It’s entirely possible that more has been written about this one perfume than any other. Chypre, first released by Coty in 1917, was one of the first widely-produced commercial versions of an accord – the classic bergamot-oakmoss-labdanum – that, according to some people, had long been in use in the Mediterranean. Some of the things perfume writers have said about it: Chypre defined a genre. Chypre was brutal and Fauvist and outlined in broad strokes the formula that would undergird dozens of better, more sophisticated perfumes. Chypre was “big-boned and bad-tempered” [Luca Turin] and uncomfortable, bony and angular. Chypre was not as striking or as classic as the great fragrances that would follow in its footsteps. Chypre opened up great swaths of territory to be explored. Chypre laid down the structure for jewels of the genre such as Mitsouko, Miss Dior, Jolie Madame, Cristalle, Femme, Aromatics Elixir, Bandit, Diorella, Givenchy III, Chanel Pour Monsieur, Estee Lauder Knowing, Amouage Jubilation 25, Acqua di Parma Profumo… It’s difficult to read any serious perfume writer’s work and not come across a discussion of Coty Chypre, which is only surprising when you consider that very, very few people who are interested in perfume have ever smelled it.
Luca Turin, on the Osmotheque recreation of Chypre, in The Little Book of Perfumes: The Hundred Classics:
As one who has never been particularly fond of symphonic florals, I imagine that those who felt as I do must have thought their day had finally come when Coty’s Chypre was launched. Chypre, like so many of Coty’s great works, was not just a pretty face, more an entirely different kind of beauty… Smelling the Osmotheque’s pristine Chypre is quite an experience. The angularity of it is still shocking all these years later. Fragrances before Chypre had flesh; Coty invented bones. Those bones have over the decades turned out to be so easy to dress a million ways that the chypre category (loosely defined as Coty’s triad of bergamot-cistus-oakmoss) is probably the most successful fragrance category of all time. Smelling it unadorned is like watching an actress take her makeup off while eyeing you in the mirror, slipping some jeans on, putting her arm through yours, and offering to set out into the night unrecognized, paler, and more plainly beautiful than ever.
(Warning: this is a long review/commentary, so bear with me, please. There’s just so much to say!)
Last spring, I sampled DSH Perfumes’ recreation of the older formula of Coty’s genre-defining scent, as a sort of “Huh, you know, I ought to acquaint myself with this classic,” venture. I’ve never been a huge fan of chypres, except where rose and other florals soften the angular, uncompromising structure. Nobody was more surprised than I was when I fell for DSH Chypre, and fell hard.
It was elemental. Green, but amber too. Strong and stark yet plush and luxurious. Tough, but smooth. Something both of and not of this world. Bergamot and rose and jasmine, moss and tons of labdanum… relatively simple in construction, but wonderfully coherent, with a distinctive character. (See my review of it, and of the 1980s rerelease, here.)
I still love the stuff. It is, to my sadness, discontinued. Although Dawn typically keeps small stockpiles of her discontinued fragrances, available in small quantities to fans who shamelessly beg, to my knowledge she’s cleared her vaults of all her back inventory of this one.
Shortly thereafter, I tested the 80s rerelease and was surprised at its ladylike, powdery demeanor. Could this be the scent that Dorothy Parker, famous for her wit and barbed tongue, was also famous for wafting everywhere she went? Apparently it was not. It had been softened down, muzzled, prettied up. I liked the Chateau Collection EdT – it reminded me a lot of the vintage Miss Dior parfum my friend Tamara was so kind as to send me a sample of – but it was just… nice. Nice. Tons of aldehydes, like a good-girl fragrance of the time. Intelligent, well-mannered, nothing to trifle with, but still not the Green Goddess I’d been expecting.
(Yes, Dorothy Parker, she who said such things as “Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone,” and “This wasn’t just plain terrible, this was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it.” And, “She runs the gamut of emotions, from A to B.” And, “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.” And more. Read more Dorothy Parker quotes here at Goodreads, if you’ve a mind to raise your eyebrows, smile, sigh, imagine her floating about dispensing wicked lines with a sly smile and trailing clouds of vintage Chypre.)
