Amazing Vetiver, Interview with Pierre Benard

We continue our seria of interviews with perfumer Pierre Benard. Last time we learned many interesting facts about Jasmine. Today Pierre has prepared a story about Vetiver.

Serguey Borisov: Dear Pierre! I am glad to talk to you again!

Pierre Benard: Dear Sergey, I dive back into my black ink to renew our correspondence about perfumery raw materials. This time, it will be Vetiver, or Vetyver, as it was written.

Serguey Borisov: First, the biology questions: the native area/country of Vetiver, typical usage, production and technologies, family and tribe, natural properties of the grass and its oil, etc.

Pierre Benard: I admire this plant, called “Sunshine,” its first-named cultivar, found around the world. Its smell was born of our Earth.

Its botanical group is associated with one of Cyperales or Cyperaceae, as nagarmotha with its essential oil is known to cypriol. Its family is one of the Poaceae, commonly called “grasses,” even popularized in “herbs” or “cereals.”

Its genus is updated to Chrysopogon. It will be necessary to mention the Vetiveria genus, detached by botanists, including Stapf, from the Andropogon genus where it was long associated with Cymbopogon (lemongrass, gingergrass, palmarosa and Java or Ceylon citronella … ). And now, it will be renamed Vetiveria zizanoides species, the most recognized in our perfumery, by Chrysopogon vetiveria.

Of course, there are other species. Twelve are listed. Chrysopogon nigrita, in Angola, is an example which gives an essential oil close to Nagarmotha. Its growing areas lie mainly in the tropical and sub-tropical regions, particularly along the riverbanks and over marshy lands—here, where there are more torrential rains—around the world between or under the tropics, traveling the South and Central American continents, Africa and Asia.

Vetiver is cultivated in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, Réunion, Kenya, Haiti, Brazil, and El Salvador … It’s a magical herb for farmers. By delineating their fields with hedges of vetiver, they prevent soil erosion, which retains their moisture. This herb mitigates pollution. Its roots detoxify the soil and water by a high absorption potential and tolerance for heavy metals. They are very active with a high absorption potential of nitrogen, phosphorus and nitrates …

From a domestic and traditional point of view, the roots, when moistened, serve as cooling screens when hung over windows, an ancient custom in Asia. Also, it is customary to make small bundles of vetiver roots, to be deposited near the linens to repel mites and perfume the fabric.

(As a household ritual, it exists in Provençal tradition. This extended to the French custom of sachets of lavender or lavendin being placed in wardrobes. Also reminiscent of the smell of clean linen: patchouli leaf. Before acquiring the olfactive and fixative notoriety in perfumery, it was known as a repellent, recognized in shipments of cashmere on the Silk Roads returning to colonial England. But, this is another story of a woody note … )

Serguey Borisov: Could you tell us the story of Vetiver in perfumery?

Pierre Benard: Its story in French perfumery is marked certainly in 1957, when Robert Gonnon presents to men, traditionally perfumed by Cologne water at this time, a new fragrance family—the woody family. It’s with the Vetiver, that of Carven, that the name of this plant continues to appear even today on bottles of old perfumes, of niche perfume, even for women, with Vetiver pour elle by Guerlain.

Serguey Borisov: When did its use in perfumery begin?

Pierre Benard: Since 1843, a vetiver perfume called Kus Kus has been produced continuously in New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1803, this scent was purchased from the perfume-loving French by the recently independent United States, where perfumery was then considered elitist and undemocratic. (Khus Khus is the name of vetiver in several regions of India.)

The name “vetiver” is borrowed from the Tamil name vettiveru. It appeared in the French language in the early nineteenth century. This time is important because in 1809, the first chemical analysis of vetiver oil was done in France on extracts from roots imported from the Indian Ocean Island of Réunion, then called Bourbon Island. Its presence in all the French colonies demonstrates its migration.

Serguey Borisov: What were its other helpful non-perfume properties?

Pierre Benard: For these helpful proprieties, medicinal and as an insect repellent, vetiver seems to have long ago been spread by travelers, merchants, and emigrants throughout the vast trading region stretching from India through Malaysia to Indonesia, and perhaps beyond … The essential oil contains natural terpenes and sesquiterpenes that have insecticidal effects.

For the body (aromatherapy), essential oil of vetiver has sedative properties, antioxidant, antibacterial, immunostimulant, arterial and lymphatic tonic properties. Multifarious uses of this plant are on record in ancient Ayurvedic treatises. Powder of ushira (the Sanskrit name for khus roots) is indicated with other herbals.

For the mind (aromachology), the essential oil is an emotional, reassuring stabilizer, which allows you to concentrate, to feel good. It’s called the oil of tranquility. Its scented water is used in religious rituals, and the plant is often found near temples and shrines in South and Southeast Asia. Requiescat in pace …

Serguey Borisov: What is the price of vetiver oil?

Pierre Benard: The retail price of vetiver in 2008 was 70 euros for Javanese vetiver, whose yield is 1.5-2% and in 2010 it reached 110 euros. In the same year, the Bourbon Vetiver from Réunion island was 200 euros, the yield is 0.6-1.2. Although the Bourbon Vetiver was renowned for its quality, it is rare and marginal due to lack of manpower, drought, reduction of acreage and a lack of organization. It was dethroned by the Haitian vetiver that is priced two to three euros less.

Serguey Borisov: Was it brought by the Knights Templar who came back from the Holy Land? Or by Alexander the Great from India?

