Some perfumes, like the best kept mysteries, keep their secrets close at heart and do not intend to be easily deciphered. That's part of their charm. Chypre 53 by Guerlain is the latest in this row of scented mysteries and I will try to break down its coding today with Chabollion determination, but non conclusive results. Let's call it the Linear A of Guerlain. :-)
My research indicates that there are actually two formulae of the elusive Chypre 53 and it would depend on which edition one gets hold of. The original Guerlain Chypre 53 was issued in 1909 in the standard quadrilobe extrait bottle with the phallic cap, holding 30ml, which we have come to associate with Guerlain extraits in general. The perfume was soon discontinued leaving more commercially successful Guerlain fragrances such as Mitsouko, Shalimar, Vol de Nuit or L'Heure Bleue in the limelight while it retreated in the shade of the archives. The year 1948 saw a re-issue of the Guerlain fragrance. The concentration of eau de cologne was opted for Chypre 53 and indeed "flacons montre" (the familiar round disk bottles with the gold pyramidal stopper which routinely hold the eau de cologne version of Guerlain fragrances) hold the splash edition of the more effervescent take.
Besides those two types of bottles, there is also the amphora extrait bottle and the "goutte" (which means drop or bead in French) bottle for the eau de toilette concentration of Guerlain Chypre 53. The amphora and goutte bottles, as well as the montre one, were circulating well into the 1950s, according to the Guerlain archives. There also seems to exist a Lotion Vegetale which was intended as a grooming product, canonical to Guerlain standards of providing scented exhilaration while preparing one's hair and skin. [a collective imaging of the various bottles can be found here]
The providence of my review sample is a collector, a serious and well intentioned one, who was generous enough to share with me and request my opinion. Unfortunately I do not know the providence of the juice, though I assume it comes from some online auction where the rare fragrance makes a sporadic appearance. Exactly because the origin and authenticity of the fragrance is something that cannot be guaranteed, the exercise is tentative at best, colored by a highly subjective impression at worst.
What strikes me in my edition of Guerlain Chypre 53 is the inkiness and leatheriness of the acrid note coming from the depth of the perfume, indicating the use of isoquinolines plus oakmoss. The skeleton of the chypre fragrance dictates the use of the latter, so this is no surprise. Considering that the 1948 edition of Chypre 53 comes one year after the launch of Piguet's Bandit with its butch, described as "for dykes"ambience, the inclusion of the former isn't far fetched at all either. Although Chypre 53 was intended by Guerlain to be a feminine fragrance my olfactory appreciation informs me that men could wear it very convincingly as well. The boldness however is gentler and less bitter green than Bandit, with richer elements of spices (carnation) and Provencal herbs (thyme mainly) that bring it close in feel to both Caron Tabac Blond from 1917 (with its distinctive carnation leather) and Chanel's Cuir de Russie from 1924 (with the same carnation, the spiciness of styrax and the background of a refined animality comprising clary sage, new car upholstery and precious flowers). This mental tie can be explained by sampling the 1948 edition but not the 1909 one, therefore my understanding is that I am experiencing the later one.
The overall feeling is dry but also warm, with a rustic touch, savoury sweet at various instants and with the cinnamic-eugenol facets I mentioned before. This carnation-leather combo is perplexing, as it's so indicative of the 1920s (where these garconnne leathers reigned supreme as well as carnation florals like Caron's Bellodgia), which is unsettling considering the chronology of either edition, additionally the opening seems like a different segment with the vetiver being more prominent.
Like all Guerlain perfumes of vintage cut there's a lot to recommend testing it out on your own skin, although it would be perhaps counterintuitive to pay through the nose for an old Chypre 53 specimen, unless you happen to land on a very lucky incident of value for money, an exceedingly rare sight in the world of online auctions. Having provided this caveat emptor, I'm very happy that I managed to round up my perfume knowledge of rare, historical Guerlain perfumes, from Atuana and Fleur de Feu to Loin de Tout and Guerlain Cuir de Russie through Coque d'Or and Djedi. Now that Chypre 53 has joined the ranks, my appreciation of la maison Guerlain has gained one more shade of the rainbow.
Maybe now that Guerlain is re-issuing the parfums de patrimoine (heritage perfumes from their archives, for exhibition purposes only), Chypre 53 is a good addition to the collection that is just waiting to happen ;)