Revolutionary Perfume : A Brief History of Chypre

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1917 was the year when the Bolshevik Revolution took place. It was also the year when another revolution happened. It wasn’t bloody, its scale was small, but for the history of perfumery it was as galvanizing as the events in Russia for the rest of the world. This revolution was the creation of Chypre by François Coty. The name Chypre referred to the island of Cyprus, which had been famous for its fragrant moss since antiquity, and while chypre-style fragrances, warm and moss-laden, were popular long before Coty’s creation, his Chypre of 1917 was different.

For one thing, Coty wasn’t afraid of making bold statements. To give a heavy note of oakmoss radiance, he used a novel aroma-chemical called isobutyl quinoline. Pure, it smelled pungently of leather and burned rubber, but when used as part of an accord with bergamot, dry woods and moss, its effect became sensual and luminous. Coty then increased the proportion of green notes and added a delicate floral twist. Chypre evoked the Mediterranean sea breeze and lemon orchards and reminded you that even on the most sunlit of days, shadows are present. Dark leather and inky moss provided the dramatic contrast in his composition.

One could say that the revolutionary nature of Coty Chypre was partly due to the original use of aroma-materials and partly to Coty’s genius of focusing on the essential. As he would do with the oriental family in his perfume Émeraude or the floral-oriental in L’Origan, he could remove all of the extraneous elements of the traditional accords and highlight the key aspects. His fragrances convey a strong message, have a dramatic presence and tell complex stories.

In my recent video on Chypre and chypres, I explain what made Coty’s version so striking and I compare it with two other classical chypres, Guerlain Mitsouko and Chanel No 19.

Coty Chypre is still a dramatic perfume, and while it has been discontinued for years, it remains an inspiration for perfumers. The original version is much demanded at the Osmothèque Perfume Conservatory.

Moreover, the chypre family itself is the legacy of Coty. The standard definition of a chypre is a fragrance with citrus, floral, woody/patchouli, mossy and musky facets. While chypre needs to have an inflection of treemoss or oakmoss, restrictions on the use of these ingredients have forced perfumers to use a combination of other naturals and synthetics to produce a mossy effect. Chanel No 31 Rue Cambon, for instance, uses no oakmoss, and yet it has a chypre darkness and radiance. I don’t think that Coty would mind such experiments. He was known for flouting his own rules.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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41 Comments

  • P M: I very rarely watch Youtube videos because I find the intense, cartoonish in-your-face editing overwhelming, so it was very pleasant to have the subject explained with calm authority (instead of a bursting ego). I have recently found this website but will be digging through the archives for what I believe will be hours of pleasure. Thank you Victoria! June 1, 2020 at 9:37am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much! I’m very glad that you liked it. Chypre is such a fascinating topic, so this is my small contribution. June 1, 2020 at 10:24am Reply

  • Trudy: Love this. I have shared this post and youtube video with perfume loving friends. I find this site a much needed safe haven of all things lovely in such tumultuous times. Thank you Victoria. June 1, 2020 at 10:34am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Trudy!
      I hope that all of us stay safe and strong. June 1, 2020 at 10:52am Reply

  • okat: I own and treasure a bottle of Chypre complete with box (the one on top in your picture) – took me years to find it but it was for my late mother. It had been her favorite perfume and she was never happy with Mitsouko and other scents claiming to be successors. My not very romantic father had given her the first bottle after the birth of my older sister and told her he’d find her blindfolded among a 1000 women is she was wearing Chypre. June 1, 2020 at 10:44am Reply

    • Victoria: This is the most romantic and moving thing I’ve heard about a signature perfume. Just beautiful! Thank you so much for sharing.

      The version I showed in the video was from the 1960s. It’s not as good as the one in my photo, but it’s still excellent. I used to prefer the softness of Mitsouko, but these days I like the verve of Chypre more. June 1, 2020 at 10:51am Reply

    • Tourmaline: I’m with Victoria – definitely the most romantic signature perfume story I’ve ever heard! June 2, 2020 at 4:51am Reply

  • Tourmaline: Hi Victoria,

    Thank you for the interesting post and video. Thank heavens for François Coty! I hope that one day I shall visit the Osmothèque Perfume Conservatory and experience Chypre, Émeraude and L’Origan. I remember often seeing this 1977 print ad for Émeraude.

    https://i.ebayimg.com/images/i/221247828514-0-1/s-l1000.jpg

    The first chypre fragrance I ever had, as a teenager in the late seventies, was Moonwind (Avon, 1971). An aunt gave me a bottle for Christmas one year – the frosted glass bottle being the robed body of a singing angel. (You removed the cream-coloured plastic top half of the angel to reveal the lid of the bottle). I adored this fragrance – and still do, partly for the scent itself, and partly for the happy memories it evokes. I have a few spare bottles, because Avon rereleased it as one of their classic fragrances many years later. Another Avon chypre that I liked was Genesis, which was richer. That one, too, was a gift.

