The latest Tom Ford fragrance is a personal love note to patchouli that seeks to reinvent the genre. In Patchouli Absolu, Tom Ford says he’s used a “breakthrough new material” and untraditional construction, in addition to piling on layers upon layers of patchouli, in order to create the ultimate soliflore that amplifies his “beloved” ingredient’s inherent characteristics in the most refined way possible.
To an extent, he succeeds quite well, which means that Patchouli Absolu is a scent that only a true “patch head” would love. I’m one of those people, and, yet, I’m not in love with the fragrance. I expected to be, because there are few ingredients that appeal to me more than true, brown, spicy patchouli. Unfortunately, I found the latest Private Blend to fall a little short. It’s a nice fragrance with some truly lovely parts, but it’s not a patchouli that I would wear myself.
It might be useful to start briefly with an overview of patchouli, or how I define it. For me, traditional patchouli is brown/black in hue, with chewy undertones of sweet amber, spice, leather, wood, tobacco, and incense smoke. However, most modern fragrances that include patchouli use what I describe as a “purple” patchouli because the material has been handled in a way that makes it visually purple in hue: it’s fruity, syrupy, jammy, incredibly sweet, and with grape or berry undertones. Some examples of fragrances with a strong purple “fruitchouli” note would be: almost every commercial, department store perfume containing “patchouli,” Marc Jacobs‘ Lola, Chanel‘s Coco Noir, Le Labo‘s Ylang 49, and, at the high-end, Frederic Malle‘s Portrait of a Lady or Puredistance‘s Black.
Yet, the original type of patchouli was a very black, dirty ingredient that was used by 1970s hippies and is often described as a “head shop” scent. It’s almost tarry, oily, practically raw, with a strong backbone of earthiness and dustiness, and the blackness is accompanied by green from somewhat medicinal, camphor notes. An example would be Farmacia SS Annunziata‘s Patchouly Indonesiano, which is hardcore patchouli to the max.
My favorite kind of patchouli would be the brownish sort that was common in 1980s fragrances, and where the rawness of black-ish patchouli was diluted through other notes, usually amber with a touch of vanilla but also woody notes like cedar and vetiver. The very best, most refined patchouli might be a very modern scent indeed, Chanel‘s intoxicating, white chocolate, incense-y Coromandel in the Exclusifs line. However, it is not the only example of a more traditional brown patchouli. There is also Profumum Roma‘s lovely Patchouly; Serge Lutens‘ famous Borneo 1834; Jovoy‘s boozy, ambered Psychedelique; Oriza L. Legrand‘s also boozy, ambered Horizon; the glorious Santa Maria Novella Patchouli; and the fragrance that perhaps started it all, the benchmark Patchouli from Reminiscence. It’s not an enormously long list because true patchouli fragrances are not hugely common nowadays.
This brief, mini-history of patchouli should provide a context for what Tom Ford is trying to do. According to the Tom Ford press release, he is a essentially a “patch head” himself (he describes the note as “beloved”), so he wanted to make a modern, refined patchouli that highlights the best parts of the ingredient’s facets, but without the blacker, dirtier aspects that has put so many people off patchouli over the last few decades. It truly is a note with a very bad reputation, thanks to the hippies of the 1970s, and people’s association with “head shop” elements. I’m sure the dusty or earthy qualities of the note don’t help either, which is perhaps why they are the one aspect of patchouli that Tom Ford has completely eliminated in his “reinvention” of the genre. In essence, what he (and the Givaudan noses that he employs) have done is to amplify the other characteristics of patchouli — the woody, smoky, musky, and spicy ones — via alternative elements and some sort of new aromachemical called “Clearwood.”
The official press release for Patchouli Absolu explains it all:
Tom Ford reinvents one of his most beloved perfumery ingredients, patchouli, in a visionary new fragrance of alluring depth. Patchouli Absolu transforms the iconic raw material—famed for its rich and mysterious sensuality and its long history in perfumery—into a hypnotic, modern fragrance. Its premium ingredients, a blend of iconic perfumery pillars and a breakthrough new material, are brilliantly crafted into a non-traditional construction that makes this Fresh Wood scent the ultimate interpretation of patchouli.
