Monday, October 19, 2015

The Truth About Patchouli Chypres or Floral Patchoulis: Not So Recent After All

Many perfume aficionados have noticed the ubiquitness of patchouli oil in modern fragrances; either in the form of the "fruitchouli" fragrance where the dominance of patchouli is given a sweeter overlay of usually berry fruits or in the form of the "floral patchouli" which we affectionately call the "nouveau chypre" (or "pink chypre" perfume). Technically nevertheless at least the latter is not as recent as all that.


In fact these so called patchouli "chypres" as many have suspected all along are not "true" chypres perfumes. Rather the dominance of floral notes plus patchouli and the relative lack of animal notes and musk places them in a slightly separate group which I had been meaning to tackle for a long whilte. That group however is none the less revered taking into account the many classic perfumes which are classified within it.

These floral patchouli perfumes have mainly become possible through the introduction of "luminous/transparent jasmine" in the late 1960s aka the Hedione ingredient which "reads" as fragrant lightly green air above the jasmine vine. The pliability of this material makes it the perfect bridge between the sweet medicinal-woody note of patchouli and the rest of the floral components. Indeed most of the patchouli perfumes with dominant floral elements are fitting neatly into the 1970s and 1980s slot: Diorella (1972). Aromatics Elixir (1972). Coriandre (1973). Paloma Picasso (1984). Knowing (1988).

If you think about it the "nouveau chypres" with Narciso for Her eau de toilette being in the vanguard didn't deviate much from this path. The patchouli is "cleaned" up of its darker chocolate and peppery aspects but the woodiness prevails alongside a modern Amberlyn (ambrox) base and the overlay of sweet orange blossoms; a noticeable floral component.  White Patchouli by Tom Ford also divests of the dirtier aspects of patchouli and increases the white flowers antel it's a prime example of the contemporary translation of this concept. There is also the new Aromatics in White by Clinique; fittingly a flanker to the original Aromatics Elixir perfume from the 1970s. I have noticed that the use of "white" in the name lately has taken to suggest a sizable slice of patchouli in the modern style.

In what concerns the Diorella fragrance by Dior the main chord is built around Hedione-Helional-eugenol-patchouli. The fact that Helional used in 5% quota in the formula carries an airy and watery hint with it speaks volumes; it's no coincidence that Diorella works very very well in the heat! Especially combined with the copious citrusy essences on top. Hedione 10% and cis-jasmone 2% plus natural jasmine absolute gave the richness of the classic Diorella floralcy. Rose only played a very very small part in the original composition. A hint of peachy note was possible through C14 aldehyde. The softness of that note plus the airier-watery components conspire to give an illusion of melon to our noses.

Some of the basic components in Diorella are also taken unto Aromatics Elixir by Clinique though the formula there takes a turn for the rosier and darker without pronounced citrus notes. Helional and Hedione again combine with patchouli as well as vetiver (for an enhanced earthy feel) and woody violets. The bouquet is further enhanced and "opened" with lily of the valley synthetics like the air seeps into a newly opened bottle of red wine and lets it "breathe". I always find that either Hedione or lily of the valley are the decisive "keys" with which a composition of formula unlocks its message.

I'm using the example of Aromatics Elixir to further discuss the likes of Aramis 900, Paloma Picasso and Knowing by Estee Lauder. These form a tight group of kinship. Not coincidentally the common perfumer at the helm of IFF and commissioned with the work for Lauder (Aramis and Clinique are both Lauder companies) was Bernant Chant; he of Cabochard (a more hardcore leather chypre fragrance) as well as of Aromatics Elixir and of Aramis classic for men. 

Knowing in particular is an undersung marvel and "reads" today as a very venerable authentic chypre thanks to its perfume-y powdery character. But its progeny must be traced into the floral patchoulis of the previous decade. Specifically Coriandre.

In Jean Couturier's Coriandre fragrance the key ingredient is the similarly jasminic Magnolione (comprising 20% of the formula) alongside 10%  patchouli. The rose base is founded on geranium making the trasition of Coriandre into a shared fragrance more easily imagined. The spicy top predictably includes coriander but also the intensely green "budding" note of styralyl acetate (the scent of budding gardenias) and ylang ylang. So it's again a floral aspect given a woody underlay (apart from vetiver and cedar ingredients there's also sandalwood; arguably the genuine Mysore variant back in the time of original launch of the fragrance.

