Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Perfume Primers: Chypre Fragrances for Newbies

No other fragrance category is so shrouded in confusion and wrapped into such awe as chypres. From the pronunciation (listen to this file) to the ingredients constituting a classic chypre perfume, it all sounds too sophisticated for dummies. Or isn't it so? Chypre fragrances have an irresistible pull, making us appreciate perfumery all the more so, because they expertly hinge on both intellectual and sensual qualities. So let's make chypres easy for everyone!

The History of Chypre Perfumes in Simple Terms

Chypre means Cyprus in French, the island in the Eastern Mediterranean where the oldest perfume factory of the world was discovered in Pyrgos Mavrorachi (the name means "fortress on the black slope"  in Greek) dating to 2000BC, well before the Egyptian analogues. Cyprus has been instrumental in European history too: It has been a stronghold of Greek civilization since antiquity (the continuity of art styles and language suggests so) with a flourishing trade exchange with Egypt and later with the Roman conquerors; plus it has been the prime port of call of Eastern merchant routes between Europe and the Middle East, thanks to its strategic geopolitical position, and therefore supremely prized (and seized) by many foreign powers in the course of its millenia-long turmoiled history, starting with the Crusades and going...
But the name "chypre" (chypvra etc), apart from any geographical connotations, had travelled in aromatic stanzas throughout the Middle Ages, Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment thanks to the vigorous commerce of the enterprising Cypriots who dabbled in a feminine product with an added scent: their famous "Cipria" powder, a cosmetic face powder -presented by various different local "houses"- which was further aromatized with the cypriot aromatic blends they had excelled at for centuries (And which, by all accounts, judging by the later specimens circulating into the 20th century, smelled not far off what we consider a chypre fragrance today!)

Source: via June on Pinterest

The vogue for powdered wigs in western Europe in the 17th century made Cipria one of the most widely used cosmetic products and the name is still referenced in Italian to this day for cosmetic powder. Let's not forget Cyprus is the mythological birthplace of Aphrodite/Venus, so the connection with beauty & grooming rituals was there all along. What better place then to sprout forth a product appealing to women (and the men who smell them) everywhere?

Therefore Cyprus and its "Cipria" had created a solid scent tradition. It was that tradition that the legendary François Coty-a Mediterranean merchant himself, hailing from Corsica- decided to put to good use. It is neverthless a myth that the first modern "chypre" was Coty's Chypre in 1917. Contrary to popular perception, François Coty was not the first to associate the name Chypre with a particular perfume. Guerlain's Chypre de Paris preceded him by 8 years, issued in as early as 1909. Chypre d'Orsay was the next one to be introduced in 1912. We can only attribute these names to the tradition of the "Cipria" echoed in these fragrances.

However it was Coty indeed (also dabbling in cosmetics) who first realized the familiarity of the chypre aroma of the Cipria would help make a fragrance drawing inspiration from it a commercial success. Even Chypre's packaging utilized motifs of cosmetics. His Chypre really took off and became an instant hit that created traction and a vogue for such "heavy" "green" perfumes. The rest, as they say, is history.

What makes a chypre "chypre", though? 

In modern perfumery as established by Coty (and all subsequent chypres followed the scaffold he laid out) the basic structure of the chypre perfume is an harmony, an "accord", between 3 key ingredients: bergamot (a citrus fruit that grows all around the Mediterranean) - oakmoss (a tree lichen that grows on oaks mainly in the Balkans) - labdanum (a resinoid from cistus ladaniferus, or rockrose, a plant which grows in the Mediterranean basin, especially in Crete and Cyprus which was traditionally amassed off the hair of the goats that grazed on the bush). Three basic, common Mediterranean products, three Cypriot references for Chypre! Whatever other notes the sites/guides mention, those three must be in there for the fragrance at hand to qualify as a "classic chypre", a true descendant of Coty's Chypre from 1917. These "true/pure chypres" include such later perfumes as Carven Ma Griffe (1946) or E.Lauder's Knowing (1988)!

The tension between the fresh citrusy note and the pungent, earthy odor of oakmoss and of labdanum creates an aesthetic effect that is decidedly inedible (much like the masculine equivalent of fougère fragrances), denoting perfect grooming, always smelling "perfumey", polished, and often powdery. Which makes total sense given the background of the face powder it originated from! It also explains why chypres are extremely popular regardless of fashions in southern Europe as opposed to other countries.

