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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Eau no you didn't: L'Eau Serge Lutens

By Tom

Remember the heady (literally) days when the release of a new Serge was at least by my awaited with a fervor unseen since the answer to "Who Shot J.R."? Days were counted, samples were begged; one heard rumors "opens with gasoline!" "The dirtiest musk in existence!" "Cat pee!!"

Somehow over the last couple years I just haven't felt that way. Maybe because of, well Chypre Rouge. Or Rousse. Or Louve. Or the fact that there are other perfumers out there even in my area code that I'm finding as exciting if not more..

L'Eau Serge Lutens is at Barneys right now. It's a fresh blend of sage, mint and magnolia and smells very clean, like you just got a haircut and brand new clothes. People on the interwebs have been complaining that it smells too much like Gendarme or something, so in the interest of Science and enjoying a lovely Sunday before the dreaded workweek starts, I went to Fred Segal and Scentbar to test the theory.

It isn't quite a carbon of anything; certainly Lutens would rather wear poly blend that go that route. Gendarme is sweeter, Sky is brassier, Escentric is woodier, etc.

I do like this; not enough to pop $150 even for 100ML. But I'm not going to pile on with the howls over this. We've all been saying that Uncle Serge has needed to branch out. First he brought us the penultimate fruity-floral in Nuit de Cellophane. Now we have the Apollonian ideal of "clean and fresh".

Moral? Watch what you wish for.

$150 for 100ML, at Barneys now, soon to be at Aedes and Luckyscent.

Image source,

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Letter to Mr.B., Master Distiller: Aged Hindi Oud (32 years old)

Dear Mr. B.,

I just couldn’t wait for the weekend! This morning I transferred your oil to a glass bottle and I’ve spent the last couple of hours getting to know it. Mr. B.- I’m in heaven! I feel so fortunate to have experienced this sweet, soothing oil! I know we’re going to spend many tranquil and dreamy hours together.

I’ve written down some things it reminds me of, though words don’t do it justice:

-the scent of very worn deerskin that has become so soft you can pull it through a wedding ring

-the scent of a gentle fire just as the first breath of smoke appears

-the scent of moist plums stored in an old wooden crock, dusted with cinnamon and doused in port wine

-the scent of moss baking in the afternoon sun

-the scent of a cello’s belly that has been played for many years

-the touch of my mother’s cool lips kissing my forehead when I’m sick

-the smoothness of a dark wooden ball that has been lovingly palmed by generations of children

-the smoldering darkness of crushed, midnight silk velvet

-the crystalline depth of molten topaz and black diamonds

-the lined and wizened face of “Crazy Thunder”, Oglala Lakota chief

-the steadiness of a tombak

-the delightful mystery of fireflies

Mr. B.- Although I am unable to describe the smoothness, composure and allure of this scent in a way that captures its beauty, one thing I can say for sure: it is the scent of serenity.

Thank you for sending it to me.

With warm regards,


A recent distillation of Mr. B’s Hindi oud will soon be available from Enfleurage, New York City (888) 387-0300


Thursday, February 18, 2010

Rica Suave: Costamor Tabacca & Sugarwood

By Tom

Today is V-day. I don't care for V-day. It seems designed to make everyone crazy. There were people making handbrake turns on Beverly Blvd. to get to the couple selling ratty bouquets and sad balloon arrangements. Which made me think about the reception the men would get upon arrival. I mean, really, ladies and gents, if your sig other was at sixes and sevens or completely skint, wouldn't you prefer a nice backrub or a (even indigestible) breakfast in bed and impeccably cleaned kitchen or candle-lit bubble bath with soft music and a glass of wine or even just a heartfelt "I love you" than some sad handful of posies that look as if they were recently snatched from Forest Lawn?

I swear, I need to write a self-help book for hetero males...

Anyhoo, I had tickets to the Renoir exhibit at LACMA with my BFF Sue, after which I took her to ScentBar. She had so far been avoiding the place if only because she would want to purchase and the idea of telling the my godchild "sorry kid, I blew the college fund on the Lutens collection" could be a result. But I needed something to write about and needed to show her that she could ask for samples...

Costamor is a house created in 2009 by Elizabeth Wright, a California native who is (according to Luckyscent) half Costa-Rican. I've never been there but have had friends who've been and kvelled over the beauty of the place. I can't comment on how well the scents describe the beauty of the area, but the scents are quite good in and of themselves.