    My other favourite chypre fragrances (according to Edwards’ classification) are Yvresse, the original Miss Dior, the original Intimate, Y, Chant D’Arômes, Mitsouko and Femme.

    I have to confess to something rather strange. For several years, I was unable to distinguish any difference between Mitsouko and Femme. That was around 20 years ago, when I already had Mitsouko (which I adore, and is probably my third favourite fragrance, after L’Heure Bleue and Oscar). These days, I can easily tell them apart; Femme strikes me as deeper and more woody. I wonder whether my nose has improved, or whether it simply comes down to scent reformulations. I suspect it’s the latter!

    Since you mentioned Russia, it’s my opportunity to change the subject entirely and tell you about a choir I saw on TV during the past week. It’s the best genuine fake Russian choir in the southern hemisphere – Dustyesky. It consists of 28 middle-aged Australian men from a small town who sing classical Russian songs. You can read about them in the following article: “How Australia’s ‘fake genuine Russian choir’ Dustyesky went viral during the coronavirus pandemic”.

    https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-05-25/australian-fake-russian-choir-dustyesky-goes-viral-mullumbimby/12270670

    And you can see them in this short clip from Australian TV, which is about three minutes long.

    https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1039114573150827

    Alternatively, you can watch them in this clip, interviewed by Russians who came to Oz for that purpose.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wcx9iRsscwo

    There are many other clips of them on You Tube; they have become something of a sensation! I hope you get a laugh from their antics!

    With kind regards,
    Tourmaline June 1, 2020 at 12:19pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m sorry about your comment stuck in the filter. Whenever a comment includes more than one link, it’s automatically set aside for approval. I just saw it.

      And I’m going to watch the video right now. June 1, 2020 at 1:43pm Reply

      • Tourmaline: Thanks for rescuing my comment, Victoria. In future, I’ll know about the link issue.

        Hope you enjoy the video! June 1, 2020 at 1:46pm Reply

      • Tourmaline: I just watched the video from that last link and realized I’ve given you a different link, not the one where the Russian lady speaks with the choir. Never mind, hopefully you’ll still enjoy it!

        When the man says, “We bring you only songs of suffering and despair,” I’m reminded of your husband’s remark, as recorded in your superlative post of March 16, 2020, How to Handle Self-Isolation and Not Lose One’s Mind. “Is it an Eastern European thing or a Frolova family trait?” asked my husband. “Whatever one complains about, you guys respond with a personal story involving war, nuclear accidents or some other apocalypse.” Indeed!

        I can’t find the video I intended to include, but here’s one of the Russians reciprocating Dustyesky’s efforts by singing “Waltzing Matilda”!

        https://tinyurl.com/ya7x44zl June 1, 2020 at 2:39pm Reply

  • OnWingsofSaffron: I must make a confession: even though I have immersed myself in perfume, have read a smelled such a very a lot, I still wouldn’t be able to pinpoint very accurately: this perfume belongs to the chypre genre! Eau Suave by Parfum d’Empire: I see… Parure by Guerlain: oh really? Rose & Cuir by Frédéric Malle: aha, also a chypre! Something citrusy, something, green, a dash of flowers/fruits and a whiff of leather. But that’s so many perfumes!! I am confused. June 1, 2020 at 1:49pm Reply

    • Victoria: Moss is more important than anything else. Not even the actual moss absolute, but the moss-like effect. Once you smell the moss note on its own, though, you’ll never mistake à chypre for anything else. June 1, 2020 at 1:57pm Reply

      • OnWingsofSaffron: Right: I’m off to sniff again.
        But what then with “fougère” (Fr. moss). I know: that’s bergamot; lavender, geranium; coumarin; woods and oak moss. I realise that’s the “Gent’s aftershave” genre.
        Perhaps at the end of the day, the chypre like the fougère is—at least by modern standards—definitely in unisex country, if one sticks perfumes into gender categories.
        (I’m smelling my Mitsouko while I’m writing 🙂 ) June 1, 2020 at 2:13pm Reply

        • OnWingsofSaffron: Sorry, my mistake: fougère is fern, not moss. How silly of me! Same colour, same habitat, completely different plant. June 1, 2020 at 2:56pm Reply

          • Victoria: The idea is close though! June 3, 2020 at 4:24am Reply

        • Victoria: Yes, fougère needs coumarin, and that’s the main difference. Coumarin’s sweetness gives that unmistakable aspect to fougères.