Exactly because they smell like perfume, i.e. an add-on in no uncertain terms, they project an image of luxury, sophistication, status. They can be cerebral, cool and aloof, a The Times reader rather than chic lit browser, or they can be womanly and intimate like effluvium wafting off the boudoir, but whatever the case chypres always remain steeped in their Aphrodite-originating beauty.

[pic source: via Sue on Pinterest]

Chypre fragrances often include patchouli and other woody notes, or animalic essences, for added intensity and mystery, while the heart of the perfume is always more or less floral. Although patchouli is ubiquitously included in chypres, it is a very common raw material for other families as well (such as the Orientals and many florals) and is therefore non conclusive as to the classification of any given fragrance ~barring very recent ones, more on which in a moment).

Because chypres are the sophisticated fragrance family par excellence it's very tempting to overreach and classify just any elegant and perfume-y fragrance in the genre!

It is especially common to confuse them with heavily woody Orientals (parfums Babani was on to something mixing the exoticism of Egypt with the chypre coolness in Chypre Egyptien back in 1923!) or with green woody florals such as Chanel No.19 (which is really a separate case, to which I will come back with a detailed breakdown.) or Silences (Jacomo), its logical godchild.

Sub-categories of Chypres

The beauty of the chypre is that it's a strict fragrance structure, but on this basic scaffolding the perfumer can add accent pieces that make the perfume lean into this or that direction. Like a basic "little black dress", you can accessorize with heels or with boots, with pearls or with chunky gold chains, with a fur stole or a colorful velvet shawl and create dazzlingly different looks.

Add green notes of grasses, herbs and green-smelling florals (such as hyacinth) and you have "green chypres" (Diorella, Givenchy III, Chanel Cristalle Eau de parfum, Shiseido Koto, E.Lauder Aliage, Jean Couturier Coriandre, Balenciaga Cialenga, Ayalitta by Ayala Moriel, the Deneuve perfume for Avon). Emphasize the woodier notes of patchouli, vetiver, pine needles and you have "woody chypres (Niki de Saint Phalle, the classic Halston by Halston, La Perla, Aromatics Elixir). Wrap everything in the succulence of ripe fruits -such as plum or peach- and you get the historically important "fruity chypres" league (Guerlain Mitsouko, Rochas Femme, the vintage Dior Diorama, Nina Ricci Deci Dela, Yves Saint Laurent Champagne/Yvresse, Amouage Jubilation 25, Ayala Moriel Autumn, Balenciaga Quadrille, Lutens Chypre Rouge).* Smother lots of discernible flowers and you get "floral chypres"(Ungaro Diva, Zibeline by Weil, Antilope by WeilCharlie by Revlon, L'Arte de Gucci, E.Lauder Private Collection, Guerlain Parure, Tauer Une Rose Chypree, Agent Provocateur eau de parfum, DSH Parfum de Grasse, K de Krizia, Germaine Monteil Royal Secret, Armani Pour Femme "classic" by Armani, Esteban Classic Chypre). Sparkling aldehydes on top can further the claim that Caleche by Hermes is an "aldehydic chypre" (it's really poised between two categories that one, aldehydic floral and aldehydic chypre). Put the growl of a cat-in-heat via copious animal ingredients and "animalic chypres" appear (Miss Dior by Dior, Montana Parfum de Peau, Balmain Jolie Madame, Paloma Picasso).
Finally, although technically a separate family according to La Société Française des Parfumeurs (whose sub-classification I follow above as well) called "cuir"/"leather fragrances", there are a few perfumes that mingle notes reminiscent of leather goods with the general elements of a chypre, such as Chanel Cuir de Russie, Cabochard by Gres, Piguet Bandit, Caron Tabac Blond, vintage Dior Diorling.

*Although Le Parfum de Therese by Edmond Roudnitska (circulating in the F.Malle line) has fruity elements on the basic skeleton of a chypre, it has been argued that it is in fact a proto-aquatic, therefore I do not include it in this category on purpose. 

In the Michael Edwards classification system (inspired by Firmenich charts and his own consultant job in the industry), chypres fall mostly into the "mossy woods" category, as Edwards doesn't include a "chypre" family per se as per tradition dictates, but rather intersperses them between woods and orientals (and moving leather fragrances into the "dry woods" category in his 2010 edition following new studies in odor perception). It's one way of viewing things that is more accessible to the consumer.

If orientals have traditionally built on a rose floral nucleus to further create smoothness, chypres have been traditionally constructed around a white flowers core (jasmine, tuberose etc), with the all important lily of the valley "opening" the bouquet, just like uncorking a bottle of wine a few minutes prior to drinking lets the aroma develop better. Specifically the more traditional floral "core" was constructed around an impression of gardenia (Another Cypriot reference as the ripe, narcotic blossom grows well on the warm shores of the island). The classic reference for that is the original Miss Dior (from 1947), now circulating as Miss Dior L'Original.