Patchouli Absolu is Tom Ford’s personal ode to an ingredient that is intertwined with his own story. The iconic olfactive note of the 1970s, it evokes louche sensuality and after-dark glamour, as well as the heady blending of masculine and feminine that defined the era. This Eastern oil perfumed the skin of late seventies’ glitterati and bohemians alike, pervading the air of jet-set parties with a provocative, dark glamour. Patchouli fragranced the world that was to shape Tom Ford’s singular vision of style.
Today, Tom Ford reinvents this influential ingredient into a truly vanguard scent for a new era. Patchouli Absolu merges three opulent—and distinctly different—versions of this iconic plant ingredient. Patchouli oil contributes raw and primal texture; patchouli coeur, the ultra-luxurious, absolute extract of the plant, contributes an elusive and refined earthiness, and a breakthrough iteration of patchouli called Clearwood, used for the very first time in perfumery, is the most exquisite and pure rendition of patchouli’s darkly addictive signature ever captured.
The merging of these three facets creates the uniquely unconventional heart of the fragrance. They create a prism effect, reflecting off each other to intensify the depth and intrigue that is inherent to patchouli. Patchouli Absolu has a hypnotic signature that pulses with dark mystery. [Emphasis in bold added by me.]
According to Luckyscent, the succinct list of notes is:
Bay leaf, rosemary, moss, patchouli oil, patchouli coeur, patchouli Clearwood, guaic wood, cypriol, violetwood, cashmere woods, tonka bean, amber, musks, and leather.
Patchouli Absolu opens on my skin with a beautiful bouquet that would make any “patch head” gulp with pleasure. It’s a sea of spicy, sweet, almost honeyed patchouli that has a subtle musky undertone and a profoundly chewy richness. It feels beautifully plush, skews brown-gold in colour, and made me sigh with happiness. Then, seconds later, the cypriol arrives with its smoky leatheriness and its occasional resemblance to oud. The reason for that last statement is the fact that many oud fragrances in the West actually use a lot of cypriol and very little real agarwood, so there is sometimes a mental “oud” association even when a fragrance doesn’t actually include the note.
Here, the cypriol is very smoky and, to be quite frank, a little harsh. The first time I applied Patchouli Absolu, I used a moderate amount of fragrance, roughly 2 good smears, and the cypriol felt pretty rough indeed. There was also an aromachemical quality to the fragrance which actually veered on the abrasive for me. (It don’t know what it is, but it gave me a small headache every time I smelled Patchouli Absolu up close for too long in the opening phase.) However, things improved substantially the second time around when I doubled the quantity to 4 smears, because the increased amount let the other elements shine forth and thereby served to dilute the synthetic and intense woodiness.
I say this again and again for Tom Ford fragrances: quantity makes a big difference in terms of what notes bloom on your skin and what nuances appear. In the case of Patchouli Absolu, I have to add that smelling the scent on paper alters things as well. I tried it, just to see what would happen, and the aroma was even smokier, woodier, and harsher. This is a scent that not only does better on actual skin, but with a substantially increased quantity as well. It pretty much improved things by 50%, because it brought out the richer, more golden, muskier and sweeter undertones, while alleviating that damn cypriol.
As the patchouli-wood duet sing on center stage, other elements hover on the sidelines. Guaiac adds yet another layer of smokiness to the cypriol, while a subtle streak of amber stirs in the base. At the same time, there is a quiet, green note lurking about. It isn’t the traditional mint or camphor that is associated with patchouli, but an abstract bouquet of dried herbs. I really don’t smell a strongly delineated, individual aroma of bay leaf or rosemary on my skin; it’s merely a shapeless, herbal greenness that is very minor, muted, and squashed down by the woods.
At its core, patchouli is really a woody element, and Patchouli Absolu amplifies that aspect above all else. It feels like there is layer upon layer of woods to underscore that side to the scent, but there is also a large amount of smokiness as well. The two things overshadow the patchouli’s other undertones from its spiciness to its sweetness, tobacco, and leather. All of those things are present in varying degrees, but they are exceedingly minor on my skin, particularly the leather and tobacco. On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the highest, I would place spiciness, sweetness, chewy goldenness, and muskiness at a 5; while the green, leather, earthy, and tobacco undertones would be a 2. In contrast, I would rank the smoke and woods on my skin at a 9 each.