I read every review I could find of Coty Chypre and was amazed at the disparate responses to it: one reviewer would call it brutal and another would say it was Essence of Old Lady. One reviewer would say, “bold,” and another would call it “tame.” One would mention the surprising amberiness, and another would talk about the extreme powderiness. I began to realize that these people were not all reviewing the same scent. “Old Lady,” tame, and powdery seemed to belong to the 1986 Chateau Collection rerelease; brutal, bold, and ambery seemed to be associated with any older version. The confusion seems to arise because even the 1986 stuff is discontinued, and people from eBay sellers to decanters have been calling the rerelease “vintage,” when in truth the rerelease diverges considerably from the original.
Then Musette, from Perfume Posse, mentioned on a Facebook group that she’d gotten hold of some perfectly-preserved vintage Coty Chypre parfum, via her friend Patty (also of Perfume Posse, and one of the partners in the decant/sample business Surrender to Chance) – and that it was rocking her world. I had to have me some. Even a little bit would be fine.
It’s still available at Surrender to Chance at this writing – and I warn you, it’s expensive. Really expensive. Ridiculously so. But at the same time, Dawn’s version is gone, and you go ahead and TRY, JUST TRY to find some via eBay or antiques malls now. The ’86 version is rare and expensive enough. And the thing is… well, it’s this: it is, for me, worth every bit of the $23 I paid for my tee-nine-sy sample.
I can only respond with a literary quote, from Belinda, by Anne Rice (writing as Anne Rampling):
Rain falling. Great slanted sheets of rain. They hit the screens with such force the screens billowed, and the water swept the old floorboards, spraying off the legs of the rocking chair, spraying into the room. Dark puddle creeping into the flowers of the rug… Lightning again. Everything gorgeously visible for a fraction of a second. The settee and the petit point pillows…This was the smoothest Scotch. After years of white wine or a beer now and then, it was like mainlining. I mean, the furniture was moving.
It rocked my world, too.
This Chypre parfum – I do not know any details on how old Surrender to Chance’s inventory is, or whether it smells just like the version preserved in the Osmotheque – was described by Musette as “pristine,” and I think she’s pretty close. There’s none of that decayed-perfume vibe to it at all, nothing in the least in it to suggest that the scent has gone bad.
There is much less bergamot in the opening than I’d expected, however, and I suppose that the citrus has faded to some degree; this is the only facet in which my sample of Chypre can be assumed to have suffered any age-related degeneration. Citruses and aldehydes are among the lightest scent molecules, and do tend to either fade or decay relatively quickly. (Decayed aldehydes, smelling like nail polish or hairspray, are probably responsible for most of the “nasty old perfume” vibe you might have smelled in vintage bottles.) Even so, this Chypre sample retains some of its bitter-aromatic citrus quality.
The classic chypre character is obvious from the beginning: citrus-labdanum-oakmoss, all bitter and resinous and lively. Sure, this is an old style of perfumery, but it isn’t static or nostalgic. Rather, it smells fresh and alert, as if it might walk up and slap you for not paying enough attention. It doesn’t actually slap, but you wonder if it might. It demands respect.
I was surprised to find the florals – rose and jasmine, particularly – clearly present and identifiable, and softening the structure into something very wearable. Like I said: smoooooth. And yet, it’s a fragrance which heightens your awareness of your surroundings: you are alive and walking on the earth, breathing, blinking, smelling. Living.
Where the 1980s reformulation, in itself a pretty thing, is powdery and floral and green and bears at least a passing resemblance to Deneuve, that reserved paean to femininity, with a fresh sweetness in its base that calls to mind Silences, the vintage Chypre parfum is darker and brooding, with a narrow-eyed, seductive labdanum humming along on my wrist. It lasts perhaps four hours, dabbed. To be honest, I’m a little afraid of applying it generously, lest I fall into a hallucinatory hyperawareness of the autumn outside my window, and never come out of it.