Source: via Perfume on Pinterest

'Modern chypres' that "don't smell like chypres"

Even though years have passed and chypres fell out of vogue in the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a renewed interest in them after Narciso for Her eau de toilette was introduced into the market in 2004 (launched as a youthful chypre) and became a modern classic that influenced every other house. Basically these fragrances, which I call "nouveau chypres" (read more on them on this article of mine) are NOT technically chypres, but "woody floral musks" fragrances, with a "clean" non hippy-shop patchouli and vetiver base standing in for the reduced ratio of oakmoss allowed by modern industry regulations in regard to allergens (oakmoss is considered a skin sensitizer and therefore greatly reduced, which accounts for the reformulation -and thus unrecognizable state- of many classics). These include Gucci de Gucci, Lovely by SJP, Guerlain Idylle and Chypre Fatal, L'Eau de Chloe, Miss Dior Chérie, Chance by Chanel and countless others. A few however do manage to smell credible such as the underrated Private Collection Jasmine White Moss by E.Lauder; although totally modern, it doesn't betray the genre and smells like true progeny. Issey Miyake A Scent is taking the greener, airier stance of green chypres.

Although the term "chypre" nowadays means little to nothing to the modern consumer, as attested by the countless questions I receive when consulting, the industry insists on keeping it. The soft pink shade of these modern juices does make us think of the soft powdery color referenced as "cipria". Femininity, softness, cosmetics and Aphrodite rolled into a modern packaging. Or perhaps it's because chypre has at least 4000 years of history behind it...

If your interest has peaked and you want to find out more about chypre fragrances, please refer to Perfume Shrine's extensive series on Chypres:
Part 1: The origins of Chypre
Part 2: Chypre fragrance ingredients & formulae
Part 3: "Nouveau chypres" or "pink chypres" (modern chypre fragrances)
Part 4: Chypre perfume aesthetics
Part 5: Chypre perfume chronology and the zeitgeist
Part 6: Masculine Chypres: Does such a thing exist?
Part 7: The Chypres time forgot

Related reading on Perfume Shrine: Perfume Primers for Beginners & Beyond

For those who read French, a wonderful essay on the origins of the Cypriot strain of Cipria and chypre on this and that link.  Also refer to "Aromata Cipria - Cyprus Perfumes" by. P.Flourentzos, M.R.Belgiorno, A.Lentini (

painting: Herbert James Draper "Pearls of Aphrodite"


  1. brie17:09

    Fantastic post!!!!
    I grew up loving and wearing so many of the chypres mentioned (Cristalle, Private Collection,Nikki de Saint Phalle,Halston, Aliage).
    I am going to have to dive in and read your more extensive posts that you listed :) !!!

  2. Great post and information, as always, presented in a very easy to follow format! Thanks!

  3. Eleni22:03

    Thank you for this post - it's very helpful, especially for a newbie like me!
    I recently got a sample of Odalisque (Nicolai), which is sometimes described as a chypre: it is really austere and sophisticated - still deciding whether I can wear it.

  4. Anonymous23:26

    Marvellously informative and very useful. Thank you.

    cheerio, Anna in Edinburgh

  5. Miss Heliotrope00:10

    Yay, my favorite style of perfume - and furthering my education - and must-sample list. This sort of article is one of the great things about your blog, please do keep it up.

    Two things:
    a/ You're awfully generous to readers of The Times - perhaps more than they deserve...
    b/ I was recently reading a book on women who went to India during the raj period ( & there was a story about someone going hunting with a Rajah whose personalised (fancy car of the period) had a store of cigarettes & cigars in the glove box with a bottle of Coty's Chypre: one rubbed the stopper of the perfume on the end of the smoke thing before lighting - for an extra decadent smell.

  6. Anonymous00:13

    I'm pleased to hear there's an original Miss Dior in circulation, my Mum loves it but bought one a few years back and was disappointed because it was re-formulated, she wasn't fooled for a second! If the original is available I'd love to surprise her with a Birthday present.

    I experienced one of the driest chypres ever, recently, when I tried on Elixir de Merveilles (which I know is different from Eau de Merveilles). It was so very very dry I felt a bit dehydrated, but it did smell classy

  7. annemariec01:12

    This is marvellous: a post to be read and reread with great enjoyment. I will indeed go over your previous chypre posts.

