One of the best patchouli fragrances I’ve ever tried comes from Santa Maria Novella, an old Italian company with an 800-year history. They make simple, unpretentious, refined colognes that often highlight one key ingredient. In the case of Patchouli, the result is a rich, beautifully elegant fragrance that every die-hard patch head should try. As one commentator admiringly stated, “SMN weren’t f*$%ing around when they made this one.” No, they most certainly weren’t.
Many of us tend to think of patchouli as a 1970s thing, something worn by dirty hippies at Woodstock, but the plant has a history that goes back to the 1800s. Ship captains would use fresh patchouli leaves to cover their valuable cargo (usually silk), because the camphorous aroma would protect it from infestation during the long journey to Europe from the East. It seems that Santa Maria Novella‘s Patchouli was made at precisely such a time, well over a hundred years ago, judging by the cologne’s description on the company’s American website:
This perfume met a great success in the late 1800s and early 1900s and has now become a classic. The plant from which the fragrance is made grows in India and Malaysia and creates a warm exotic, oriental and musky scent. Perfect for men and women.
According to Fragrantica, there is only one ingredient: patchouli. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a pinch of benzoin resin as well, because Patchouli is not really a dirty, rubbery patchouli. It doesn’t evoke tarry, black oil or diesel fumes in a mechanic’s garage the way that another Italian farmacia’s fragrance did for me, the hardcore Patchouly Indonesiano from Farmacia SS. Annunziata. This patchouli has a refined edge to its raw intensity that is surprising.
Of course, it takes a short while to see that refinement because Patchouli initially opens on my skin with raw, dirty, earthy, chewy, green-black notes. For a minute or two, the camphor and rawness almost sting your nose, but it isn’t major and feels more akin to a pinprick from a wasp. Still, I did blink, I have to admit.
Yet, it is a small thing amidst the torrent of spicy, almost meaty, completely red-gold patchouli that comes at you. You know those photos of extreme surfers in Hawaii who are caught up in a gigantic wall of water that almost engulfs them? Now imagine that wall being red-gold-black in hue, with undercurrents that are spicy, musky, leathery, woody, and camphorous. That is SMN’s Patchouli. It’s wave upon wave, upon wave of patchouli. It envelops you, deep with endless body, gloriously spicy, and with a resinous feel that sensuously caresses your skin as tendrils of smoke curl around you.
And it only gets better. Roughly 30 minutes in, Patchouli turns softer, golden, and plush. The biggest change is really textural. The cologne has turned so smooth and deep, it feels like you’ve been coated in luxuriously thick velvet. There is now a golden brown glow to the black-red shadows, the start of that refinement that becomes even more visible as time passes. In a way, it adds to the impression of Patchouli as almost a mood and atmosphere, more than a deeply complex bouquet of notes. The fragrance has too much of singular focus on being the richest version of patchouli for there to be much else.
A few things surprise me, though. Patchouli isn’t very smoky. It also doesn’t have powerful tobacco, tarry, or leathery undertones. Even more surprising, there is no chocolate or any musty, dusty nuances on my skin whatsoever. This is not a patchouli fragrance that makes you feel as though the earth has been kicked up in your face, or that you’ve opened up a cedar chest in a fusty attic somewhere. The aroma may be raw and undiluted, even a little oily in feel, but it’s more chewy and musky than anything else. There is also very little booziness, although there are very fleeting, wholly indistinct suggestions of that which pop up once in a blue moon in the first 30 minutes. The most significant under-layers in the opening hour really would be mint and greenness more than anything else.
As a hardcore soliflore, Patchouli doesn’t change much and its main bouquet continues on a linear progression from start to finish. The scent continues to smoothen out the camphorous, raw edges, and turns more velvety in feel, softer in projection, and thinner in body. The main olfactory change is that Patchouli loses its camphourous and minty touches, the smokiness dissipates even more, and the perfume becomes more golden, as if a touch of benzoin has been used. And that’s really it. In its final moments, Patchouli is merely a wisp of patchouli woodiness with a spicy, sweet, golden feel.
