Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Chypre series 3: the new contestants

 If we are to talk about New Chypres (also nouveau chypres or "pink chypres" see below), we need to clarify some things. If you're new to Perfume Shrine's Chypre Series, please refer to the following basic articles:
What ARE "chypre perfumes"?
What are the aesthetics of chypre fragrances?
What's the history and zeitgeist of "chypre" evolution?

In our quest for chypre perfumes we stumble upon a peculiar phenomenon: there are scarcely any true chypres getting produced in the last 25 years!! Why is that? The answer is two-fold and fascinating in its denouement.

First of all, there is the matter of ingredients getting replaced and restricted, with oakmoss being the most crucial and prominent one as mentioned before. However surely this is a very recent phenomenon that only lately has seriously affected perfumers and houses into producing fragrances that do not make use of this elusive, wonderfully sensual ingredient. For example it was only at the beginning of the year that Mitsouko begun its journey into its latest reformulation, the one that lowers the oakmoss magnificence into the accountant-minded IFRA guidelines. Perhaps it's just as well that the process is going slowly in those instances so one can stockpile a favourite version/vintage while they still can. Labdanum is also slowly being replaced by other ingredients. Miss Dior, this legendary New Look debutante has had a makeover by Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. The effect is not quite as endearingly old-fashioned as it used to be. The sister fragrance (or should I say evil step-sister?) Miss Dior Cherie is the new direction in which the pendulum swings.

Nevertheless there must have been something else besides ingredients' embargo at play, influencing trends and production, which we will explore in another installment on the Chypre series real soon.

In the meantime, it might be interesting to note that after what seemed a total eclipse of chypres in releases of late years, there has been a new category of fragrances coming out slowly but surely that although not typical of their family they bear the illustrious label regardless.

They encompass lovely watercolours like Narciso for Her by Narciso Rodriguez, the coquette qui fait la coquinne Coco Mademoiselle by Chanel (classed either as floriental or fruity chypre, leaning more to an orientalised patchouli), the grapefuit laden abstraction of Ralph Lauren's Pure Turqoise , the sexy safron rosiness of Agent Provocateur that might have been at the vanguard of the trend.
These new entries into the galaxy of chypre have been ingeniously coined by Ayala Moriel as "pink chypres", simply because they exude a modern, young and girly air that is a novel take on the old sophistication of a classic chypre.

Michael Edwards, the man who is responsible for the "Fragrances of the World" system is classifying them under the "mossy woods" umbrella as evidenced in the Sephora directory. Oakmoss is mentioned in the introductory note, yet it is distinctly shunning the invitation in several of those listed.

But then how conclusive are fragrance families and categories anyway?

Referenced in the series "Que sais-je?" in the volume Le Parfum Jean Claude Ellena notes:

I've taken part in the perfume classification committee of the Société Française des Parfumeurs, but nowadays I wonder what its use really is. [...]In today's olfactory classifications, I believe that the most valuable information lies in the perfume's date of creation, its name, and the name of the brand that launched it on the market. The date allows us to put perfumes in an evolutionary perspective (as long as we are able to smell them), while product names and brands give us some indication of the degree of creativity involved in each company. (p. 77-78)
(quote copied from Marcello on nowsmellthis)

Clearly this is a renouncement of formal classifications and perhaps a rather elitist streak, one might say, that runs into this 60 year old minimalist perfumer responsible for such masterpieces as First by Van Cleef, Declaration by Cartier, the Hermessences and the Jardin series (en Mediteranee and sur le Nil) for Hermes and numerous others. But then again Jean Claude has a family which cherises aromas in everyday life and sits down to Christmas dinner hiding little aromatic gifts under the napkins. His daughter is also a perfumer, Cecile Ellena, the co-nose of The Different Company. It goes with the territory.

With that in mind, if we choose to take his side, this new category of chypres is worth exploring even though they lack the characteristic bergamot-oakmoss accord that is typical of the classics of yesterday.

So what goes into the production of those modern chypres?

