On the arid island of Cyprus, the sun bakes the cistus plants that cling stubbornly to the dry, scrubby hills, the honeyed scent of their resin hanging in the air on windless days. Enfolded within these hills is a glade at the far end of a valley, green and overhung with willow and other riparian arbor. From the shaded rock wall emerges a clear, artesian spring, it’s cool water dribbling down gray stone onto a bed of moss and loam before forming a small creek leading out. Sometimes at twilight, after the sun has moved below the ringing hills, the goddess Venus herself naps here, dreaming upon the moss, in preparation for a night of romantic inspiration.
I recently acquired a pristine sealed, full bottle of Chypre de Coty parfum extrait from the 1920s/30s. It bears a red wax seal on the top, which upon inspection with a magnifying glass reveals the tiny imprint of the Coty family Crest. After gently removing the clear, brittle, cellophane “onion skin” [sealing the neck & stopper] with a pair of tweezers, I furiously set about getting the frosted glass stopper to budge, which proved very difficult: my fingers couldn’t do it. Wearing rubber dish-washing gloves couldn’t do it. Prying it gently upward with my teeth(!) couldn’t do it. Finally, I accomplished it with a pair of pliers, and thank God no damage was inflicted.
Immediately upon application, a burst of sour citrus tickles the nose – Mediterranean bergamot plucked languorously with Venus’ own long delicate fingers at peak juiciness – before it quickly dissipates to reveal a classically animalic floral heart of civet-y jasmine, rose, and powdery iris. The bouquet is so delightfully old-fashioned and dirty that I’m surprised that ylang ylang isn’t in the notes, as it does remind me a lot of Chanel No. 5 (vintage No. 5 especially; more on that later). Like the tangy bergamot top, the floral heart is a fleeting pleasure, bowing out gracefully in deference to the basenotes: the distinctive, woodily-sweet accord of jasmine, oakmoss, sandalwood, vetiver, iris , and amber (labdanum). A bare hint of the rubbery, “leather” note Isobutyl Quinoline is found in the base, playing quietly at the edge of the sandbox, and so are the spicy, clove/carnation-y tones of Eugenol, invoking nothing so much as a whisper of vintage Tabac Blond, an oriental kissing cousin to Coty Chypre appearing on the scene only two years later. As in its close descendant Chanel No. 5, the jasmine note here is not of the tropical, lush, narcotic variety, but of the heftier type: the scent of jasmine absolute after its sweet fruity top-notes have faded away, leaving behind a rich, full-bodied robustness within the composition, in addition to softening the rough edges of the other notes and melding them into a characteristic accord.
One often hears Coty Chypre spoken of in connection with Guerlain’s Mitsouko, that Mitsouko is “Coty Chypre with the peach note added.” Well, there may be some truth in this. The original Coty Chypre could certainly be the bones of the world’s beloved Mitsy. Although there is a similar suggestion of dried, dusty roses in the far drydown of Chypre, it is Mitsouko’s upping the ante of rose in the formulation, and its famous overdose of the Peach C-14 Aldehyde, that ultimately made it, rather than Coty Chypre, the more memorable chypre for future generations.
What else can I say about the original version of the most celebrated chypre fragrance? Was it all I that I thought it would be? Not really. Was it a let down? Well…somewhat. I did not find what I expected to find here. I was prepared for a fragrance that was redolent of a damp forest floor, but that is not what I smell. And where is the palpable honeyed, resinous labdanum in this somewhat non-descript vetiver-woody base? Where is the Mediterranean in here?? Coty Chypre has been mythologized for nearly a century as a perfect evocation of a Venusian grotto in a Cyprus glade, where cool waters cascade onto a shaded bed of fluffy green moss…Well, I hate that I don’t get that. I’ve waited so long, and come so far in my perfume journey, with the original Coty Chypre always seen as its culmination. And only to feel underwhelmed. Sigh… I can now understand what perfume reviewer Denyse Beaulieu meant when she wrote of Chypre de Coty on Perfume Shrine: “When you bow your head through time to inhale her essences, it is her daughters you seek.”