Pierre Benard: I cannot confirm the historical ways, but the roots have been used for their fragrant oil and as traditional medicine since antiquity. The area of its primary center of origin, the wild area of its seeds, is from the Ganges plain to the Coromandel Coast, in the South Indian Peninsula.

Serguey Borisov: As far as I know, Vetiver is one of the most special natural materials—it can’t be synthesized from petroleum products or other commodities even today. Is this true?

Pierre Benard: Molecules of Khusimol (8-11%), vetivens (5-9%), alpha and beta vetivons and zizanoic acid round out the profile of its essential oil. This is the truth. It’s difficult to copy its nature. This is what makes it unique and beautiful. We can approach it, though to tame it will be difficult …

Serguey Borisov: Are there any bases that smell like Vetiver oil?

Pierre Benard: There are few bases that smell like vetiver oil. Its smell is complex and rich. For example, Firmenich has developed a base called “Vetyrisia.” To get closer to the smell, other woody natural notes can be used to create an olfactive approach. These materials are patchouli, cedars, amyris, etc …

Cedryl methyl ketone, called “Vertofix,” is the most common synthetic material typically used for a vetiver note. But there is also, for example, veticol acetate. Of course, it will add a touch of grapefruit essential oil, rose or white, which goes well with vetiver. Nootkatone or methyl pamplemousse can be used for this effect.

Serguey Borisov: How would you describe the smell of Vetiver oil?

Pierre Benard: First, the smell of vetiver essential oil is characteristic and this analytic term refers to its unique precious woody note. The smell is rich like the density of the essential oil. During the distillation, two phases of essential oils are recovered. Separated by water, one floats at the surface and the other is heavier.

The smell of vetiver has great persistence, with warm and deep notes found increased in the rarest resinoids. It becomes ambery and balsamic. Green notes can be noticed and smelled on the top. Indeed, vetiver terpens evoke medicinal odors, green and resinous pine. At the bottom, nootkatone, a natural organic compound found in a cypress of Nootka Island (Callitropsis nootkatensis) gives a grapefruit peel effect which is traduced sulphurously in vetyveryl acetate obtained by acetylation of the essential oil.

Serguey Borisov: What’s the difference in Vetiver’s smell depending on geography and source: Haiti, Réunion, Brazil, India, etc.?

Pierre Benard: In a magazine article, Jean-Claude Ellena described Payan Bertrand’s quality from the Indonesian project,“Terima Kasih”:

“This new quality of vetiver oil is very different from the regular oil of the market. We can identify well-defined dense woody notes, sulphurous, matchstick, and very interesting grapefruit zest notes. This vetiver lost the earthy, pellures [truffle peelings] potatoes unpleasant aspects of the usual Java qualities.” A study has been done on the parameters of the distillation: different pressures and a longer distillation time.

The smoky note known in the Java quality is reduced. From the best result, Payan Bertrand makes a fractional distillation. This heart of this oil refined is called often vetiverol because of the significant presence of vetiver alcohols. It’s a sweet woody note responsible for the longevity. Slighly sulphourous, the pink grapefuit peel effect of the natural nootkatone is increased too.

There is always a local effect on raw materials. For example, there are more zizanoic acids in Java quality and the reports between vetivons are completely different in Haiti quality. Other parameters will affect the smell. For example, if young roots are freshly distilled, the essential oil can have green notes like the top notes of asparagus, which will be appreciated not by perfumers but flavorists. The yield will depend heavily on the location of the harvest, the age of the roots and the extraction method. The equipment (inox alembics, for example, in Haiti) will affect the smell of the essential oil obtained. In some countries, extractions are still made with copper alembic, which sometimes gives the essential oil a cumin and cedar effect but also a beautiful turquoise color.

Serguey Borisov: Vetiver oil was obtained by the simplest water distillation. Have there been any technological breakthroughs in recent years?

Pierre Benard: Traditionally, the essential oil of vetiver is obtained by steam distillation techniques on the roots. They are harvested either by plowing or manually with picks. They are then cleaned and washed to get rid of the earth that gives it its smell. They are dried in the shade, then cut and chopped and again usually soaked in water prior to distillation.

In El Salvador, the process is hydrodiffusion. This process differs from conventional steam distillation, in that steam is introduced at the top of the distillation pot and the oil/vapor steam mixture exits at the base. The oil composition differs qualitatively and quantitatively from those obtained by conventional steam distillation.

There are vetiver extracts made by supercritical CO2 extraction and absolute, often called resinoids due to its resinous appearance. It expresses the base notes of this material to the best of vetiver essential oil grades.

Copyrighted by Andrea Frances & Nobs Hidrodifusion, El Salvador

Serguey Borisov: As far as I can recall, there were old preparations of Eau de Mousseline, which was basically eau de Vetiver. What are the most popular Vetiver perfumes from the past?

Pierre Benard: From the past, the most popular Vetiver perfumes are definitely Vetivers cited above, Carven in 1957, Guerlain in 1959, Lanvin in 1964, Le Galion in 1969 … Far from Cologne, I personally prefer the scents of a recent past, with Encre Noire by Lalique or Chanel Sycomore, from the collection Les Exclusifs, a dream of Mademoiselle Chanel for a woody scent from the 30s.

I appreciate these kind of compositions: carved around the raw material, enriched with naturals and refined by synthetics. That is my vision of luxury and elegance. Vetiver will remain an extraordinary raw material.

Thanks to Sergey for his passion for perfume, thanks to Andrea for her extraction works in San Salvador. Thanks to Krisheema, my Indian trainee during these olfactive writings. Thanks to Eva-Marie for her essential works and thanks to Dee for her meditation …