    Chypre is the fragrance family to which I have always been most drawn, without even realising it until relatively recently. Your post is a roll call of many of my favourites - Femme is the queen of them all for me - but there are many there I have not tried and would like to. (Reformulation, as ever, is an issue but particularly with chypres.)

    What strikes me in particular is your remark about chypres being inedible. I have never (or rarely) been attracted to gourmands, and it is becoming clear to me now that there is a REASON for this. It makes sense! For me this is really good to know.

  8. Oh I love my Mitsouko - the BEST chypre IMO !

    Diorella - vintage is second :)

  9. palmwatd04:07

    I am totally loving these clear as they are they should be compiled into a guide book for us poor ignorant heathens

  10. hatice11:32

    Aromatics Elixir for me is the best Chypre ever. I felt it deserved to be mentioned. As a cypriot growing up around the intoxicating smell of all the citrus flowers and night blooming jasmine, I was naturally drawn to ir and newer looked back:):).

  11. scotch115:05

    As one of palmwatd's ignorant heathens, I too particularly appreciated this post. I have read many of the articles on Chypres and loved finding my own consistencies in preferences over the years and was hoping to find reference to Aromatics and then hatice listed it. A comfort. Still so much to read and sniff! thank you.

  12. Fantastic article, thank you.

  13. Dear E,
    a thank you is not enough to describe my joy when I saw your wonderful article, today. So it was just impossible for me not to leave my comment. I was in love with chypres since I was a little girl (even if I didn't know the term those days) and still I am. Miss Dior, Mitsouko (my number 1), Cristalle EdT, Y, Weil de Weil (the vintage), Cabochard (the older the better) and many others share my heart (and the best place in my closet) all these years. I could talk for hours about these fabulous fragrances but I'll just describe only these feelings I have whenever I wear them. SAFETY, confidence and this warm sense like being home.
    Thank you again!

  14. Brie,

    thank you :-)

    There's something about bring "brought up" in chypres. They stay with you for life, don't they.

    Please do dive in and let me know your thoughts!

  15. Michael,

    this is hight praise indeed, sincere thanks!

  16. Eleni,

    you're most welcome, the aim of the primers is indeed to be helpful and ease people into what sounds difficult (but really isn't). So it's very encouraging to hear that readers enjoy them, thank you!

    I would say that Odalisque is greener than others and more of a green floral than a denser chypre to my nose. It's sophisticated indeed! Enjoy!

  17. Anna,

    thank you for the lovely compliment! :-)

  18. C,

    so glad you're enjoying.

    LOL, perhaps I am too generous. (But compared to chic lit???)

    Good god that is a magnificent scent snippet!! Thank you!! So very interesting, so very imaginative. (Off to go look for the book in question!)

  19. Rosestrang,

    to be perfectly clear, to avoid causing any disappointment, the Miss Dior L'Original is *supposed* to follow the original formula but this is only conditional as to what is allowed these days in perfumes. I haven't tested the latest incarnation to be able to say whether it's accurate to the vintage (which I am a fan of too!), so proceed with some caution all the same.
    Still, at least they do offer a version of it, instead of the total lie that is the "new" "Miss Dior" in the pink juice bottle (that's the former "Cherie" of which they dropped the Cherie for reasons unknown).

    Elixir des Merveilles is wonderful IMHO. It is dry indeed! Personally I love that about Jean Claude Ellena scents, he always seems to be creating out of a Mediterranean viewpoint (and dryness is very prized as a concept in the Med) and to instill that with a bit of Parisian flair in presentation.

  20. Annemariec,

    thank you very much for your kind words. :-)

    I find that once one is drawn to chypres they tend to stay with her/him. They're sort of addictive. ;-)
    It's a great shame that reformulation has caused so many classics to become unrecognizable... :-(

    And ever so glad I produced a "eureka moment" (gotta love those!)

  21. M,

    two magnificent choices; one for cooler weather and one for the heatwave! (hope it has subsided by now a bit??)

    I find Mitsouko very sensual with its spicy and golden touch. Mmmm....

  22. Palmwatd,

    there's an idea ;-)
    Taking your wording, I love nothing more than proselytizing the heathen, I guess. :-)

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  23. Hatice,


    Yes, Aromatics Elixir is a GREAT fragrance. It doesn't surprise me it's so very very popular (and a constant best-seller) in Cyprus and Greece; its natural habitat, it seems. :-)
    I find these dry chypres really adapt well to the climate and surrounding scents of the Med, they are designed to, after all!

  24. Charleston girl,

    you're most welcome and thanks for stopping by!

