What is it about patchouli oil? For most people, it evokes a strong love or hate reaction. Many associate it with the free spirited energy of the sixties. Others find is reminiscent of earthy bodies in need of a bath. In a recent radio interview on Studio 360, Kurt Andersen discussed this and other "scented" topics with the New York Times perfume critic Chandler Burr.
Burr explains that in the Middle Ages patchouli was the smell of the spices and vegetable matter that the Middle-eastern traders would pack around silks that they would then ship to Europe.
He states, "The Europeans associated these luxury goods with this smell and therefore they came to think of patchouli as something that was luxurious. To the Arabs, the stuff smelled like mothballs, because, of course, that's what it was, it was a kind of mothball!"
I personally find patchouli off-putting in large doses, but appreciate its role as a base-note in many wonderful fragrances such as Gucci Rush, Le Labo Patchouli 24, and Jil Sander No. 4.
For more of Chandler Burr's insights, I encourage you to check out Robin's interview with him at Now Smell This.