How close is the DSH version? I’d say that it’s much closer than the 1986 Chypre, although the DSH is a little less floral, and more strongly balsamy in the base. It also lacks the beautiful iris note that so surprised me in the real stuff and which makes Chypre seem more gracious than I’d expected.
The Perfumer’s Apprentice
lists at one time listed a formula that they call “a close approximation… not the production formula.” (Edit: The formula is no longer available on the website, but since I copied and pasted it here, this is what it looked like.) If you were thinking that all it takes to make Chypre was bergamot, oakmoss and labdanum… well, I’ll say it out loud: WRONG. Read on, to see what I mean. Here it is, with the numeric portion being centigrams, or so I assume given their explanation “divide all [numbers] by 100 to make 10 grams of concentrate”:
- Bergamot, 225
- Cardamom 10%, 5
- Tarragon 10%, 35
- Clary Sage, 25
- Sweet Orange – 25
- Methyl Salicylate 10%, 5
- Jasmine Absolute, 40
- Rhodinol, 30 (rhodinol is related to citronellol and geraniol)
- Oakmoss 50%, 20 (not as much as you’d have guessed, right? )
- Benzoin oil, 50
- Civet absolute, 10
- Labdanum, 10 (not as much as you’d have guessed of THAT, either)
- Orris concrete 10%, 25
- Styrax, 5
- Tonka bean absolute, 20
- Vanilla absolute, 7
- Bulgarian rose, 3
- Rose de mai absolute, 30
- Methyl Ionone (violet), 40
- Patchouli, 25
- Vetiver acetate, 25
- Musk ketone, 30
- Jasmine blend, 25 (this is a proprietary blend available at TPA)
- Ambrene 50, 25
- Ambergris tincture 5%, or Cetalox, 30
- DEP or IPM or DPG, 165
(I don’t really understand the last line, given that “DEP” is no longer on the website, IPM refers to several different musk ingredients, and DPG is dipropylene glycol, which is a carrier oil. I assume this is a fixative, but I’m just guessing.)
My point, and I did have one, is that contrary to my assumption that Coty Chypre was a skeletal formula, it’s actually pretty complex stuff. Two kinds of citrus, two herbs and a spice, six floral materials, iris, three sweet balsamy items (vanilla, benzoin, tonka), patchouli, vetiver, a woody-amber, a salty ambergris component, civet and musk, PLUS the aforementioned oakmoss and labdanum. It smells complex, too.
One of the qualities that I just love about old Cotys is that they are so soft, so well-blended, so much of-a-piece. Judging from the older bottles that I’ve managed to lay hands on, they all have this tendency toward distinctiveness and coherence: each one smells like itself, and while you can sometimes parse the notes, each fragrance has a definitive identity and the notes are rarely muddled. They tend to be very, very smooooth. Eminently wearable.
I will not take the time to whine in detail about the Fall of the House of Coty. But it makes me sick, what’s been done to Emeraude. The classic scents were really lovely, for all that they were meant for shopgirls with little money for discretionary spending. I wishwishwish that Coty would reorchestrate their gorgeous classics and release them in fancy packaging with prices to match… it’s a hopeless wish, but I wish it anyway.
Some other reviews of vintage Coty Chypre: Basenotes, Fragrantica, Yesterday’s Perfume (real vintage), Denyse Beaulieu of Grain de Musc, for Perfume Shrine (real vintage), Olfactarama (possibly the rerelease, hard to tell), Perfume Fountain (real vintage), Ayala’s SmellyBlog (I think she’s reviewing the rerelease because of the mention of aldehydes, which were definitely not part of the older version but clearly present in the ’80s stuff), The Non-Blonde (rerelease), That Smell (again, from her description of florals and powdery moss, I think it’s the rerelease), Nathan Branch (brief, but probably the real vintage from his description).
Edit: I should have made it plain here, as I did in my DSH Chypre review, that Coty didn’t invent the accord and wasn’t the first to market it on a grand scale, but his version was the first blockbuster seller. See Elena Vosnaki’s excellent primer on chypres here.