Chypres Dark and Bright: from Aperçu to “Y” - And a Prize Draw
For some time I have been falling in love with Chypre perfumes all over again. Why now? I have found some new ones (to me) that I tried for the first time and also rediscovered favorites in either their current or vintage versions. The more I learn about these fascinating and sometimes odd perfumes, the more I appreciate them. (When I first smelled the great Rochas Femme many years ago, I had no idea what a chypre was, but I knew it was something really special and that I loved it.)
One moment of revelation came a few months ago when I took a chance on an eBay purchase with a small, very old sealed bottle of Ma Griffe with a rather shabby original paper wrapping. No one else seemed to want the bedraggled little thing so I bid on it and got it. When I opened it, there had been some evaporation but the fragrance, and it was Parfum strength, was as fresh as I could have hoped for, and the difference between this wondrous green chypre and the “modern” dumbed down, thin stuff sold under its name today almost made me cry. I just sat for a long time and inhaled the essence of it; it was like a dream in the heart of an ancient forest, a luminous emerald reverie.
One of the fascinations of chypre scents is how they can evoke such a powerful response in people, perhaps more so than many or most other fragrances. By this I don't just mean that they are either loved or hated, although that is part of it, but that the great ones are so connected to mood and emotion. I have been thinking about the range of these perfumes, from the somber to the lighthearted among them, and what my own responses to them are.
Of course, I do not have an encyclopedic knowledge of all chypre scents; I have never gotten my hands on a bottle of Coty Chypre, though reading its description so many times almost makes me feel as though I have. (I had just about given up ever getting any, but recently I read somewhere that it has lilac in it, so now I have to get it, somehow, someday.) Its most direct descendant still in existence today is Guerlain's great fruity-chypre Mitsouko, with its unmistakable aura of peach that dovetails perfectly with the raw funkiness of the classic chypre base. It is one of the most coveted of all the perfumes in the world, and deservedly so.
I think one of the most lighthearted chypre scents of all is a recent discovery for me. I picked up an inexpensive bottle of Yves St. Laurent “Y” (pronounced EE-grek) in Eau de Toilette and was delighted to find it both sparkling green on top and pleasingly rich in the base. Intrigued, I was lucky to find a little sample of the Parfum too, and it's just wonderful. This 1964 release was the first for the house of St. Laurent, back when chypres were still in vogue, but of course it is long gone now. It has a certain sweet “fizziness” to it almost like ginger ale that keeps it uplifting, and putting it on is quite energizing.
The previously mentioned Ma Griffe by Carven is much in the same vein, though even drier and greener, and its pleasing character is most evident in the vintage; it has actually been through several reformulations, so “vintage” is not always a guarantee with of quality with this one. It has a definite sharp edge in the lighter concentrations, but in the older bottles there is a definite softness too. It is spring like and vivacious and like nothing else.
Another “happy” chypre is a recent discovery for me, but it is now on my list of all-time favorites. A relic from the glory days of the great French house of Houbigant, Essence Rare is a true delight. It bears a certain resemblance to the fiercely green and intimidating Chanel No. 19, but its warmer character and exuberant sex appeal make it my clear favorite between the two. It has a delicious round fruitiness at its center that is a perfect foil for its classical chypre elements. It is now on my list of things I never want to be without again, although it disappeared from stores years ago.
Closely following a long the continuum of this style is the great and majestic Miss Dior. The house of Christian Dior nailed it perfectly right out of the gate with their first fragrance in 1947, composed by master perfumer Jean Carles, the creator of Ma Griffe, in collaboration with Serge Heftler-Louiche. It starts out as a somewhat animalic and intimidating fragrance, but the lady's heart is warm, and soon the green mossiness appears along with a subtle spice note that smells something like nutmeg to me; it may is probably the real ambergris in the base that causes this. It never gets sweet or loses its classical structure, but it does soften to become something that can be worn anywhere. It has attained a place in my top ten of chypre favorites – if I had to choose, that is, which would be quite difficult! (Miss Dior is still made today, but it is now reformulated and only available in Eau de Toilette form, so it may as well be discontinued.)
