Wednesday, March 16, 2011

New Chypre Perfumes versus the Old Style: What's your vintage?

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
There was at the time of the Roman Empire a perfume that bore the name of Chypre which was composed of labdanum, Turkish storax and calamus. The production of this perfume continued in Italy through the Middle Ages with a variety of natural aromatics used.
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.


Unknown said...

Thanks for the post! I've never smelled any of the original chypres, but I love vintage Bandit. After that, I like the modern classic chypres you metion like Givenchy III and Ma Griffe. Would you include Magie Noir as a chypre?

My favourite recent perfumes that I would class as modern chypres are Ormonde Jayne Tiare, Parfums de Nicolai Le Temps d'un Fete and Roja Dove Diaghilev, although the first two are much lighter, without the animal aspect to the base.

I never thought of Lovely as a chypre, but now that you say it, its fluffy musk and patchouli base reminds me a lot of Balenciaga Paris, which calls itself a modern chypre.

Amelia said...

kjanicki: I always use the Lovely example because it is so un-chypre according to my understanding of the tradition, yet it is classed that way. Thank you for contributing a few of your own favorites, as I am not at all up on the newer niche class of chypres...!

Undina said...

After reading your post I went through my collection (and even am running a parallel test of YSL's Yvresse and Andy Tauer's Une Rose Chypree as I'm writing this) and found my favorite modern chypres (Miss Dior and Diorella) and neo-modern chypres (Armani's Eclat de Jasmin and Frederic Malle's Portrait of a Lady).

Amelia said...

Undina: Isn't it so much fun to play with classifying perfumes? Of course, any classification system is quite arbitrary- and certainly perfumers don't follow or create perfumes according to a classification- but I certainly think it helps me appreciate more about the art of perfume. I love Diorella- such a terrific example, thanks for adding that one. Your neo-moderns are very lovely as well. Very nice, all around.

ScentScelf said...

Oh, how I love this post. Not just because "sheep bras" may be my favorite category--if pressed into such an exercise--but thanks to being a darn good and useful read it is.

I am going to have to "tsk, tsk" you for a moment...including that "Y" advertisement activated my "want" gland, which I generally have in pretty good control. I do love "Y," though...and have the bottle in the upper left, with the bakelite rim on the cap. Mmmmm. (Which means I'm set. Yes, really, if nothing else were to cross my path

Of the old old, I am a fan of the Millot and the Coty. Still wrapping my head around Mitsouko.

As for En Avion...I had the opportunity to try some from an urn. I must have been focused on what I had read about the original, because I very nearly snapped my head away in surprise. The sweetness was not only prominent, but predominant on me. Big disappointment. I intend to try again sometime, when I have no preconceptions...but it is not likely to be my cuppa.

Amelia said...

You and I are in agreement in loving our old shee-bras. I think Mitsouko is playing games with you, though! Was it you that was saying you thought Mitsouko in edc was smoother, or was that maybe someone else?
Let me know if you haven't tried the edc...

'Y' is one to tip over, isn't it? I have only enough to dab, which is delicious but it's got to smell like heaven, sprayed.

And as far as En Avion- I'm glad you tried the urn perfume, now I don't need to hunt it down or ask any more questions.

I have to say, even the Or et Noir (which I think is the modern urn perfume,) shocked me, not in a good way. I put up with it for the extreme love I had for it, but it's like wearing a messy ghost of the original.

Not to hark on it too much but Caron was great. Their perfumes were legendary, and full of rare special effects - all those have been striped away now. I've only tried 3 of the current urn perfumes but all are a shame compared to even their 10 years ago versions - I can't even review OeN, it's just too embarrassing.

On an up note, there always great stuff to be found elsewhere and my pocketbook is sure relieved:)

Anonymous said...

Hi Amelia. :-) Wow, I just stumbled onto this post, and I'm struck by how much our respective blog posts complement each other, mine being more specifically focused on Chypre de Coty. Although you are more enthusiastic about the early chypres than I am, I can't help but notice that we make several of the same historical points in our posts. And I love your imagery about recoiling in horror at smelling many of these new celebriscents, turning back toward the Elysian Fields of high quality vintage classics. Evocative imagery and a wonderful post.

Amelia said...

I was thinking the same things upon reading your chypre post. Great minds and all the like, you know;)