Sugarwood is sweet and woody with an overlay of jasmine and iris. I do actually know what sugar cane pulp smells like and the opening on this is a fairly accurate simulacrum. There's sweet vanilla and fig in there but it's nicely cut by citrus. If you want to have a vanilla that's not as boozy/blowzy as say Guerlain SDV (which I adore) then this could be right up your alley.

Tabacca is on me at first all about the bright apple opening and a brief burst of freshness. The tobacco comes in later, sly but discernible as both cured and uncured. Believe it of not, Western Massachusetts is a place where when I was growing up tobacco was harvested and I remember the scent of it curing distinctly when riding my bike past the barns that ringed my college town hometown. That's not to say that i especially like this. It is for me too demure; it's like a deb who hurriedly applies a spritz of cologne and a stick of Adams Sour Apple gum to unsuccessfully mask a hurried Lucky Strike. I like my tobacco a bit more in-your-face: less demure and more Dietrich.

These aren't me but they are compelling, well blended and suave little numbers and since these are only $75 for 50ML if you're in need of a demure tobacco or a self-effacing vanilla you would do well to check them out. At Luckyscent, I believe, exclusively.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Joy of DIY: An Interview with Perfumista and DIYer Teresa Csorba

By Marla

As some of you may know, I went from being a perfumista to a dedicated DIYer about two years ago, and have been avidly encouraging all budding perfumers to go forth and create lovely, peculiar, and amazing smells ever since. I’ve also been exchanging creations with a number of other DIYers, and have been particularly enchanted with the works of Teresa Csorba, an American perfume fanatic/nose who enjoys creating in a spirit similar to C. Brosius; in other words, she loves to make evocative perfume oils that conjure up particular places and times. I was fortunate enough to interview her recently and here is her story.

Marla: When did you first know you were a perfumista? How did your family and friends respond? Which perfumes were your first loves?

Teresa: My sister and I quit smoking together about 13 years ago and our reward for a week without smokes was to go to the local perfume oil shop and buy something. They offered custom mixes and we started mixing our own instead. About two years later, I had the yen to do more elaborate mixes and that shop had closed, so I started buying basic materials to mix at home. They were mostly mood-sachets rather than perfumes, at first. For example, I have one named after a rigged wooden ship (the Wawona) that contains birch tar, an equivalent of oakum (the hemp jammed between the deck planks to water seal it) and a turpentine note. Smells like a wooden ship!

As for first loves in perfume, I think my most vivid memory was a school carnival with a coin toss where you could pick from a range of donated items as your prize. I spent a whole lot of money to win a little bottle of Chanel No. 5, and while I’ve never been able to wear that scent, the memory stays. I lusted after that itty bitty jewel bottle and didn’t stop till I’d won it (annoying a lot of people, no doubt.)

Marla: At what point did a love of perfume turn into a desire to make things for yourself? What pushed you in that direction?

Teresa: Mass-market scents seem to always be very similar to each other or very expensive. There's also a general “perfumeyness”, to make up a word, about them; they have no reference to the world around them except to smell nice on the skin. The same thing that drives Demeter and CB I Hate Perfume is what started me out on this expensive hobby. I want to make moods and atmospheres in scent (like paintings, which I'm not good at making); the aforementioned “Wawona” smells like walking the deck of a rigged ship; “Twilight” smells like an autumn night outdoors; “Adventurer's Club” smells like a gentleman's turn of the century club with tobacco, leather and wood. And I also have ended up making scents that just smell nice on the skin, too and making scents for family and friends, some of whom can’t wear store fragrances. I'm having fun.

Marla: What are two of your favorite creations, what inspired them, and how did you go about making them?

Teresa: I’ll pick two good winter scents to combat this snow we have right now. The first is “Sacred Smoke.” I’d been doing a lot of research and reading into ancient lore and very darkly moody and evocative history, and wanted a scent to go with that. Labdanum and rue are the main components, with a synthetic smoke element to give that dark feeling of burning herbs. Then I had to lighten it a bit, so nutmeg and cedar lift it. Yarrow gives it a green feeling and also happens to figure very largely in mystic herb lore, so that was a must-add. Overall, it came out very dark and herby. It’s one of my favorites for the changing times of the year. On the other side of meaningful, I did a series of three based on a favorite movie. Here comes the geek in me: the Russian book series and SciFi film “Night Watch”. I made fragrance pictorials of three of the main characters. My favorite is of Anton Gorodetsky. The character is a cynical, frustrated romantic caught between the light and dark of two worlds, but he also represents old Russia as it tries to deal with the new world order. So naturally, I ended up mixing nothing but stereotypical Russian notes, a couple of ambers, an aged leather, coriander for leaven and rum, because Gorodetsky drinks too much, and vodka isn’t a note I had on hand. It’s very masculine, but both my sister and I wear it.