Miss Dior is a solidly constructed in the classical manner, and I have recently tried a couple of obscure older chypres that also display the “bones” of their genre very well. A tiny bottle of Bernard Lalande Chypre in Parfum strength is a straightforward and very good take on the type, although the top notes are not what they once were; I could not detect much in the way of bergamot or other hespiridic notes, but the white floral heart is pronounced and the base of labdanum, oakmoss and patchouli is practically a diagram of how to make a chypre. Years ago I would not have known this; thanks to my continuing perfume education, facilitated by both the generosity of my fellow perfume lovers and my own curiosity, .has enabled me to know right away, even when the bottle is old or the perfume damaged, that I am experiencing a true chypre scent. Another golden oldie I obtained for next to nothing due to its obscurity was Chypre by de Molines, a French house that is no more. Brilliant jade in color, it is a well-constructed scent with a sparkling green character that is a perfect reflection of its intense hue. It was still sealed and in excellent condition, so even though it is perhaps sixty years old, it is highly wearable. (Legions of perfumes were named simply “Chypre” in the wake of Coty's great 1913 scent, and virtually all of them are gone now.)
Chypres can be romantic too, such as the hazily gorgeous Demi-Jour, by Houbigant, released in 1987 (1988 in the U.S.) This oakmoss-heavy rose chypre laced with violet and heliotrope reminds me of a heavily draped boudoir full of murmured secrets. Perhaps the most famous and distinctive rose Chypre is Paloma Picasso's Mon Parfum, that icon of the Eighties that is no less fiercely beautiful and sensuous for being over-exposed back then. Powerfully infused with clove, patchouli and an almost scary animalic base paired with an intense heart of dark rose, it has no equal. The favorite rose chypre of many and one of the greatest perfumes of the Seventies is Lancôme’s Magie Noire. Its mesmerizing blend of rose, frankincense, myrrh and herbal notes is sometimes thought of as an Oriental style scent, but the mossy base rich with labdanum says otherwise. The 2007 reissue is a but a pale shadow of the original and it is more of a woody floral now; get the old juice and you will never be sorry. This is one of the sexiest perfumes ever created. And what list of romantic chypres would be complete with mentioning Jean Patou's Colony? The idea of a pineapple chypre is wildly creative; the execution was flawless. Heavy, syrupy pineapple drifts in a tropical haze, underscored by the most egregiously fabulous overdose of oakmoss I have ever smelled, and I love it passionately. Naturally, it is now gone forever. Oh well, you can't have romance without a little heartbreak I guess.
Moving on, a chypre of a very different character is the iconic green Crêpe de Chine by Millot. Smooth as the silk it was named after, its ladylike and elegant and deserving of its devoted following. Released in 1925 and and discontinued ages ago, it was then resurrected by Long Lost Perfumes, which acquired the formula. I have never tried the new version, but it cannot possibly compare to the good stuff; there is a good reason why the bidding wars on the auction sites reach a fever pitch when the Parfum of this one goes up for sale. If you want to experience the reference green Chypre of all time, this is essential.
I recently reviewed a modern green Chypre, Scherrer by Jean-Louis Scherrer. This one is near and dear to my heart, and it's amazingly good for a modern perfume; the current version is less redolent of oakmoss than the “vintage” 1979 juice, but it's still a great scent; for once something was not ruined by reformulation! It was one of my first really “grown-up” scents once I realized there was more to perfume than tender spring florals, and it opened up a whole new world for my olfactory pleasure.
Another good one in this rather dry, sophisticated style is Aperçu by Houbigant. It is what I would call a baseline chypre – classically composed, well balanced and suitable for just about any situation. Professional enough for the office but special enough for an evening out on the town, I reach for this spice-laced fragrance when I just can't figure out what else to wear. Be aware that this perfume is getting hard to find and is now sold by the Dana company in huge bottles as a “cologne” so who knows what has been done to it. Find an older bottle of the Eau de Parfum and enjoy. In a similar vein is Courant by Helena Rubinstein (1972), a dry chypre with a spiky galbanum opening that softens considerably as it wears, revealing white florals and a faint whiff of leather until it is actually quite sexy, like a prim librarian who wears black lace lingerie under her sensible suit. It's really too bad that this one is now gone forever like so many others.