Patchouli is a eau de cologne, so it doesn’t have monster sillage or longevity, but it has surprising heft for something with the absolute weakest possible perfume concentration. However, the sillage and longevity were only moderate on my skin. When I applied 2 very large smears, the sillage was initially 2-3 inches, Patchouli turned into a skin scent on me at the end of the 2nd hour, and lasted just a hair over 6.5 hours. When I doubled the quantity, applying about 2/3rds of a 1 ml vial or the equivalent of 3 small sprays from an actual bottle, I had much better results. Patchouli turned into a skin scent after 3.5 hours, and lasted just over 9 hours. The sillage still wasn’t great, but the longevity was much better. In short, this is a fragrance that benefits from a large application, but I also suspect that spraying would improve things over the smearing/dabbing that I had to do.
There is a lot of love for Patchouli out there, though always from those who are hardcore lovers of the note. It should be pretty clear by now that this is not a fragrance for anyone but a true patch head, and most Fragrantica commentators make that same point. How they adore it, though. My favorite review comes from the chap whom I referenced in my introduction, “Shamus1” who writes:
This is my favorite patchouli. SMN weren’t f*$%ing around when they made this one. Probably the darkest, most robust patchouli fragrance on the planet. It has almost terrifying potency for those who aren’t die hard patchouli fans. Pure, raw, damp, shameless patchouli for only the true believers. [¶] MY RATING: 10/10
He’s not the only one. Others describe the SMN scent as “heaven;” sum up their entire review with one succinct, bottom-line sentence of “The best patchouli in the world;” or say, “If I could have just one straight patchouli perfume, it would be this one.” A friend of mine and reader of the blog, “Bruno,” who is the biggest patch-head I know (and who has tried them all) calls the SMN his “Holy Grail.” Some of the other Fragrantica descriptions of the scent echo that sentiment:
- This is a velvety smooth and deep, unapologetic resinous patchouli. It is one of the most sensual calming and dimensional patchouli fragrances I have ever encountered. Very high quality here. It is not too dank, sharp or medicinal, does not remind me of a headshop, […] and it is quite strong. It’s heavenly. If I could have just one straight patchouli perfume, it would be this one.
- The best patchouli in the world
- After first sniff I‘m completely in love with this one, however this is nothing easy. Very very very deep and dry. It doesn’t contain any vanilla which is common element in almost all patchouli colognes or perfumes. Even Profvmvm Roma Patchouli is small smiling baby in comparison to this one. Try to imagine old house surrounded by old trees during the late fall. Outside is cold and rainy the rotten leafs around with very deep and characteristic smell. You are going to the house were nobody was living for decades… everything seems to be dead and completely frozen by time. You feel scared but no one is around. The wind makes noise and you feel cold moisture everywhere. The only way is to escape as soon as possible. This fragrance never ends. Even you are faraway from this place you will always remember it. This is Patchouli by SMN[….]
- Beautiful, easy to live with patchouli; quite expensive for an eau de cologne, but worth it, imo. It starts pretty great & strong, but settles down in 10-15 minutes, and gradually turns into a skin scent (on me) in 45 – 60 minutes, which is typical of an eau de cologne. It ends up as very round patchouli & a little mint on me, very soft and subtle. I love it so much that I reapply it a couple of times a day when I’m wearing it. I will still catch a slight whiff of it upon awaking the next morning from the day before. Extremely high quality ingredients. You’ll find nothing else quite like it. Givenchy Gentleman is much more “perfumey”, but it does have a similar vibe (but without the mint, and with some leather thrown in). I own them both & love them both. But the MSN Patchouli is really in a class by itself. I don’t see how anyone could be offended by this, unless they have an overtly excessive aversion to patchouli. Truly unique.
- Amazing, gorgeous, orthodox. The best patchouli. [Emphasis to perfume names added by me.]
All of this may explain why Patchouli is currently sold out at several retailers that I looked at, including Santa Maria Novella’s own American website. Frankly, it’s a bit hard to tell the precise retail situation, because the company appears to require its vendors not to sell the fragrance online but only in-store. (I think several would take phone orders, though, just as Luckyscent does.)
For me personally, the only thing that is stopping me from calling Patchouli a “Holy Grail” scent is the fact that the sillage, longevity, and body aren’t my ideal. I think I should get an atomizer version to see if that would make a substantial difference, because the vast majority of votes on Fragrantica — by a substantial margin — all find the scent to be “very long lasting” and to have “enormous” projection. That’s pretty astonishing for a mere cologne. Still, my skin is wonky, so I keep wishing that Patchouli came in an eau de parfum concentration, but oh, how I’m tempted to buy it nevertheless.
The bottom-line is simple: if you are truly passionate about patchouli, you should give SMN’s version a sniff, or else give up your “patch head” membership card forever. It’s that good.
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.