          But if you have a chance to find moss to smell, I think that you’ll enjoy it. It’s such a complex, rich scent. June 3, 2020 at 4:20am Reply

    • Klaas: Onwings, this is so funny, I was going to write the exact same thing! I can never tell if a fragrance is a chypre. I mean, I know what a chypre is, but I can never tell when I smell a perfume. If it has citrus in the top, flowers or greens in the heart and oakmoss in the base (along with some other notes), that’s it…..I would call Chanel pour Monsieur a chypre, too.

      Fougère is definitely the lavender/coumarin combo. They call it ‘barber shop’, but I wonder why. In Holland at least, barber shops don’t smell anything like it! June 1, 2020 at 3:26pm Reply

      • OnWingsofSaffron: Yes funny, isn’t it. Strangely, the barber-shop-smell to me is an overkill of aldehydes like in Arpège. And I distinctly remember that smell at the hairdresser. of my youth Perhaps it was the hairspray …? June 1, 2020 at 3:51pm Reply

        • Claudia: Elbert or Adorn! June 2, 2020 at 12:55am Reply

          • Claudia Strandstra: Elnet June 2, 2020 at 12:56am Reply

            • OnWingsofSaffron: Oh, I had to google that! Those are a hairsprays, right? I‘m not really sure. As a young male teenager I wasn‘t familiar with such things 😌
              But I did immediately recognize that hairdresser smell when I first sprayed Arpège many, many years later, plus a slight panic: what will people think? (Now I know that any person smelling the creamy dry-down of Arpège should certainly feel elated!) June 2, 2020 at 10:33am Reply

            • Klaas: Hahaha, I recently read a comment saying that Elnett Hairspray (and its distinct smell) should be on Unesco’s World Heritage list. I agree! June 2, 2020 at 11:47am Reply

        • Klaas: Yes, very aldehydic! An odd mixture of shampoo (the also contain aldehydes for that slick, clean feel), hairspray, bleach and – sadly – over heated and maltreated hair 😉

          Not your suave fougere lavender, to say the least! June 2, 2020 at 11:50am Reply

        • Victoria: It’s because those classical hairsprays were scented with a copy of No 5. And Arpège is in the same style as No 5, so that’s the connection. June 3, 2020 at 6:08am Reply

  • Aurora: A whole post on Coty Chypre, thank you so much, Victoria, so many details, leather! I was especially thrilled by your article because as mentioned shortly after it happened, I got a full, intact 15ml bottle for a reasonable £17, I don’t think the seller had realized what a treasure it was in perfumery. It has a bluish green top, and after research, I tentatively dated it from the 50’s. It seems that truly avant-garde perfumes are often not successful at first. Last year I fell in love with vintage Halston too, I had not known it before, and different but as significant to me with the new Houbigant Essence Rare, a rich floral where I’m sure JC Ellena was reconnecting with past perfumes. June 1, 2020 at 2:59pm Reply

    • Victoria: What a find!
      You’re right, it takes some time for a new, original style to take hold, but as we can see, Chypre managed to do it.
      Halston in its vintage version is just stunning. June 3, 2020 at 6:06am Reply

    • Notturno 7: Dear Aurora, it’s so exciting you’ve got the vintage Coty, plus such a bargain!
      I’ve never smelled it.
      I found a vintage Miss Dior for a very good price, it’s not a pure perfume but still so good. One of my favorites! The ridiculous thing is that I treasure it so much that I’m not using it almost at all.
      I should go find that little bottle right now and start wearing it. June 3, 2020 at 6:42am Reply

      • Aurora: Dear Notturno: I understand what you mean about ‘being afraid to use’, I suppose if I have a mini of something I tend to use it as reference, dipping a tester strip in it and comparing it to other fragrances, fortunately vintage Miss Dior was made in large quantity, or is it a rare iteration? I’m so pleased for you, I adore the leather and lotv in it.
        I’ll make you a sample of Coty Chypre, so that you can experience it when the current situation changes. June 3, 2020 at 1:33pm Reply