What is noticeably missing is dustiness. So many other patchouli soliflores include cedar and vetiver that it practically verges on some sort of holy patchouli triumvirate. Thanks to the cedar in particular, those fragrances can sometimes be drier and dustier in quality. A few evoke images of an old cedar chest in a musty attic (Les Nereides Patchouli Antique), while others (like Dior‘s Patchouli Imperial) conjure up images of a dusty road or cracked earth. Neither of those things, however, occurs here. Tom Ford seems to have deliberately eschewed that one aspect of the note, along with most of the mint and camphor. One reason why is perhaps the Clearwood, an aromachemical from Firmenich, which is described as:
Soft, clean version of Patchouli without the earthy, leathery and rubbery notes found in the natural oil.
So, to sum up, we have a very smoky, woody patchouli scent that is infused with spiciness, a wisp of earthiness, and tiny slivers of dried herbs, all nestled in a golden cocoon that is slightly sweet and musky. It pulsates out in big, rich waves… for ten minutes. Then, suddenly, to my surprise, Patchouli Absolu consistently deflates.
Like a balloon that has been pricked or a building set for demolish, the notes collapse upon each other and the perfume’s body flattens inwardly. It’s a very strange thing that I don’t experience very often in perfumery, but it happened on all three occasions I tested Patchouli Absolu, and it always did so roughly 10 minutes into the fragrance’s evolution. The sweet, chewy quality feels weaker, or perhaps Patchouli Absolu simply feels lighter once the top notes buckle. At the same time, the cypriol and the woody synthetics rev up into high gear, and the perfume turns harsher on my skin.
That portion of Patchouli Absolu lasts a little over two hours, but then things briefly improve. Roughly 2.25 hours into its development, the perfume begins to grow smoother, softer, less abrasive. Although the aromachemical nuance continues, the smokiness is more diffused and much improved. However, the woods continue to exceed the spicy and ambered elements. The latter in particular feels much less significant here than in other patchouli fragrances. Scents like Psychedelique and Horizon, as well as the patchoulis from Reminiscence and Santa Maria Novella have a deeper, plusher and stronger foundation of warmth. In contrast, the Tom Ford version seems to highlight the woods far more on my skin.
Patchouli Absolu continues to shift at the end of the 4th hour. There is a sudden streak of creaminess that appears in the base, undoubtedly due to the tonka. At the same time, the fragrance grows even smokier and woodier, losing more of its sweetness, amber, and warmth. By the start of the 6th hour, Patchouli Absolu is primarily a blend of lightly spiced patchouli and smoky aromachemical woods, flecked with small streaks of amber and creaminess. And that’s it. The perfume simply grows more abstract and hazy as time passes, before eventually dying away as a blur of smoky, spicy woodiness.
As a soliflore, Patchouli Absolu is generally quite linear and I don’t fault it for that. I always say that there is nothing wrong with linearity if you like the notes in question. My problem is that I’m not particularly enthused by the harshness of the woody notes. I don’t mind a more wood-centric patchouli fragrance; it’s the quality of the materials (particularly the cypriol) that I find to be a little rough. Had there been more of an amber presence on my skin to smoothen out some of its edges, it might have been a very different story and Patchouli Absolu might have been a little easier. Still, there are moments of greatness within the scent, fleeting wisps of something really rich, deep, plush, and appealing. After the wonderful opening minutes, however, they always seem to hover just out of my reach. My skin does tend to amplify aromachemicals, but I’m not the only one who has found a “linear harshness” in Patchouli Absolu.
In some ways, it feels as though Tom Ford was trying to do for patchouli what he did for amber with his Amber Absolute. Yet, Patchouli Absolu is nowhere near as hefty or rich on my skin. There is a velvety depth to Amber Absolute that is practically dense and meaty. In contrast, Patchouli Absolu feels like it has a third of the weight, and a quarter of the potency as well. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a gauzy scent, but it’s thinner than one would expect from a Tom Ford soliflore devoted to such a rich, intense ingredient. Personally, I think it’s due to the fact that the amber element isn’t really substantial on my skin, as it would have anchored and deepened the scent much more.
