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April 17, 2008

The Mystery and Allure of Chypres: On Fragrance Families

Chypre

Fragrances in the chypre fragrance family remind me why I love perfume in general. Granted, the topic of chypre could fill a whole book, I offer some tidbits to incite curiosity to explore this great family further. I also offer a selection of favorite chypres, from classical and modern, as well as some advice to those new to exploring this family. …

Olfactively, the classical chypre is defined as a combination of five notes—citrus (often bergamot), floral (classically, rose or jasmine), woody (often patchouli), oakmoss, amber and/or musk. Much like the variegated olfactory facets that are combined to create a chypre fragrance, the emotional effects of chypres are complex. The past few years have seen the revival of the family, which is in many ways due to its memorable character and unique signature. When the market is inundated with more than 700 new launches, the ability to stand out is important. At the same time, fragrance companies are afraid that too strong of a character will be a deterrent. Chypre fragrances are often able to strike the middle ground in this respect, although without doubt, the best examples are the ones that do not compromise (see my selection of modern chypres below.) The unique combination of accords in chypre creates a sensual and mysterious effect, a play upon the warm/cool contrast of materials. Unlike the appealing crispness and freshness of many fruity florals or the familiar, mouthwatering effects of gourmands, chypre fragrances evoke a more abstract sensation. While classical chypres are often dark and rich, modern chypres based on experiments with various moss aroma materials and the new family of sheer ambers tend to have an interesting transparency paired with complexity and depth. Moreover, with fashion tending towards retro, it is not surprising that retro fragrance families are coming back. So where did chypre come from in the first place?

The biggest myth of chypre family is that it was created by François Coty when he launched his Chypre in 1917. In fact, chypre (the word is derived from the French name for the island of Cyprus) was a blend of mossy and animalic raw materials common during the times of the Roman empire. Chypre as a name for an accord is often mentioned in 18th century perfume manuals. Guerlain had at least two very fine chypres, Chypre de Paris and Chypre, both pre-1917. Indeed, my bottle of Guerlain Chypre from the turn of the 20th century turned out to contain a potent mossy-leather blend with a natural musk note.

This being said, Coty has to be given credit for establishing chypre as a fragrance family. Coty took the classical idea and gave it well-defined structure and distinct form. The classical chypre as we know it today is largely due to Coty Chypre establishing the convention. Ironically, its novelty was the reason for its failure-- the rather startling, roughhewn beauty of Chypre mesmerizes, but it remains aggressive and unrelenting. Nevertheless, perfumers were intrigued. The genius of Jacques Guerlain—the great perfumer heading the house that bears his name-- was to refine the chypre. In creating Mitsouko, he softened the animalic impact of Coty’s Chypre, infused it with the lush sweetness of ripe peaches, added a spicy touch and placed the heart against a backdrop of an ornate mossy-woody accord. I look forward to celebrating Mitsouko’s 90th birthday next year; its impressive anniversary contrasting sharply with the short lives of many current launches.

Over the years, the family has evolved tremendously, and in fact, nowadays as long as the five elements of chypre are present in whatever guise (different citrus, different florals, moss synthetics and amber materials), a fragrance can technically be called a chypre. When I think of great chypres, Mitsouko, No 19 and Diorella immediately come to mind. Their elegance is tempered in a brilliant manner by sensuality. The bright, effervescent top notes belie the complex darkness of their hearts. As a result, the unexpected contrasts and the layering of sensations create a modern aesthetic, despite the fact that these fragrances were created in 1919, 1970, and 1972, respectively.

In my classical chypre hall of fame, I would also include Balmain Jolie Madame, Caron Tabac Blond, Chanel Cuir de Russie, Chanel Cristalle EDT, glorious Dior chypres such as Miss Dior and Diorama, Estée Lauder classics such as Azurée and Private Collection, Guerlain Chant d’Arômes, Parfums Grès Cabochard, Robert Piguet Bandit, Rochas Femme, Hermès Calèche, Jean Couturier Coriandre, Sisley Eau du Soir and Paloma Picasso Mon Parfum. Some great recent examples of modern chypres include Chanel 31 rue Cambon, Sisley Soir de Lune, Acqua di Parma Iris Nobile Eau de Parfum, Serge Lutens Rose de Nuit, Hermès Parfum des Merveilles, Lanvin Rumeur, and Hermèssence Poivre Samarcande. The allure of a beautifully crafted chypre lies in its unpredictability, in its ability to tease senses and to spark imagination with its abstract form.

The classical chypres mentioned above exemplify the diversity of the family, but rather like full-bodied red wines, they can be a shock to a palate unaccustomed to them. If you are a chypre novice, I would recommend starting with the sheer and delicate takes such as Hermèssence Poivre Samarcande, Chanel 31 rue Cambon and The Different Company Bois d’Iris. They illustrate the fascinating qualities of chypres I described above, while allowing you to be seduced gently, stealthily. One thing I can promise is that this journey will be rewarding and delightful.

Gorgeous chypre artwork by perfumer and photographer Michel Roudnitska from Art et Parfum is a perfect illustration for the beautiful complexity of this family, whose Noir Epices for Frédéric Malle is a gorgeous modern chypre with a nod to the classical heritage.

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