Posts tagged ‘chypre’

March 19, 2011

Chypre de Coty (1917) Review

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.

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March 14, 2011

Vintage Miss Dior (1947) Review

Miss Dior was released in 1947 on the heels of Dior’s innovative New Look collection, which took women out of the boxy, broad-shouldered power suits and drapery of the ‘40s and into an era of slim shouldered, fitted waists above voluminous skirts, sleekly and flirtatiously emphasizing the contours of  women’s bodies. According to Christian Dior himself, the collection was designed for “flower-like women,” and the New Look can be seen as a hoped-for return to the halcyon life of delicacy and traditional femininity after a prolonged period of coarseness and even strife, when women had to “man up” and fend for themselves during the Second World War.

In the context of this return to tradition feminine contours and elegant daintiness, one might expect the New Look’s accompanying perfume, primly named Miss Dior, to emphasize the light, tinkling aspect of feminine youthfulness, perhaps a pink-cheeked, baby-soft violet concoction, or something  just as innocuous. Surprise, surprise, Miss Dior is nothing of the sort. Created by Paul Vacher and Jean Carles, Miss Dior is a green, leather chypre:  complex, carnal, and singularly unusual in the world of classic chypres by virtue of an ambered base that veers enticingly close to oriental territory.

My review is based on my late ’70s/early ’80s era parfum (see pic) and a vintage ’60s EDC. My parfum starts off with a twist of green galbanum, dry and vegetal, joined with a hint of aromatic clary sage and given body by the warmth of gardenia. The gardenia used seminally in Miss Dior (and in Jean Carles other masterpiece from the previous year, Ma Griffe), was a new aroma-chemical called styrallyl acetate; it is not the sweet, fresh gardenia of the tropical Kai variety, but rather a classic smelling floral that contributes a lushness and full-bodiedness to the top and heart notes of the composition.

All too quickly, the lovely top-notes fade down to the floral heart, a warm, mossy bouquet consisting primarily of the usual suspects:  jasmine, rose, neroli, plus devilish narcissus and intoxicating remnants of the gardenia from up top. Like the gentle Snows of Awakening in ‘The Wizard of Oz’, the powdery effect of iris insulates the floral heart from any sharpness, tamping down the blanket around the other notes, cushioning them from any screechiness, while simultaneously preparing the way for the powdered sweetness that is to come…

Inside the beating floral heart of Miss Dior, a whisper of creamy vanilla makes its presence felt, surprising me not only with its subtlety and beauty, but with its very presence there! Perceptible vanilla is a rare thing in classic chypres – almost unheard of, in fact – and so it appears here idiosyncratically, along with the normal chypre ingredients of labdanum/patchouli/oakmoss, and this unique combination nearly causes Miss Dior to straddle two worlds within perfumery, marrying together what are arguably the best aspects of both chypres and orientals ( i.e. balanced mossiness + ambery sweetness, respectively). Real ambergris tincture was also present in vintage Miss Dior, harmonizing the individual notes and contributing a raw, primal funk that is subtly present like a glowing ember just underneath the creamy surface. It is more present in my ’60s EDC.

(If you have never tried real ambergris tincture, you should! It’s unusual reek of bile and putrefaction is fascinating, and once smelled it is hard to forget.) Miss Dior’s exceedingly complex dry down is strange, compelling, vaguely tobacco-ish, and erotic – a whisper of seduction, Dior’s proprietary blend of the  ‘Lean-In-Closer’ desirability of amber-vanilla with the “I’m-complicated” cachet of warm chypre.

Although Miss Dior is a green leather chypre, its leather has little in common with others in the genre like original Bandit and Estee Lauder’s Azuree, whose overdose of the rubbery, slightly anisic, gasoline-like  note Isobutyl Quinoline is immediately apparent in those formidable classics. To my nose, the leather of Miss Dior is a natural, subjective accord created by the base notes rather than a ‘leather ingredient’ that’s been added to the formulation. My 1980 parfum extrait does not have the strong sense of leather and natural ambergris that the ’60s EDC has. Now, whether this suggests that the lower concentrations are more raunchy, or that earlier Miss Dior in all concentrations were more raunchy,  I simply do not know. I think I need to get a hold of a very early Miss Dior parfum and find out. 🙂