Marla: What are some ideas for where you are headed next? What inspires you currently?

Teresa: I’m planning on putting up a website offering five of my scents and also bespoke scents for those who would like to try that for a reasonable charge. Many bespoke sites are so staggeringly expensive that only the very rich can have a personalized scent and I think that’s very sad. My next project will most likely involve something spring-like, so I may have to get a hold of some lilac essence. I’m currently leaning towards spring, probably because winter is so cold this year!

Marla: Any funny stories about making your own perfumes you'd like to share? (Here’s my own: I'll never forget the time my youngest son answered the phone, and I heard him say, "No, Mom can't come to the phone right now, she's in her basement lab, sniffing stuff.")

Teresa : I have nothing as funny as yours, but spilling a bottle of synthetic sandalwood was a sad moment. The whole room stank of it for weeks and while I used to be okay with sandalwood, now I can’t bear it. I only use it in small doses now, in the base.

I hope Teresa will come out with her line soon, as I’ve tried her creations, and they are exactly as she says- evocative, poetic, and memorable. Cheers to all you creative noses out there!

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Balmain Ambre Gris: At Long Last Love

By Donna

When the house of Pierre Balmain released Ambre Gris in late 2008, it got a lot of press - and a lot of hype as well. After its recent missteps (Balmya, the disappointing Jolie Madame and Vent Vert reformulations, and La Môme for many) the house needed a big hit, and it got one with Ambre Gris, which was composed by the young Givaudan perfumer Guillaume Flavigny, who also did La Môme. It flew off the shelves at the full price of $135 for the large100 ml size, and when it went to the discounters surprisingly quickly; it soon was listed as “Out of Stock” on almost every online merchant's site. People made fun of the “disco ball” cap; I thought it was very Jazz Age and I loved it, especially in contrast to the smoky gray bottle. I smelled it once at my local shop, but I did not want to pay that much unless I was absolutely sure that I loved it. Then other scents intervened and I put the idea of buying it on the back burner. I figured I could always find it at a discounter if I decided I wanted it, since it had gone down market so suddenly.

Well, a few weeks ago I went looking for it again and guess what? It was still out of stock at almost every store! Apparently the craze for it had not subsided. I tried bidding for a bottle or two on eBay and I was quickly humbled by how much other people were willing to pay, and the bottles were few and far between anyway. The only place it was (and still is) in stock was at Luckyscent, at full price. Lo and behold, a perfumista friend included a vial of it in a recent sample swap, so I finally had enough of it to test and figure out if I still wanted it.

Ambre Gris was pleasant right off the bat, no waiting for the delicious warmth of pink pepper, cinnamon, myrrh and immortelle flower enriched with tuberose to expand and surround me, eventually drying down to the velvety ambergris base. I thought it was True Love for a few minutes, and then something odd happened about fifteen minutes after I applied it. This was supposed to be part of Balmain’s return to its roots of high-end perfumery, but I smelled something that seemed very synthetic, and not in a good way. It smelled like fake wood, the kind you find in “sporty” men's fragrances; synthetic woody-amber. Okay, the wood in this is supposed to be “smoky Gaiac wood” according to Luckyscent, and I did not detect even a trace of smoke. Was it a by-product of “white musk” that I was smelling? It did seem to have that sharp, overly clean aroma that is so prevalent today, and frankly I do not want that kind of clean in my perfume; I wanted nothing to interfere with the delicate beauty of the eponymous foundation note in this fragrance. Ambergris itself is said to have a rather smoky quality, and this was not it. Maybe my nose is just very sensitive to the aroma chemicals responsible for the modern idea of “fresh and clean” in perfumery. (I am old school in that regard; I want my freshness to come from things like real citrus essence and herbal extracts.) Or perhaps it was the cinnamon interacting with something else. In any case, I waited it out and it went away, and then the perfume began to change; it smoothed out and developed a certain silkiness once the cinnamon calmed down a bit. It eventually developed into a true comfort scent, and lasted all day; the second time I wore it, it was still going strong more than sixteen hours later, and I could still smell it when I woke up the next morning. In the deep drydown there is a slight salty tang like a touch of cool seawater, which is very pleasing in juxtaposition to the warmer notes.