On a more historical and practical note, one must remember that, in smelling fragrances from such an early time period, one is touching upon the very foundation stone of modern perfumery. Aromatic materials were far more limited and primitively produced at that early time than they were just a decade later. Francois Coty, in a time when most perfumers were wary of using the new proprietary bases and absolutes, fearlessly utilized these new materials and composed fragrances such as the seminal floriental, L’Origan, and the celebrated Chypre de Coty, both of which were widely copied and have spawned innumerable children, from Mitsouko to Bandit to Caleche to Yvresse [in the case of Coty Chypre].
In experiencing the original Chypre de Coty, there are two things in particular that stand out to me. The first is just how little resemblance Chypre de Coty bears to her classic chypre descendants of mid-century and onward. Aside from her conspicuous bergamot top note, there is nothing really about the scent that brings to mind the famous chypres of future decades. This is primarily due to the increasing complexity of fragrances as a greater diversity of materials became available, as well as ever increasing knowledge of how to construct an excellent, pyramidal perfume.
The second thing is just how similar, if not identical, the basenotes are in fragrances that came on the heels of Chypre de Coty: Crepe de Chine by Millot, Chypre de Millot, Chanel No. 5…they all are built upon the same jasmine/oak moss/vetiver/woody base accord contained in Chypre de Coty. Whether or not this distinctive and widely disseminated basenote accord was first inaugurated by Chypre de Coty, or whether Coty, like others after him, merely used a basenote accord already common at the time, I simply don’t know because I haven’t smelled many fragrances earlier than Coty Chypre from this period. The limited diversity of raw materials in the first quarter of the 20th Century meant it was inevitable that these early masterpieces would bear some uncanny similarities to each other. And as I mentioned, there are moments that I catch the ghost of its equally famous cousin, vintage le Tabac Blond. This was, it seems, a highly incestuous time for perfumes.
Having been discontinued in the 1960s, Coty Chypre was re-released a couple decades later, along with the other early Coty fragrances Les Muses and La Rose Jacqueminot. According to Michael Edwards, these reissues were done in 1986. Its gold metal cap, earthy green label, and sparkling yellow-green juice makes a statement of quality. The gold suggests a highly prized, rare elixir of life, while the green hints at the verdant, vegetal, chypricity of the essence.
In reading reviews of Coty Chypre, one often finds dissimilar and even conflicting descriptions. This is due in large part to the fact that people are reviewing two different fragrances: either the original 1917 Chypre de Coty or the later ‘80s re-interpretation (and make no mistake, it is not merely a “reformulation” but rather a completely separate fragrance). This late reissue with gold cap bears no relation to the original Coty Chypre, save for a vague citrus top note. The reissue smells of jasminey florals that are sweeter & fresher rather than dirty, and there is a fairly loamy base that is decidedly more of what a lover of classic chypres would expect. Fascinatingly, hours after application, the most stunning, buttered labdanum note emerges, prompting me to nuzzle my wrist – until I rein in my rapturous emotions, stopping myself just before I begin to actually lick my lower arm & strip down to my skivvies in preparation for a night of perfume passion.
This ’80s reissue of Coty Chypre is a simple interpretation of everything that one would expect a fresh, classic chypre to be, with no jagged edges or discordant notes to be found. It is, in a word, gorgeous, if not a tad boring for those who want more bells and whistles (I am not one of the latter, I love the stuff). It must be stated that this later re-interpretation is not the scent that influenced Mitsouko – that would be the early Chypre parfum, to which this late version bears no real resemblance. This newer version reminds me of a cross between Rochas Mystere and Parure by Guerlain… at other times of “Y” de YSL, and at other times still of Vivage by Avon. It is an encapsulation of what one expected of a classic chypre at the time of its release…just as the original Coty Chypre was an interpretation of chypre – of Cyprus – utilizing all the materials that were available at the close of the distant age known as the Belle Epoque.