Patchouli has been given a bad rep over the years – dismissed as a hippie scent, you’re likely to find some form of oil being flogged from every other stall in Camden Market. Indeed, so strong are the connotations, one whiff makes you want to start singing “My Sweet Lord”, tambourine in one hand, spliff in the other.
But in fact, there’s so much more to this humble herb than covering up the smell of hash. It’s present in so many scents, whether nestled among oakmoss and labdanum to form the enveloping base of many chypre fragrances, or having a starring role in many modern classics (Tom Ford’s White Patchouli and La Labo’s stunning Patchouli to name but a few). You’ll know patchouli if you smell some – there’s nothing else quite like it, and the potency is second to none, giving it somewhat of a polarising, “Marmite” quality. We were very lucky to be invited by The Perfume Society to an evening they’d dedicated to exploring the history and use of this iconic ingredient – aptly titled “Patchoulimania”. So we took a trip down to Portobello Road to find out more.
The event took place at The Muse Gallery, who were exhibiting a retrospective of 60s pop artist Larry Smart. His works, such as his dizzying mandala paintings, have - like patchouli - become synonymous with Swinging London. Hence it provided the perfect backdrop for the evening.
Kicking things off was entrepreneur and author Craig Sams, the first person to import patchouli oil to the British Isles, alongside the kinds of health foods we now take for granted, but in the sixties were unheard of (brown rice, miso etc.). “The only non-food item on our price list was patchouli. The people who ate that kind of food wore that kind of fragrance.” So it seems we have Craig to thank for patchouli’s inextricable link with hippie culture.
“The main reason [hippies loved it] was it just had a really earthy smell. It mirrored how you felt, and it smelt right with the clothes people were wearing,” he explained. “There were only a small number of people who were into that kind of ‘expanded consciousness’. One way we recognised each other was by the clothes we wore and the other was our shared love of patchouli. And yes, patchouli would mask the giveaway odour of a lump of hash, but it was also an integral part of the peace and love movement. It’s an established anti-depressant. In Chinese Traditional Medicine, patchouli helps to balance our chi, the life force that flows through us. You become a more peaceful person. People who wear patchouli arguably have more sex appeal - it works on a subconscious level. Arguably it’s an aphrodisiac.” With that in mind, it’s easy to see how patchouli played an integral part in the famous Summer of Love (which as Craig reminded us, marks its fiftieth anniversary this year).
Next up was perfumer Beverley Bayne of CPL Aromas who further enlightened us about this iconic scent ingredient (and was clearly hugely passionate about her job, which is always a delight to witness).
“Patchouli is so widely-used because it’s so versatile,” she noted. “It’s still the mainstay ingredient in fine fragrances it has been for years. It’s incredibly powerful, we see it in fragrance in tiny levels and up to about 50%.
“It’s a member of the mint family - a small bushy herb grown across Indonesia. Farmers use it, they tend to just have a few bushes in their back gardens, so it’s a very local, family-oriented industry. You can find it in top-quality fine fragrances (both masculine and feminine) and it trickles down into personal care as well. In fabric care fragrances, it forms the backbone of the bouquet. It’s also brilliant in candles, air fresheners and joss sticks.
“We classify it in perfumery as woody, although it’s really a small shrub. It’s earthy, spicy and has a camphor-like, almost minty effect in the top. Its freshness lasts through to the base notes, and I find that as a perfumer really interesting. If you put patchouli on a smelling strip it will last for at least three weeks.
“Farmers collect the leaves to produce the oil in their back gardens in little iron stills. To process it they have to lightly ferment the leaves – they either let them dry in the sun or scald them with steam. The essential oil is obtained by steam distillation - the oil is literally the chopped up herb, steamed through the still. The oil comes through with the steam, which is condensed and collected in a container - then they take the oil off the top.”
Beverley then described how patchouli often gets used in perfumery.
“It’s really popular with perfumers – and is frequently used in woody chypres (quite heavy, sensual fragrances). It has a great affinity with vanilla – the vanilla cuts through the green earthiness of the patchouli, while the latter cuts through the sweetness of the vanilla – they have a synergy with each other. That’s what a perfumer is always trying to find. It’s also the perfect partner for florals, Ylang Ylang, English roses, ambers and musk. One of my favourite accords, is rose geranium, patchouli and Ylang Ylang. If you get it right, the bloom is incredible!
“Patchouli has been used for thousands of years, it defies fragrance trends and is always there in perfumery at some level. Ralph Lauren’s Romance contains 0.5% patchouli, but it’s a key character of that fragrance. It’s also in Pomegranate Noir by Jo Malone, and masculine fragrances like Dior’s Fahrenheit. In Coco Mademoiselle it’s got a really nice effect."
Believe it or not, patchouli was actually introduced to Westerners several hundred years ago, long before George Harrison and his fellow flower children claimed it as their own.
“It came over to Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries when silk traders utilised its insecticide and fungicide properties, by layering silk and patchouli leaves to protect the fabric from moth infestation. The patchouli prevented the moths laying eggs and it left that wonderful tell-tale scent. It was then associated with luxurious fabrics and from there started its journey into fine fragrance. As well as the Sixties, patchouli really boomed in the Eighties and Nineties with the rise of aromatherapy due to its anti-depressant and calming properties.”
As Beverley gave her presentation, different varieties of patchouli were passed around on blotting strips for us to sniff, from the raw material, to a synthetic version – all varying in quality and character, but all containing that unmistakable earthiness in one guise or another. We later smelled several patchouli-based scents, which were gladly not of the “five bob from Camden Market” variety, but gorgeous nuanced concoctions ranging from the mellow Midnight Patchouli by Van Cleef & Arpels, to the suave and seductive Psychédélique by Jovoy Paris, as well as the green and sprightly Patchouli H by Lyn Harris's new company Perfumer H.
At the end of the evening, everyone was clearly smitten and on a scent high – summed up by this delightful anecdote from fragrance writer Vicci Bentley.
“The first time I found patchouli in Kensington Market, I was 15. I’d come down from Leicester for the day with my mother (who was horrified at what people were wearing!). There was an amazing smell, and timid as I was, I asked a woman what she was wearing. She said it was patchouli, and I said ‘bless you dear!’ It was total love at first sniff!“
To find out more about the Perfume Society and attend lovely scented events like this one, visit perfumesociety.org/events/
Wafting out of the door, still in our post-patchouli trance, we decided to round off the evening with a walk through Kensington Palace Gardens, something no trip to West London is complete without...