        • Notturno7: Dear Aurora, that is so generous of you. Thank you so much. We’ll wait till the current situation changes.
          What perfumes do you have and use only sparingly, if any?
          Thanks for reminding me that vintage Miss Dior must have been made in large quantities. I just realize what made me do this.
          Miss Dior and Diorissimo, both vintage, arrived in the same package and Diorissimo wasn’t preserved well. That made me treasure MD more, cause those notes we can’t find in modern perfumes and they smell so good.
          Thanks for reminding me of that fact. I tried finding Poivre and Doblis plus vintage ALO after reading Victoria’s reviews. Doblis was impossible to find and ALO and Poivre were insanely priced.
          Did you have a good luck finding some vintage classics?
          I ended up finding a Diorissimo vintage pure perfume later and it’s gorgeous but the experience of buying a vintage bottle past it’s time, made me treasure what I have even more, and explains why I did try to ‘save’ it. Oh, I will use it happily now. Thank you 😀
          What perfumes are you wearing these days?
          I’ve been using Lutens Une Voix Noire in the evenings.
          I’ll ‘blast’ some Habit Rouge pure perfume now, it feels like a perfect day for it. It’s glorious outside ☀️ June 3, 2020 at 2:34pm Reply

          • Aurora: Dear Notturno:
            So sorry about Diorissimo, I had a simlar issue with the very same, unopened 30ml EDT not having held well. But ver glad about your Miss Dior. Enjoy it. I am going to email you with more details soon. Keep safe. June 4, 2020 at 1:19pm Reply

  • Peter: Mahalo Victoria for your latest post on the chypre family. One of my first perfume memories was finding a sample of Miss Dior in my Mother’s medicine cabinet. This was in the 1970s, so I’m assuming there was a fair amount of oakmoss. Even though the latest (Originale) version doesn’t have the same ‘oomph’, I still love it. Mitsouko was the first Guerlain that I collected. It’s my second favorite after Vol de Nuit. 31 Rue Cambon was my signature for awhile. I crave the brisk ‘quinine water’ blast. I have to admit that I prefer the coziness of No 19 Poudre over the much loved original. June 1, 2020 at 9:01pm Reply

    • Victoria: I also like the version of Miss Dior (L’Originale), even though it’s much thinner and less impressive than it used to be. I like its combination of gardenia, moss and green notes. It still smells wistful and yet self-confident to me. June 3, 2020 at 6:09am Reply

  • annemariec: I’m finding in the coronavirus restrictions an unexpectedly welcome opportunity to explore while I’m home alone perfumes I sometimes struggle with. So I’ve worked my way through some big orientals, and just this morning pulled out my bottle of Aromatics Elixir, that great fiery chypre from the 1970s. I’d basically admitted defeat over this one because I could never find a way to tame it. I thought it wonderful but raw, rough and bombastic. I’ve often wondered if Coty Chypre was like this too, ie a great piece of work but not really practical for daily wear. Its influence lay in how the theme was taken up and refined by others.

    But Aromatics Elixir has decided that its time to show me its softer side. I’ve had it on the top of my arm for about 7 hours and I’m getting a smooth and surprisingly gentle sheen of powder and florals. Lovely! This could be the start of a whole new relationship. June 2, 2020 at 12:56am Reply

    • Victoria: I enjoyed your story! Sounds like a great experience. Aromatics Elixir has so many facets that you can wear it for years and still be finding new elements. June 3, 2020 at 6:11am Reply

  • Fitz Wong: Mitsouko Parfum, No.19 Parfum and Chanel Pour Monsieur are my top favorite fragrances. I guess I just cannot live without them for the rest of my life. June 2, 2020 at 1:53am Reply

  • Austenfan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QnnNBhX_Btk

    I’m sure you’ve stumbled across this already, but in case you haven’t: enjoy!

    You very generously once made it possible for me to smell Chypre. I have not forgotten it, it’s wonderful.
    Hope you are well in these trying times. June 3, 2020 at 4:17pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you! 🙂
      I also remember how we were smelling Chypre.

      We’re doing ok. Hope that all is well with you. June 5, 2020 at 6:17am Reply

  • Elize: i never knew Chanel no. 19 was a Chypre! Frankly, I have no idea what oakmoss smells like, so I’m not able to identify Chypres from other fragrances.

    As a aside, Victoria, your skin is so glowy! 🙂 and the tulips in your background made me miss Delft, where I used to stay. Tulips were so plentiful and cheaply available there in the late spring and in summer. June 4, 2020 at 12:15am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s a green chypre, but it also has a prominent floral part.

      Thank you! 🙂 June 5, 2020 at 6:21am Reply

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