The difference with Knowing is that the American taste for almondy fluffiness manifests itself via the use of heliotropin, while there is also the component of a white floral that makes its presence known: tuberose with its bubblegum facets turned up a notch.

In Paloma Picasso/Paloma Mon Parfum the perfume is saturated in castoreum which might trick us into believing we're dealing more with a hardcore chypre a la Cabochard than with a "floral patchouli" as we defined it in the introduction of this primer. But the thing with perception -and the point of this primer- is that it is influenced by context. In yesteryear's milieu perfumes like Knowing or Diorella were differentiated from the more tightly clustered classic chypres. In today's comparison with the syrupy fruities or even the "nouveau chypres" they seem like the end of the hardcore spectrum. Similarly the newer contestants to the throne appear like the emperor's new clothes whereas they form the distant relative to a long line of noble lineage.

If Francis Kurkdjian and Christine Nagel (both credited with Narciso For Her; Nagel specifically also the founder of the fruitchouli with Miss Dior Cherie) created something new, like Isaac Newton they must have seen further by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Related reading on PerfumeShrine:
Perfume Primers: Chypres for Newbies
The Chypres Series: History, Landmarks, Aesthetics, Contemporary Fragrances
Perfume Primers: Aldehydic Florals for Beginners
Chanel No.19: Woody Floral or Green Chypre?


  1. These modern patchouli fragrances (floral or otherwise) aren't selling so well in India. Patchouli is considered more of a medicine (in the Ayurvedic sense) than a perfume ingredient by Indians. It would be akin to us western folks wanting a fragrance that smells like cough drops or expectorant syrup.
    I sampled Juliette Has a Gun's Not A Perfume (Ambroxan) & Molecule 01 by Escentric Molecules (iso e super) for the first time at the Moscow airport last month. I must be anosmic to many of these synthetics - both were rather 'meh'. I still can't get over JHAG & EM's lines being sold at the duty free shops in Sheremetyevo. (Tom Ford was conspicuously absent, I might add. Too western? Nah. Estee Lauder was all over Moscow too.)

    1. Not surprised by a local cultural prejudice on an ingredient; it happens the world over (for instance I can't abide camphor because it reminds me of Vicks gel which they imposed on me as a kid, which is a strong cultural association, everyone knows the scent of Vicks Vapo-rub).

      And a resounding yes to your assessment of the popular synths for amber woods and cedar woods; they're very subtle in nuance and at the same time quite radiating at a very extensive radius. It does strike me as odd these lines being featured at the duty free, mostly the EM because the other line was conceived from the beginning as the "other line" of the Ricci heir.
      I would have expected Tom Ford to be all over Moscow!! It fits the bling "give me expensive" profile to a T!

  2. So glad to see you writing again :-). So the much maligned/loved "pink chypre" has a heritage. I feel though that Coco Mademoiselle should also get mentioned in the discussion of the "pink chypre" founding scents too of the early 2000s. Although, my money will always be on NR being the better of the two.

    1. Hi Jennifer, so good to see you and thanks for the vote of confidence. I'm trying to keep up with the Perfume Shrine best I can I guess. This post was years in the making and an observation finally made me get over the edge and sit down and write it.

      I kinda believe the Coco Mademoiselle should be poised someplace between the fruitchouli and the woody oriental. Technically it's constructed with a very Angel-like formula compared to the more floral patchouli of Narciso. It's very influential though and definitely deserves discussion on the evolution of the patchouli craziness.

    2. I can see your connecting Coco Mademoiselle with Angel there is a definite lineage there which probably also explains why Coco Mademoiselle is not a favorite of mine, considering Angel is a terror on me. Where as I do love Coriandre and most definetely love NR edt original. I can still remember the hubbub that scent created in the fragrance community and then the countless knock-offs, it was strange when it suddenly became the most popular scent ever, because I can remember before that Dolce & Gabbana's Light Blue being the big scent of the era, and now well I rarely hear mention of it.