The typical bergamot top of classic chypres has long been known to be phototoxic, resulting in brown patches on the skin upon exposure to UV radiation. It has been advised ever since I can recall to avoid placing perfume in spots that would be exposed to the sun, exactly because of that. And it has been well-known and accepted for decades. Why it has become such a derisive issue now, which demands the restriction of its use in minute amounts or the clear labelling on the box, is a matter that has to do with complicated legal reasons and the fervent desire of companies to not get entantangled in judicial battles that would cost them fortunes.
Bergamot has thus been shunned for other citrusy and bright top notes that include fresh and slightly bitter grapefruit, sweet mandarin and tangerine (like in Miss Dior Cherie), homely orange in some cases, and even floral essences that marry the florancy with the high volatility and sparkle of hesperides, like neroli or even orange blossom (as is the case in Narciso which uses a synthesized orange blossom that is also apparent in this year's launches for men Dior Farhenheit 32 and Gaultier Fleur du Male).

Fruity notes such as mangosteen (Hillary Duff With Love), lichi, watermelon and passion fruit (Masaki Matsushima Masaki), strawberry (Miss Dior Cherie)and berries (Badgley Mischka) are also appearent, although this might have to do with the overuse of fruity aromas in perfumes of recent launch anyway.
Sweet gourmand touches (caramelised pop corn of Miss Dior Cherie and creme de cassis in Badgley Mischka) might also be attributed to that and not to any desire to revolutionise the chypre notion any further. Which is just as good...

Oakmoss and labdanum have been substituted by grassy, pungent vetiver ~that aromatic root from Java that is the dream of every engineer as it binds itself into substructure; and by patchouli ~that indian bush with the sweet smelling leaves that produce the most potent smell in the vegetal kingdom. The two have been the base accord of almost every new chypre to emerge since 2000 and are going steady in their triumphal marching into perfumery even in seperate capacities. They are tremendously popular notes in both feminine and masculine perfumes.

Often spicy notes, such as coriander (Emporio Armani City Glam Her), or herbal ones, such as angelica, mingle with various musks to accent the murky character of the new chypres. Producing thus oeuvres that although they bear no relation to the old-fashioned intense warmth and powder of their predecessors, they appeal to similar audiences; audiences who have been conditioned to love chypres since childhood perhaps, be it from received memories through beloved family members, or through an appreciation for the unidentifiable character of those Old World sumptuous fragrances.

In any case the future for modern chypres is looking very bright indeed!

Next installement will tackle matters of aesthetics.

Top pic sent to me by mail unaccredited, pic of Narciso bottle courtesy of


  1. I am so happy that I have some absolute of oakmoss of my own, I can do what I like with it! (I have worn it diluted heavily on its own).
    The same with labdanum. Ironically, I know, as I am sure we all do, some individuals who claim to dislike perfume, but when exposed to labdanum they are charmed...

  2. Anonymous00:26

    Oakmoss and labdanum are among my favorite perfume notes. I'm dismayed by their disappearance. I cherish the old chypres and don't recognize new ones as belonging to the same family. Why not create a new category for them that doesn't borrow the fine chypre name? They could use woodsy-green or fruity-woodsy or some such descriptive name. I finally got around to trying on 31 Rue Cambon yesterday and had to wash it off; it was so shrieky on me. I just want to draw my Alpona and Mitsouko closer to me for comfort--especially the Alpona.

  3. I have to agree with Maria... I do not feel happy or upbeat at the prospect of a 'modern chypre'. I think it is a travesty to borrow that word. If we continue to accept this, later generations will have no clue whatsoever what chypre ever was.. Like a stolen identity. It creeps me out. If it was not so late at night I would further add how horrifying this would appear to the masses with any other form of art, but these are secure for the sole reason that they leave traces behind - their history cannot be erased with time. Not so with perfume. Not so with perfume.. *sigh*

  4. Miss Dior Cherie is a travesty, to say the least. I do very much like Ava Luxe "Moss" and Le Labo's Labdanum 18, which, I feel, cleave to the old-school approach. Great posting, E. Looking forward to your aesthetics post.

  5. Lucy, you are lucky indeed!
    I do love labdanum as well and wonder why it isn't as much used lately. It's a charming, deep note.

  6. Maria,
    I think this is exactly what Jean Claude Ellena alluded to: that classifications are rather trite and that we should judge something on its own merits. Maybe a different name would be preferable.

    Mitsouko is my most intimate, personal perfume and as to Alpona...although Caron is usually difficult for me, this one is a breath of wet leaves trampled underfoot. Marvellous.

  7. Divina,
    it is of course a shame that later generations might be robbed of the chance to smell a true chypre, or even misguided in believing those new ones are what it was all about.

    However I can't bring myself to lament their emergence, because surely they point to a very hopeful direction away from the plastic vanillas and the buble-gummy fruity florals of late and this is something to be embraced. Maybe if they devised a new name?