Some of the green chypres can be a bit prickly, as we move into the area of Coriandre by Jean Couturier. It was once far better than it is today, but it has always been a bit strange, with the soapy/herbal opening and astringent character. I always admired it, but I am not a fan of the leafy herb coriander, also known as cilantro, though I adore the dried spice made from the seeds, which smells nothing like the fresh leaves which always make me think I am eating a bar of Irish Spring soap. Coriandre is the perfect perfume for when you need to be intimidating and in control.
Another “difficult” chypre is Miss Balmain by Pierre Balmain, which is a fascinating composition, dry and a bit dusty upon opening, also featuring coriander but it smells like the dry spice to me and not the leaf, with a faint ashtray note at first– yes, really - but something about it draws me in, and its puzzling complexity keeps me guessing. Do I smell flowers? How can there be flowers since this is not in the least sweet? Yet there they are, somewhere, along with oakmoss and vetiver and leather. Narcissus is here, but it's the earthy, almost camphoric kind, not the sweeter type. It would make a superb masculine scent, and if I did not know what it was I would think it was one. Give it a chance on skin, because out of the bottle on a test strip it reveals very little of itself. Recently I was able to compare a tiny sample of the vintage Parfum to the next-to newest formulation of the modern EDT; though rounder and fuller and more floral, it still had that weird dusty note and a grassy astringency. I don't think I will ever truly love it, but it has an eccentric beauty all its own.
So now we come to the darkest chypre perfumes, the ones that make an instant impression that sometimes drives people away before they have given the fragrance a chance to come alive on skin. These are the big leather chypres in all their glory. Perhaps the grandest of all was Cabochard by Grès as it used to be; don't look to the new de-fanged version for the trademark wallop of almost greasy leather and pungent patchouli. Its closest competition is Robert Piguet's Bandit, which could easily be a masculine and indeed it has become a favorite of men everywhere. The 1999 reissue is very good, but the vintage 1942 masterpiece by the great perfumer Germaine Cellier is the standard by which all others of this kind are judged, though not many are left and none are being produced today due to the restrictions on many ingredients, most notably oakmoss, one of the backbone materials of chypre scents. This one is not for the faint of heart or those who do not want to be the center of attention. Mlle. Cellier also created Jolie Madame for Pierre Balmain, and this is my own favorite among the “leather girls.” Its heart of narcissus, orris and other flowers combined with a rich base containing castoreum and a generous dose of oakmoss makes for an earthy scent that smells to me like the chilly awakening of spring, with fresh flowers barely obscuring the aromas of damp earth and forest creatures. It has been reformulated several times since its debut in 1953, but it has not been ruined yet. I have tried the vintage in EDT and Parfum and two later versions in EDT. I liked them all and I never want to be without this scent in any of its forms.
I have only touched on some of the wonderful chypre scents, and I hope to discover many more of them as I continue my perfume explorations. Which chypre perfumes have you loved, or hated, or found compelling even though you could never wear them? Are there any truly modern chypres that fit the traditional formula, or have they all gone away in the wake of the sweeping changes to the perfume industry? (I admire Chanel's 31 Rue Cambon, but I can't say that I think it's really a chypre scent, as it is purported to be; I think it needs a new category. No oakmoss, no chypre, I say. Or should I be more flexible?)
Don't be afraid to delve into this rich vein of perfumery, often considered outmoded today but nevertheless enduring. For almost a century, perfumes constructed in the chypre style have endured, and many of them are in the pantheon of the all-time classics. That there is such wide variety in this fragrance family is one of its great strengths.
Now for the good part: I am offering a “gambler's choice” selection of chypre perfume samples from my own collection. Some will be vintage but a few may be newer or at least “new vintage.” Please note that I can only ship to U.S. addresses. Indicate in the comments if you would like to be entered. (If you comment as Anonymous, please put a first name or nickname in the body of your comment in order to be included in the draw.) The winner's name will be selected using an online list randomizer program the week after this post appears. Good luck!
Image credits: Coty Chypre and De Molines Chypre perfume bottles, Perfume Intelligence.