photo: Milton Greene
Note: Under the comments section of my old post on 001Coty perfumefountain asked me about the old style chypres... My off the cuff answer got me thinking about Chypres again. Perhaps the most misunderstood of perfume types: the Chypre. Pronounced sheepra, these perfumes bear this name originally after being associated with the Greek island of Cyprus. Cyprus was known in the Old World as the land of cistus labdanum, a plant resin of the flowering 'rock rose'. Labdanum resins have been used in perfumes since antiquity because they provide a well-fixing perfume base and have a pleasant leathery-rosy balsamic scent. You can find mentions of chypre perfumes sprinkled throughout history, making this a truly ancient perfume type. One story line: see this website
Alternatively there is this theory:
...Cyprus of Kypros, a tree on Cyprus whose leaves produce the perfume called Chypre when cooked in oil ...
1937 ad for Coty Chypre
Less debated is the so-called modern history of chypres, which begins for us in 1917 when Francois Coty (1876-1934) created his then-modern take on this undoubtedly ancient perfume form. Even if Coty was not the first to make a chypre style perfume, he branded it rather successfully. He graced his 1917 Chypre with a classic bergamot/citrus, almost cologne-like opening and built the floral heart around a typical harmony of white flowers. He anchored the composition with a rich mossy ("foresty") base comprised of oakmoss (technically a parasitic tree lichen), styrax (a balsamic tree resin), musk (smoothing animal diffusive note), patchouli (earthy, tangy, loamy, aromatic), and incense (can be any mixture of woody or balsamic-spicy resins of myrrh, frankincense, maybe even vetiver or labdanum- that can be smoked to release their sweet mild to intense woody-spicy odor).
The base Coty perfected has an ideal balance of deep green, resinous and animal components- the bitter quality of the old style oakmoss imparts piquant flavor to the composition, and gives a pleasing contrast to the overall smoothness of the other base materials.
Early 'Classic' Chypres:
The style of chypre that Coty branded in 1917 became very popular. The form of the perfume was technically handsome and well balanced, the components were readily available. Other aromatics and flower adornments could also be added to the base with exceptional results. On skin, fabric and paper the scent had excellent quality. It is distinctive enough still today that you will know it again right away if you've ever smelled it before. These qualities made the basic chypre perfume an excellent starting point for perfumers many of whom took the basic formula and reworked it with their own unique hand. There are many perfumes labeled Chypre (or some take on it- Kypre, Chypron, as spellings may vary) dating from the 1920s through 1939. Chypre scents from this date-group smell very characteristic of the style of Coty's 1917 Chypre.
Some examples of early style chypres: Kypre Lancome, F. Millot Chypre, Chypre des Iles Sauze Paris, Lubin Chypre Royal...
In fact, pick just about about any old perfume house from the 1920s-1930s period and you will find they had a chypre perfume (Gabilla, Geille, Godet, just to pick a few from the old 'G' perfume houses I can think of). If you like playing detective games and want more information on these older perfume houses, you can find great listings at the Perfume Intelligence library and Cleopatra's Boudoir among other resources. I like old auction catalogs best, especially the ones with lots of color photos. I've found many chypres in this way, since pulling a needle out of the haystack is much easier once you've got a name.
Early Transitional Chypre: Mitsouko 1919; here, master perfumer Jacques Guerlain takes Coty's basic formula for a spin. He brings it back knocked up with fruits, a triumph and a mystery of modern perfumery, indeed! Already, Monsieur Guerlain is showing us what a strong bridge Coty has built...
Perfume production in France and in general was scant throughout WWII years (1939-1945) and I think that's probably why we see so few monumental new perfumes from these years; I'm not saying there weren't any, but too few to labor over here. Then in 1945-1955 we enter into a transitional period for perfumes.
Transitional Chypres: Bandit (1944), Jolie Madame (1953)
A plethora of new perfumes and new perfume forms are emerging after WWII. Tastes also changed and the old fashioned chypre was beginning to feel a little dated. In post WWII, aldehydes were the new (or not so new) rage. Chanel No 5, the aldehydic floral with a smooth musky animal base, balanced out with vetiver, was the 'winner' of the earlier generation of perfumes types. It is Chanel No 5 that was and perhaps still is most widely copied perfume archetype. Perfumes that give the impression of clean fresh air (or snow), and later- laundry are everywhere with us today.
Latter or Modern Classic Chypres (1950s-1980s):
During the 1950s you still find a few chypres being done in the old style, but by far, most are changing... New molecules have come onto market, particularly the vibrant green notes have allowed perfumers to explore the realm of lighter, fresher style scents. Sharp floral scents come into vogue now, too, to challenge the heavier and sweeter oriental ambers of old and to go with the 'new look' credited to Christian Dior. This trend towards green and herbal scents impacted chypres greatly. The modern chypre began to take on new angular lines. Bases lightened up, oakmoss and many of the older musks were replaced with newer chemical musks that came into favor. Leathery chypres, violet chypres, fruity chypres and green chypres replace the older traditional style chypres. These are the 'serious' second wave chypres, we see from 1955 - through 1980s.
Modern Classic chypres: "Y", Givenchy III, Miss Dior, Ma Griffe, Mystere, Scherrer
Neo-Modern Chypres (1995- present):
Through the late 1980s into the early 1990s, things transitioned again as new families appeared or came to the fore-front in perfumes: floral, gourmand, fruity, marine and woody styles become the predominant classes into which scents fall in terms of style. Among the heavy-weight neo-modern, new age perfumes, come giants like Angel, Cashmere Mist, l'eau d'issey, Light Blue and so many others. Some classifications like incense and oud that are very old and perfume type from other cultures are once again becoming popular and influencing mainstream perfumes, thanks very much to the phenomenon of perfume bloggers and to the niche perfume movement beginning around 2000.
Chypres were not left out of this second wave of modern perfumes but took on a decidedly modern form. Oakmoss has been greatly reduced in all perfumes due to concerns with sensitization reactions, as have many of the older nitro-musks, and more recently scores and scores of other materials.
This evolution of materials away from traditional naturals towards patented synthetic designer molecules and new head-space technology natural analogs has also had a profound impact on the new chypre perfumes being created today. Patchouli , especially 'clean' patchouli or fractions of patchouli are used to anchor most new-age chypres. Often these new-age scents feature openings drenched in 'red or berry' fruits (other types are used as well) and clean, soft cotton type musks to emphasize the prerequisite clean aspect of the scent. Sarah Jessica Parker's LOVELY (from Coty, natch) is widely recognized as a modern (I'd say, neo-modern) chypre. Here you find that modern chypre patchouli base done near its best.
As the cult of personality perfumes has permeated the air, perfumes are once again transitioning. And believe me, once you've met a few of the 'love children' spawned as the fallout from the IFRA collides with the new generation of celebrity perfume du jour line-cooks, you will go running back through the Elysian fields seeking the sweet, sweet arms of vintage perfume oblivion. Which, of course, is found only here and there and in the twilight-zone of the Vintage Perfume Vault...
The Vintage Perfume Vault, where the scent of yesterday's vogue lives.