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.
Coty Chypre, first released in 1917, was a stunningly successful fragrance that immediately began to influence perfumery, and is still influencing it. While it wasn’t the first chypre fragrance released (there were at least two others on the market, released circa 1909), it was the one that caught everyone’s attention. Countless words have been written about the impact of Chypre, and so I won’t belabor the point but will point you toward some excellent articles on the subject. Briefly, it is based on an accord of bergamot, oakmoss, and labdanum, along with florals and woody notes such as patchouli and sandalwood, and all chypre-type fragrances have these components.
For more on the impact, history, and structure of Chypre, read this post by Victoria at Bois de Jasmin. Also, Elena at Perfume Shrine has a whole series discussing the chypre genre which is well worth reading, as well as a review of Coty Chypre written by Denise of Grain de Musc.
Coty stopped producing Chypre sometime in the 1960s, so far as I can tell, and then reissued it in 1986, along with two other older fragrances, La Rose Jacqueminot and Les Muses, as eau de toilette. I have two samples of Coty Chypre, both of the 1980s reissue but from different sources. They are quite similar. Both are dabber samples, so I haven’t been able to experience Chypre sprayed.
The Coty starts out with that indefinably “old-lady” vibe, which for me evokes my great-aunt’s dressing table. Aunt Leacy was the wife of a dairy farmer/minister, the sister of my grandmother Sarah Lou, and it’s hard for me to imagine a relative’s house, other than my grandmother Nell’s, more welcoming and enjoyable for a kid. I loved visiting her. There is a definite face-powder note to the Coty scent – not surprising perhaps when you realize that for years Coty scented their loose face powder with Chypre – and there is a dry dustiness to even the topnotes, which have probably lost their citrusy power by now.
From the beginning, I smell that powdery oakmoss and the ghost of something vaguely citrus (which we all know was once bergamot). Under that is a very blended, classical heart of rose and jasmine, and I’d swear there’s just a hint of cool, satiny iris in the mix too. Occasionally I get a waft of a sweet floral note that could be ylang-ylang, but not every time I wear it. On skin, Coty Chypre stays in this rose-jasmine-moss mode for about two hours before getting even more comfortable, with that powdered moss gradually becoming less powdery and more alive. The labdanum is well-mannered, which isn’t always the case, and it mostly serves to warm up the moss to create a lovely gentle smell that stays close to the skin.
It lasts about three hours on me, quite light, but, as always with fragrances that aren’t fresh from the perfumer, age and storage could have affected its strength and longevity adversely. Having read Luca Turin’s assessment of Coty Chypre, I was surprised to find it an extremely wearable scent, relaxed and quietly confident. Here’s what he has to say, from the review of Guerlain Mitsouko (which I freely admit right now that I do not like without knowing why):
[Mitsouko is] an improvement on Francois Coty’s Chypre, released… two years earlier. Chypre… is brilliant, but it does have a big-boned, bad-tempered Joan Crawford feel to it, and was a fragrance in whose company you could never entirely rest your weight.
I still have not smelled the original formula of Coty Chypre, which is said to have been bold, modern, and surprising. But I do like the reissued Coty Chypre. It is cool and smooth and self-possessed, and I enjoy wearing it. What it reminds me most of is a sample of vintage Miss Dior parfum (thanks, Tamara!), which smells to me both of face powder and of intimacy, of dressing up and of the smell of skin at a near distance.
However, given my surprise at enjoying the reissued Coty, I have to mention that Dawn Spencer Hurwitz’ recreation of Coty Chypre simply stunned me. It is elemental, a natural force that buffets me with emotion.
Caveat: before you go rushing off to the DSH Perfumes website to order it, I have to give you the sad news that it is discontinued. I’m so sorry to even bring it up, but it’s so amazing that I simply can’t not write about it.
I have DSH Chypre in oil format and of course have only dabbed it. But that’s fine in this case. I often feel that oils are not a good format for me, because what I gain in longevity I give up in sillage, and my preference really depends on what kind of fragrance it is. Florals in oil format are frequently too quiet and wear too close to the skin for me (and you might remember I’m not a fan of big sillage!). But Dawn’s Chypre in oil is just about perfect: it has body, it has depth, and just a bit of waft.
The notes, so far as I managed to jot them down before Chypre disappeared from the DSH website (and I make no promises that these are correct or complete), are thus: bergamot, rose, jasmine, oakmoss, labdanum, patchouli, musk.
The DSH Chypre is, presumably, based on an older formula of Coty Chypre, since it bears very little relation to the 80s reissue I’ve smelled. And it is indeed bold, uncompromising, and starkly contrasted, a good counterpart to the strange Cubist and Fauvist art of the early 20th century. DSH’s version starts out with a strongly aromatic, resiny bergamot, under which I can immediately smell the labdanum like a sustained bass note. After a few moments, I begin to smell rose and jasmine as well as the bitter citrus and labdanum. This phase continues for some time, and if I sniff carefully I seem to pick up hints of a creamy, ripe floral note that reminds me of ylang-ylang, as well as a small bit of powdery cool iris. This is definitely not a powdery scent, however, keeping it miles away from the reissued Coty, even after the oakmoss note sort of sliiiiides stealthily into the picture. There is a bitter, earthy, yet lively character to DSH Chypre, and I would never in a million years call this thing “pretty.”
Yet it’s compelling. It’s one of those scents that grabs me by the base of the spine and yanks, saying to me, “You know you’re human, right? You know you’re a creature and you won’t live forever, right? Well, while you’re still around, get going. Live a little. No, I’ll rephrase that: live a lot.”
After several hours all I can smell is that soft, ambery labdanum, with perhaps a bit of musk, and it is almost edibly delicious. This is the only stage that my family seems to enjoy. Gaze said, “Vanilla? Amber? Almost something you could eat. Nice.” Before it gets to this stage, noses wrinkle and children leave the room. I think my family’s unevolved. Or maybe I am, given the brute power of DSH Chypre. Not that it’s beastly or animalic in any way that I can tell – I rather like civet, in small doses, and I tend to be pretty sensitive to some musks smelling dirty – it’s just… raw and untamed and lacking in parlor manners.
Which is just fine with me. I’ve been wearing this thing all summer, intoxicated by its elemental appeal.