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Jaime B's Blog

Is There a Future for Chypres?

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One of my favorite perfume genres (perhaps my very favorite) is the chypre, characterized by bergamot in the top note and oakmoss and labdanum (and sometimes patchouli) in the base. It is one of modern perfumery's most brilliant discoveries and is represented by some of the finest and best crafted of perfumes ever to find their way onto the market. One of our Basenotes gurus, mrclmind, who worked for many years in the perfume industry, really hit the nail on the head in one of his posts, when he said (to paraphrase him, perhaps inadequately) that a chypre is really more than the sum of its parts. He remarked on the fact that the classic three-part combination that makes up the chypre base interacts in such a way that the end product is something really new and such a close melding of its parts that it takes on a quality all its own.

These statements may sound outrageously exaggerated, but the fact is there are so many different sub-varieties of chypre, and all of them have become so popular with aromatophiles that one cannot deny their extraordinary nature.

Now the question has come down to this: Can the chypre genre survive without one of its keystones? In recent years the European Economic Community has restricted the use of many perfume ingredients for various reasons. Some materials, like true sandalwood oil, come from endangered species; others are said to be skin irritants; yet others are claimed to be for some people severe allergens. Over the past few years, the EEC has legislated the exclusion from or reduction of these materials in perfumes and cosmetics. Under current EU law, for example, oakmoss, a defining characteristic of both chypre and fougère formulations, has been restricted to 0.1% of total perfume concentration. Rumors are circulating that it may soon be banned altogether.

The present restrictions have led to some interesting redefinitions of "chypre." Many perfumers are content to include it within the current EU legal limit; but others have eliminated from scents that they still classify as chypres, or sometimes as "modern chypres." Some of these have been rather successful in keeping something of the feel of chypre, although it would be an exaggeration to say they are completely satisfying as chypres. Perhaps the best example of this approach is Jacques Polge's formulation of 31 Rue Cambon for the Exclusifs de Chanel series. In a post on nowsmellthis, it is described in these terms:
"Jacques Polge, the in-house perfumer at Chanel, described it as an oakmoss-free chypre with a 'dry, musky, nutty scent'; the notes are said to include bergamot, iris, jasmine, patchouli and labdanum."
Bergamot, patchouli, and labdanum are the new trio of elements that replaces and simulates the old threesome. "Two out of three ain't bad," as we used to say; and the presence of jasmine, a frequent major player in floral chypres certainly reinforces the resemblance. You see, labdanum was already a fairly common addition to the chypre base note, and the "magic meld" of the traditional foundational tripod is evoked, but not really provided in full dimension. Polge has done the best that could be done; he has in fact done amazingly, remarkably well. Perhaps this sort of thing is the best that can be hoped for if oakmoss is completely banished from the perfumer's palette. He may, sadly, be the the prophet of a new age; but I for one hope that age never has to arrive. As brilliantly as Polge has done, and as beautiful as 31 Rue Cambon is, it is lamentably not quite the real deal.

Are we really to be bereft of such a great windfall as the discovery of oakmoss, of such a stroke of genius as the inimitable chypre accord? Can Basenoters and others who love scent raise so loud a cry as to avert a complete EU ban of such a fundamental cornerstone of the perfumer's tradition and art? I hope so!

Updated 10th November 2010 at 05:18 AM by JaimeB

The Fragrance Industry


  1. Redneck Perfumisto's Avatar
    Yes, it would be a sad day for perfumery to lose one of the most important discoveries. I think that all avenues (such as special labeling for "risky" perfumes) need to be explored to prevent such a loss. If nothing else, maybe the French government can try to intervene (I can just imagine the Battle of Chypre, won by the French Foreign Legion, in Brussels! )

    I think that the phenomena of chypre and fougère are totally intriguing from a scientific viewpoint. I suspect that they may have a great deal more to teach us about olfactory perception. But these icons of fragrance art are more than just a combination of components - they are French history, and part of continuing relevance for the French culture. In my opinion, destroying the perfumery landmarks of chypre and fougère is no better than turning European artillery on the Arch de Triumph and the Eiffel Tower. I just shake my head and ask why. Can we truly be that short-sighted? What kind of technical Taliban would do this?

    Alas, Vétiver Babylone.
  2. Aiona's Avatar
    I like your idea of "special labeling for 'risky' perfumes," RP!

    Parental advisory labels. Gangs selling oakmoss vintage scents to unsuspecting children. Hook 'em young, I say!

    If banning oak moss reduces health problems, then we should ban dihydrogen monoxide too -- a terrible killer.


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