  25. Scotch,

    glad to hear you say so!
    It's a never ending journey but it's enriching for the soul. :-)
    Thanks for stopping by and commenting and hope you enjoy it around here.

  26. Sujaan,

    thank you very much for the kind words :-)

  27. Soleil Orange,

    oh such a sweet note, thank you so much! :-)

    Yes, I can totally sympathize with you. It's wonderful being brought up in chypres. So many lovely choices there! They do represent confidence and safety. And sorta giving the feeling of being in control, don't they?

    I recall my mother decked in Cabochard and thinking, how could she not conquer the world in that magnificent perfume?

  28. Merlin18:48

    I tend to find chypres a little bit scary, which will explain my attraction to gourmands!
    One thing that confuses me a little is that Private Collection (which smells so green to me) qualifies as a chypre while Chanel no.19 (in which I think smell mainly oakmoss?) does not?
    I was also wondering about how galbanum relates to chypres - both Magie Noire and Aromatics Elixir go so bitter on my skin that they make me a little nauseous. On the other hand Private Collection is refreshing in its dryness. Other 'greens' I like are Envy and Bel Respiro which I assume are green-floral rather than chypre?
    Thanks for such a helpful article - again!

  29. What a wonderful, and clarifying post! Maybe tacking it down with the geography really did it for me. I am a map person. And, I finally realized, of the three types you named, the Nikki St Phalle, and the Halston branch are the ones I and my sisters reacted hostilely to. The Nikki was the only perfume I ever bought for the bottle, and I dumped it all out. Ces't la vie! And, I just read the entry on Cyprus last night, for other, political reasons. I am off to read more about bergemot!

  30. Anonymous19:38


    Many thanks for the timely warnings re Miss Dior - I think I'll get a sample and let my Mum try it out. The other day I mentioned to her they might try to get it back to the original formula and her eyes misted over slightly!

    I loved the opening of Elixir de Mervailles, the dry down was very oakmossy, which I like but it was a tad too tenacious for me. Lightweight that I am! The more I learn about perfume though, and I've learned a LOT from this website! the more I enjoy more challenging perfumes, I'll never be able to love a big tuberose though, unless my sense of smell mysteriously changes

  31. I has so many empty perfume bottle which is very old. i like to collect the old to new generation perfumes.

  32. Merlin,

    it's like this: oakmoss, though necessary, is not the defining element in a chypre. It's a combination of things in a very strict formula that makes something a chypre or not.
    Private Collection has that structure, Chanel no.19 does not, in so many words (though it's "green"). In fact No.19 is something of an oddity and I need to devote a single post on it to highlight exactly its peculiarity. It's full on vetiver in all its current forms and lots of iris, plus galbanum.

    So, on to galbanum. Excellent question!!
    Galbanum is a green smelling resin (from a grass), it's pungent and very bracing and cuts through the sweet notes. It's mostly used in green florals but also on the top of bitterish green chypres. It's non defining of a chypre, but like patchouli, it can be included in the mix just fine.
    I would definitely peg both Bel Respiro and Envy as green florals; they're not chypres.
    As to why AE or MN do not fit you while Private Collection does, it's not necessary that if you like one category (or even a sub-category in that category) you will like ALL fragrances in that pigeonhole. Just like with colors (one likes green in general, but prefers emerald to celadon for instance) it all boils down to personal preference to the tiny nuances. That's the beauty of perfumery! ;-)

  33. N,

    I'm glad you liked it! And that it "clicked" for you!
    Obviously, like I said above, not everything should fit everyone. One is allowed to have preferences within a genre. :-)
    As to Cyprus, it has a fascinating (and very troubled and troubling) history. I always encourage people finding out ;-)

  34. R,

    awwww....I do hope the newest "version" of the original manages to touch her all the same. You're wise to go the route of sampling. ;-)

    The Elixir de Merveilles is a like for many people who like dry scents, no surprise there. I do like it very much myself. Perhaps use as a mist? (Spray a cloud before you and "walk through it" so as to catch a few droplets all over).

    Tuberose can be challenging, because it's so very intense (a drop of the absolute can scent a room for months! trust me I know!). But if you ever fancy finding out whether you can do tuberose, give Vamp a New York (review included on the blog) and Do Son (also included, use the Search function) a try! ;-)

  35. When was Coripha by Chypre bottled?

  36. chypre is my favorite of all things! I have been learning for years on the right balance and still each time it is different and beautiful. I have learned it sure takes a whole lot of labdanum..more than I thought at first.:)
    I love your articles so much, it is like food to my brain!


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