    3. Yeah, I should think that anyone who opposes Angel might not take kindly to the progeny. The trick is that both fragrances are somewhat vulgarized, somewhat trashy, the main difference being that Angel takes it all the way (and has the superior juxtaposing bottle presentation to clash with the smell) while Coco Mlle does not (and seems all timid and girl in its pinkish juice).
      Coriandre and NR edt are both refined; in reality they're miles away from the gourmand territory of the previous mentioned patchouli monsters even if they do feature patchouli prominently themselves. Am I making sense here? I hope I am.

      Narciso is a modern classic because it did bring something new to the table, especially at the time of its launch (now every company has their own Narciso, like they used to have their own Eau d'Issey, their own Tresor etc because these sold in TONS. Copying is the sincerest form of acknowledging a best-seller). The fact that it's also a great smelling scent that will always feel pleasant is to its benefit. It's not too challenging, but it's not trashy or dull either.

      Light Blue is really moving in hotter countries; it's still in the top 10 of sellers here for instance (we do move a lot of Aromatics Elixir too, so I do find it all weather-and-culture-related). Of course since everyone and their mother has worn it it's not hip and trendy anymore, but in bulk sales, still doing the rounds.
      I find that the perfume community is a thing apart than the actual market. People on the actual market buy for different reasons that we do. Francis Kurkdjian had a point, even if he put it inelegantly.

  3. This was so interesting and as our summer is on the way ...... I must get some Diorella . Its not like it used to be but ...saying that ... its still so good in the heat!

    1. Thanks M, glad I caught your interest! :-)
      Yup, isn't it something that those classics still are kinda great even in their more watered down versions? They're more distinctive I guess now that vogues have changed. And of course the Roudnitska classics are creme de la creme anyway. Hope your summer proves less hot and dry than the previous one.

  4. annemariec11:18

    Lovely post. I like or love just about every perfume you mention except Coco Mad. I'm always amazed to see NR4H in the same discussion as Knowing and Paloma etc. I just don't get that they could be in the same family. I;d classify NR4H as 'um ... a musky floral thing ... ', not a chypre of any description. I guess it means that once the dark stuff is tripped out of patchouli I just don't recognise it.

    1. Can't say I really like Coco Mad myself either; still its influence in market terms is ginormous so it deserves respect for that alone.

      The Narciso is a good case of refining to the point of only keeping the -almost Platonic- idea of something and subtracting the decoration. I think it's a wonderful perfume which does smell sorta perfumey (no one naturally smells that alluring) but at the same time it lacks the dark aspects of a proper chypre with animalic notes (see the base of the original Miss Dior for instance; a gardenia wrapped in furs). You're perfectly on point when you classify NR4H as "musky floral thing". These overrefined floral patchoulis are uniformely grouped under "woody floral musk" where "woody" stands for the patchouli component. ;-)

  5. YAY! I've missed your in depths.
    It's so good to have some of this explained. I have a question though, and it's been my thought for a while.
    In my nose the first fruitchouli seems to be Femme by Rochas and that's where my head (with no knowledge other than speculation) pointed to. Where would you land it on the spectrum?
    Portia xx

    1. Hi there so nice to see you here again!
      And thanks for the welcoming back of the in depths. Plan to have a few more scheduled in the following weeks.

      You have a good question there. Femme is technically a fruity chypre and its formula takes over where Mitsouko left (though that one is less complex and more of a short formula). It does follow the stricter cluster of materials that classic chypres follow.
      But the combination of the quite potent -and very discernible Prunol base (which recalls plums with peach and raisins) with the patchouli does bring to mind to a modern consumer what they have experienced i.e. the fruitchoulis. Because we have no other contemporary associations of plummy fruits + patchouli BUT the fruitchouli we tend to make a mental connnection between the two. So even though Femme isn't a fruitchouli (and can't be considered but a distant forerunner in the way that soy sausages can't be called true sausages with a straight face) the fact that there are no remaining specimens of densely saturated fruity patchouli woody scents in between Femme and the modern fruitchouli makes the speculation not entirely illogical.

      For a more direct descendant from Femme I'd direct you to the lovely Bottega Veneta eau de parfum (the first one) where again there's the Prunol playing its sly rich game.(SL Boxeuses is another one in which I get this connection; self-explaining since stewed fruits is par for the course with most SL frags). I explain the connection with BV a bit in my original review you might want to check out.