Ambre Gris is not a true gourmand scent by any means, nor is it overpowering. It is simply a nice fragrance in the Oriental style, not as sweet as many of them and possessing a great deal of refinement. It is not one of those heavy hitters that should be reserved for special evenings either, as it is subdued enough for day and is never loud. I found myself enjoying it very much after the fleeting discordant quality in the opening. This one really needs time to play out before you figure out if it's right for you. I will probably get a bottle one of these days, maybe in the smaller size, since it would be hard to use up100 ml of this stuff. I can see it becoming an all-occasion perfume for people who really like this style of fragrance especially if they live where winters are cold. I cannot imagine wearing it in summer, as it is like a cashmere shawl of a scent, clinging and warm and just what you need to wrap yourself in when there is a chill in the air. I would have loved to wear it earlier in the winter when my part of the country was in a deep freeze, but it's almost balmy and very damp here now and I have to be careful about deploying this kind of sweet, hazy perfume in close quarters. When it gets cool and brisk again, and it will before spring comes, I will wear Ambre Gris again and revel in its enveloping depth. I can't really say if it lives up to the hype it received when it was introduced, but I found it to be highly enjoyable and a cut above the mainstream of prestige perfumery. I hope that Balmain continues to redeem itself with future releases of this quality.

Image credit: Balmain Ambre Gris bottle,

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Chypre samples prize draw winner Charlotte Vale. Please, send us your mailing info, using the contact me link on the right.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

On the Lighter Side: Vero Kern onda, kiki and rubj Eau de Parfum

By Tom

At PST both Colombina and I are huge fans of perfumers Vero Kern's fragrances. They're beautiful, rich, full-on fragrances yet they aren't in any way retro or trying-too-hard-to-be-cutting-edge. I had heard that she was working on EdP versions of these signature scents and when she offered to let me try them I jumped at the chance.

In an email she wrote:
The Eaux need a different structure by pointing out more the top notes and less on the base always by still respecting the original style of the Extraits.

I've simplified the whole composition. I also replaced the heavy animal notes by the unique scent of PASSION FRUIT which I love very much and which gives the creations a certain erotic readiness.
onda EdP is recognizably onda, just a little lighter and a little less challenging. For instance onda I don't think I'd wear to an office in full perfume strength, but the lighter concentration I would certainly; the passion fruit is a stroke of genius. It's not too fruity, it just cuts some of the smokiness.

kiki EdP loses nothing in the translation. It's still a gorgeous lavender with the undertone of mango fruitiness now laid with the passionfruit instead of the musk, but still having that wonderful skin scent aspect.

rubj EdP is based upon a scent I wrote of as innocent and shockingly sensual. The combination of the passionfruit and orange blossom conspires to be flat-out sexy with what I think is a bare whiff of cumin: just a touch. Is there "erotic readiness"? You betcha. rubj perfume is the version I'd wear to the office; the EdP is the version I'd wear out on a date- one where I planned to serve desert at home. Personally.

Ms. Kern had asked me whether I thought that these were salable. Whether people would want to buy them. I can think of five bloggers and three female friends who could rock rubj off the top of my head and who would hardly upon receipt of the other to give one a withering look. In other words, I can give her a resounding "YES".

Not available yet. Perhaps if you let her know that you want to see them in stores in the comments and give her an idea of size versus price points they will be at LuckyScent...

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Thursday, February 04, 2010

Two out of Three...Odin 02- Owari and Odin 03- Century

By Tom

Clearly I've been struck blind. I was in ScentBar this weekend (I know, it is a well used phrase in my life) and ran across these new scents. I asked for samples of the two there and then came home to find that I somehow missed one. Odin 01-Nomad is tonka, sandalwood and juniper apparently. Someone else chime in as to whether it's all that.

Odin 02- Owari is mandarin (from the Owari province in Japan), bergamot and grapefruit leaves. I get grapefruit: fresh, delicious and sweet. After a while it adds pepper and musk but never really veers from the tart and refreshing citrus. No bad thing that.

Odin 03- Century is clearly hunting bigger game. Odin writes that it's a "modern interpretation of the chypre family". It opens woody with a hint of mint, then deepens with patchouli (listed as "subtle patchouli") and finishes with amber and a touch of musk and, yes, OAKMOSS. Hallelujah and praise Odin! Yes, you can get a real fragrance with the dreaded oakmoss, and yes you can smell it in there, and oh baby is it a good thing!

In your face, IFRA!

Available at Aedes, Luckyscent and the Odin stores in New York City, $110 for 100ML, which you should also call and thank them for...

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Chypres Dark and Bright: from Aperçu to “Y” - And a Prize Draw

By Donna

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.

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