appeal to me. It is almost too subtle. Then there is the issue of the typical Nobile 1942 drydown, which seems to rely on a roster of cheap, slightly scratchy white or woody musks. I bought it, I wore it, I tried to go steady with it, but it never put out in the specific way I wanted it to. In the end, wearing Patchouli Nobile made me long instead for the gutsier, older versions of Givenchy Gentleman and L’Instant de Guerlain pour Homme Eau Extrême by Guerlain, both of which do a more convincing job of marrying the earthiness of patchouli to something sweet (amber, cocoa, sandalwood) and something fougère-ish (lavender, coumarin, anise). I sold my bottle, which wasn’t hard, because this is difficult to source outside of the EU (and sometimes, indeed, outside of Italy).
Patchouly by Profumum Roma. Profumum Roma fragrances are a bit hit and miss for me, so I only tend to buy the travel bottles when I am in Rome, and even then, only after repeated testing. The ones I like are a little off the beaten track of common praise; for example, I find the funky, feline cinnamon musk bomb that is Fiore d’Ambra (review here) to be far more interesting than the much-praised Ambra Aurea, and Dambrosia, while admittedly cursed with a vile pear hairspray opening, to be a better sandalwood fragrance than the brand’s own Santalum.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that while Patchouly is extremely pleasant, I find that it essentially splits the difference between an ambery patch à la Patchouli Leaves (Montale) and a chocolatey patch à la Psychédélique (Jovoy). The sole innovation here is that dry, smoky, but also sparkly incense that Profumum shoehorns into their more balsamic fragrances, which is always welcome. Then again, if I want myrrh, I can always buy some Olibanum (review here) or, if I crave that dry, leathery sparkle of a labdanum-patchouli-incense pairing, I can wear Le Lion (Chanel), which effortlessly outdoes Profumum at its own schtick. (To cut a long story short, I sold my travel bottle of Patchouly).
My final choices in the patchouli bellwether group are four: Patchouli by Santa Maria Novella for earth, Borneo 1834 by Serge Lutens and Coromandel EDT by Chanel for cocoa (paring back to only Borneo 1834 when my Coromandel runs out), and Inoubliable Elixir Patchouli by Reminiscence for amber. I am very happy with my choices, and perhaps more importantly, happy to have fewer choices.
Source of samples: I either bought or swapped for every single perfume referenced in this article.
Cover Image: Photo by Gwendal Cottin on Unsplash