      Feel free to shoot me with more questions if you want to.

    2. Excellent, thank you. I LOVE the original Bottega Veneta and completely get the cross reference. Daim Blond is then also a close relative of that line?
      Thanks for so generously responding.
      Portia xx

    3. I was sure you'd like such a great fragrance as BV!
      Yes DB is similar. More touching on the suede shoulder rather than the plum one?

    4. I love Femme and BV. Now I know why! I had not made the connection.

    5. I absolutely LOVE it when people come onboard and tell me that a comment of mine or a post has elucidated something for them. I consider it a job well done. Thanks Anne Marie for making my day. :-) And may I add you have excellent taste in fragrances.

  6. I can't say I'm a fan of the pink Chypre; give me a hardcore true Chypre any day! This said, I do enjoy Narciso and I can understand its appeal, well done and pleasant. But if I could get my oakmoss laden animalic furs and floral chypres of yore I'd be more than settled. Standing ovation for Aromatics for being very very good even today.

    1. You do have a point. But times change and that's not always a bad thing. We should embrace the best of what contemporary culture offers lest the worst prevails. So Narciso is all very well and a refined modernization; I'd take it over things like fruity syrupy stuff any day.
      Of course there's always room for the true hardcore chypres in a genuine perfumephile's heart too! Aromatics is a wonderful, wonderful scent and Athens is FULL of ladies wearing it so I'm exceedingly happy to be catching their lovely trail all the time.

  7. Miss Heliotrope01:19

    I do love chypres - and following the interpretations of them across years & fashion is fun. It is fascinating to see how each era reinterprets a set note or style in its own fashion. We do it with so many things, and then seem shocked when someone points out that the ones now, however classic & expensive (not just scent) are nothing like the original, overlooking that few of us would be able to appreciate the original, as how we see things has changed.

    What is nice, is being able to compare & contrast, and while I support changes to protect animals & endangered plant life, changes made just to make changes are annoying: start again on your own terms. An annoying non-perfume form of this is when someone thinks to capitalise on a popular book by making a tv series or movie, which then contains nothing of the original save a name or two - given you are writing your own story, why not use your own names, too? (I do know money comes into this & cashing in on the original), but it's infuriating...

    1. This is an interesting point which needs some further discussion. Maybe I will do a separate post on it later on.
      The thing is, changes aren't made just to make changes. There's no reason to change something unless there is a reason behind it. At least this is what happens with perfumery most of the time.

      Re: capitalization on a best-selling idea, well, this is how the market works. They give MORE of a good thing (which isn't bad per se), only sometimes the whole thing gets skewed; what started as a true passion becoming a success by finding its audience becomes an exercise in sketching anew what might have been passion but is -by definition- not.

    2. Miss Heliotrope00:51

      I know they are made for reasons, usually to do with sales (perfume or tv/movies), and yes using the same name gets the attention, but it nearly always seems that one then looses the original (I know you can go back & read the book), and seems to overlook that something is usually popular for what it is, rather than what it isnt (politics - here in Oz at least - is the exception to this, we often vote for a party bc they are not the other lot). This is where I think flankers work - it is inspired by x but we've made changes for fashion/age/country/bc it's Wednesday, that sort of thing - which is good, bc you can go back & see, but when an item is sold as x when it's really x9, it can be annoying.

      In the wake of the Lord of the Rings/Harry Potter movie success, a number of movies of fantasy books were made. Two I know of (to be honest, didnt watch, bc people who had seen them & loved the original books were screaming in pain about them) basically changed the entire story, used a couple of characters' names for different sorts of people, and then were complete flops. The makers seem to have missed the point about the super-successful films - they followed the books. I know it's not the same thing as perfume stuff, but rants dont have to be logical.

  8. Eyebrowz19:07

    Great post. Informative, opinionated and well-written! Also, it's about patchouli and who could resist? Would love to query you on D&G Velvet Patchouli and Narcisco's musks, btw....


Type your comment in the box, choose the Profile option you prefer from the drop down menu, below text box (Anonymous is fine too!) and hit Publish.
And you're set!

This Month's Popular Posts on Perfume Shrine