In addition to the aforementioned way that Patchouli Absolu flattened and turned hollow on my skin, it also wasn’t the mighty powerhouse than I had expected in terms of sillage or longevity. When I used 3 and even 4 large smears, roughly a little more than 2 big sprays from an actual bottle, Patchouli Absolu initially opened with about 3-4 inches of sillage, at most. That number dropped to about 1.5 inches after 1.75 hours, and Patchouli Absolu turned into a skin scent on me after 3.75 hours. All in all, it lasted just a hair over 9.5 hours. Those aren’t bad numbers, but they are less than I had expected and also less than what I experience with some other Tom Ford scents when I use roughly the same quantity. They certainly aren’t Amber Absolute numbers.
Patchouli Absolu is too new for blog reviews, but there are some early thoughts on the fragrance on the perfume sites. A handful of people on Basenotes have tried it, and greatly enjoyed it. Some of their comments:
- This stuff is an ode to patchouli. I love Coromandel but find it a bit linear. This fragrance on the other hand develops and shows the different facets of patchoili from the bitterness of the raw product to the refined sweetness of the finished product. It starts off with a herbal and quite intense blast of patchouli and what smells like bay leaf. The patchouli softens after a while and reminds me of Aramis 900 or Clinique Aromatics. It then seems to settle further and there appears a very subtle but not overpowering sweetness (more like a quiet background note). First impressions are that the perfumer reveres patchouli and has framed it in very compatible notes to really allow the main note to shine. Beautiful and a must for patchouli lovers [.]
- Its a nice fragrance that has slight similarities with Italian Cypress. The projection and longevity on the face of it don’t seem great with this one but its early days yet.
On Fragrantica, all the reviews thus far are extremely positive, though a few people had expected greater sillage and longevity:
- I’m not as impressed as I thought I’d be in the sense I expected it to have more longevity. It’s a very nice change to the overly done renditions of Patchouli on today’s market. Their is something about this fragrance that drives me nuts…in a good way. The patch is almost 3 dimensional. My nose was glued to my arm for several hours. I will thoroughly enjoy this bottle and will most likely own another. [¶] Longevity is about 6-8 hours on my skin. [¶] Sillage was moderate for about 4 hours on me.
- Patchouli Absolu is patch lovers dream fragrance! The patchouli presented here is front, back and center, and its slightly dusty, earthy (but not dirty) with some subtle notes of cashmere wood, tonka bean, leather and amber.
- If, like me, you love patchouli but always had bad results on skin, this one is just beautiful. It is patchouli in three dimension but something so refreshing emanate from it and not in a citrus way. On me it’s like the dry down never really happen. It keeps it’s light and enters a subtle sweetness along with amber. Patchouli haters often describe it as musty or even rotten wood, but this one should convince some. Longevity and sillage are great. Didn’t put much. It doesn’t scream but sure can smell it.
- Rich ,mysterious, sensual and raw , PA feels fresh and clean and super classy!,, this is not your typical old school patchouli that smells of the 60 s and burning incence and pot , this is rather ,,,,,,,classy and fresh, clean yet rich and utterly gorgeous. Think white patchouli but amp it up 3 notches!!!! ,,, or maybe 10 notches 😉 [¶] PA has patchouli all the way through it. Starts patchouli , middle is patchouli and so is the end. But it still has three stages. [¶] it starts extremely fragrant with bay leafs and rosemary strait herbal mossy and super appealing. [¶] Then in the middle it smells a little more woodsy, fresh woodsy, still clean and slightly ambery [¶] then the end is heavy amber, musk and leather , honestly , this is out of this world[.]
As you can see, Patchouli Absolu has a lot of fans. Personally, it is a scent that I would only recommend to a true “patch head.” People outside of that category — particularly women — may find Patchouli Absolu to skew a little masculine, though I think it would be due to the woods more than the main ingredient. Regardless, if you love patchouli, then this is a scent that you should sample for yourself.
Disclosure: My sample was provided courtesy of Luckyscent. That did not impact this review. I do not do paid reviews, and my opinions are my own.