Yes, I know: I wrote a short while ago that I didn’t want to smell like a place. And here I go, falling in love with just that sort of scent. Go figure. It’s a bit like when you say you can’t stand a guy, but then you discover you’ve got a massive crush on him. Perfume-loving as rom-com?
So last Friday, I pulled out a sample of Patchouli 24, Guerlain Bois d’Arménie’s evil twin, out of the untested samples box – and, lo-and-behold, spent the day elated. I worship at the altar of Annick Menardo’s Bulgari Black, one of the uncanniest mainstream masterpieces of the past decade, but somehow, I never gave more than a cursory sniff to her Le Labo offering – quite possibly because the dedicated counter of Colette, their Paris point of sale, is overseen by young ladies who are positively miserly with scent strips. Let’s not even mention samples (I’ve got to thank LuckyScent for that).
In The Guide, Luca Turin compares Patchouli 24 to the smell of a Russian scientific library filled with specimen jars brimming with toxic juices. I can’t say I’ve had the same experience, but I agree the scent exudes that deep, smoky, intoxicating vanilla smell you get from old books – not surprisingly since vanillin can be extracted from wood pulp. The delicious tarriness of guaiacol – a product present in wood smoke and obtained from beechwood tar, and the currently preferred source for the extraction of vanillin – adds a cosy books-by-the-fireplace glow to the blend. As for patchouli, its phenolic fumes feel a little buried in the smoke, but then, everybody’s said it already: the names of the Le Labo scents don’t mean much.
Whatever the 24 materials used in Patchouli 24 may be, they run the whole chain from the sweet balsamic (vanilla, styrax) to smoky (vanillin, guaiacol), on to medicinal (patchouli) and leathery (birch tar) to downright animalic (castoreum).
Patchouli 24 hovers between the edible quality of a slightly burnt caramel and the ballsiness of an aromatic chemistry demonstration. But then, Annick Menardo, the closest thing we’ve got to Germaine Cellier nowadays, is nothing if not one of the ballsiest perfume composers around.
Image: Photograph by Francesca Woodman, a remarkable artist who left us prematurely: I can only urge you to look up her evocative work.