  8. Thank you C. I appreciate your compliment.

    Miss Dior Cherie is probably the latest release I was most scared of. I literally shook when I tested it at the store! It made such an unfavourable impression.

  9. Anonymous09:51

    I'd agree with Jean-Claude Ellena's comment. I've found I like most of the pre-1935 fragrances I've been able to try (even if they've been tweaked a bit over the years) and have yet to encounter a Patou I dislike, yet while my favourites are chypres, I don't love all chypres. I had a particularly hard time with both Ivoire and Jolie Madame, which were too green for me.

    Mitsouko is Queen of Perfumes for me, but I've also recently discovered Colony, which is happiness in a bottle. Given the past few years' trend towards fruity fragrances, it's daft that Colony was never reissued, even under another name.

  10. Dear Mim,

    you do have a point that one cannot love anything in a designated family just because.
    It happens to me too; I'm all over the spectrum and have favourites and antipathies in every fragrance family...I mostly judge on a one-to-one basis.
    Maybe Ivoire is not to your taste because it is too soapy and rather floral in nature? Jolie Madame is very violet-y and powdery, which is another matter that has to agree with the wearer. So don't despair. I found those two difficult to adopt myself. May I suggest Miss Balmain instead? ;-)

    It is indeed a shame they didn't re-issue Colony. However it would be very confusing and irritating if the did so under another name.
    The "Ma Collection" though was a good idea!

  11. I'm another sad chypre lover who just can't cotton to the notion of a "modern" chypre--although you make a very good point that, overall, it's a blessing to see commercial perfumery moving away from the fruit and candy.

    I just looked up "chypre" in my Oxford Concise dictionary, which gives the following definition: "A heavy perfume made from sandalwood." That's all. They do get the origin of the word right, but that hardly makes up for the completely incorrect definition. Maybe you should send them this series!

  12. For Mim: I agree it's a shame that Colony was never reissued. I have the 80s reedition and I am pining for the extrait, but whenever it shows up on the Bay it's just too insanely expensive.
    However, Patou's Sublime is somewhat derived from the same idea. While I don't find it as playful as the pineapple-y Colony, it's another excellent example of fruity chypre.
    As for the new family... They can't, and shouldn't be compared with the classic formulations, but they represent a very interesting avenue of research in contemporary perfumery. I feel that 31 rue Cambon, for one, is destined to become a classic (if such a thing is still possible in the tsunami of new launches). The attempt to find a chypre-like "vibe" without the restricted ingredients is indeed a challenge. But as we can't do much about changing Euro-regulations, we can only encourage perfumers to persist. I'm sure they're quite as sorry as we are about these limitations to their creativity.

  13. Dear M,
    aren't we all?
    It's too funny that the Oxford dictionary got it wrong. I wonder how they would react to your proposal though (thanks!)

  14. Dear D,
    tsunami is a very apr word. In such frantic paces one cannot predict classics of the future, simply because there is just too much diversification following that those that could become something of the kind get lost in the flood of flankers...
    I have my doubts for 31 RC. It's elegant and well-made, but to trully become a classic something has to gain a certain popularity too (witness most classics of yore). And I find that difficult in that particular case.

  15. Thank you for explaining the broad and somewhat arbitrary "chypre" classification. I used to be so confused to hear that both Mitsouko and modern scents like Miss Dior Cherie described as chypres. They're nothing alike! I agree with the previous commentors who say a new name should be assigned, although "pink chypres" is a clever take.

  16. It is confusing, isn't it? I think they use the term for lack of something novel.
    The take on "pink chypres" is not credited to me, I'm afraid, like I mentioned in the article. It's a great term though!

  17. Anonymous08:56

    Oh how I lament the passing of chypre perfumes. I miss aromatics elixir so much it hurts. I just cannot find a modern replacement. Neither I or my husband can smell the reformulation. Any suggestions as to what to try instead?

  18. Anon,

    thanks for coming on board!

    But why are you missing Aromatics Elixir? It's alive and well on the counters (It's a steady best-seller where I am, actually). The new versions are also very good, actually.
    However if you want something that smells very close, try Apivita "Earth" for a very good approximation. It's sometimes sold on Amazon. I have a comparison article here.
    Other suggestions would include Knowing by Lauder, Halston original and Une Rose Chypree by Andy Tauer (reviews here, use the Search function)


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