In a time when women's magazines tell us to "suck it up and wear heels", or department stores for us to "shut up and shop", we're being scolded from all directions to be soft and submissive in attitude, yet the strongest perfumes of all, the woods, have returned. Among them, Chypre is a traditional, classical fragrance family often regarded as olfactive representations of refinement and luxury--thus, they are power perfumes of a certain type: the ladylike and reserved type that prides in being aesthetically noble and not being "too loud" (about broadcasting how rich they smell? Hmm). They are often earthy, mature and womanly, perhaps symbolic of the qualities attributed to the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, who is said to have been born on the island of Cyprus (chypre). Many of these are also bold, gender-bending perfumes, giving women a whole new appeal by accentuating angular features. (Images: Illustrations by René Gruau, Lesartsdecoratifs.fr and Rene-Gruau.com)
Truth is, even if they're refined, I wouldn't call them subtle scents. Some Chypres are so intensely odorous to me, I'm scared to put them on my skin. The first time I encountered a Chypre, I didn't know it was Chypre nor did I know what Chypre was but I knew I didn't like Guerlain Mitsouko.
It was a favorite of my mother's at one point of my childhood and it always smelled like a Japanese country house, or like kimonos that had been stored in cedar drawers for years. That doesn't sound so bad, except it also smelled a bit damp and musty to me which translates as being unwearable to me. It was also "perfumy", that term which differentiates the child-friendly scents from the ones that weren't designed to be. Chypre to me are often either too earthy, reasonable and proper-smelling (read: boring) or too bold and/or bizarre, and Mitsouko is effectively a little of both. It's not that I don't think the legendary Mitsouko is great because it is, being a complex and distinctive arrangement of mossy woods with a neat twist: a hardly perceptible touch of peach which, within the context of the composition, doesn't smell peachy but melds with the oakmoss and woods to create a soft, "oily" or fatty smell, bringing to mind olives or foie gras (the latter which, I'm afraid, I have yet to fall in love with).
Perhaps Mitsouko is a benchmark of refined taste, and perhaps some people will acquire a taste for it over time, but I believe it when people say Chypre can be a love-or-hate kind of scent. I've found that about 90% of chypre perfumes are unappealing to me from first sniff. That said, no two Chypre are exactly alike, and upon smelling more and more, I've discovered those I like, those I can't tolerate, and finally, even one to call a holy grail, surpassing my love for every other perfume in my current repertoire (and I assure you, Caron N'Aimez Que Moi might be classic but it smells nothing like Mitsouko). So, once again, I feel it's in my best interest to keep an open mind to every genre out there. You just never know.
There are many types of Chypre and of course, the "types" or labels change with the times as industry pros find new ways to break them down into neatly organized families. Michael Edwards doesn't use the term Chypre but instead calls them Mossy Woods. Traditionally, a chypre consists of bergamot, oakmoss and labdanum, but later incarnations have used additional fruit notes (to soften them as with Mitsouko), animalic notes such as leather (Gres Cabochard), and patchouli (Jean Patou 1000) with or in place of more traditional note(s). As oakmoss was determined to be toxic in recent years (supposedly turning into formaldehyde on skin), synthetic oakmoss replaced real oakmoss, challenging the definition of what "truly" makes a Chypre today. Chypre may be hard to understand but one thing about them is that they are generally (to me) unnatural or "perfumy", and strong, often with a smooth (or muted) surface (quieting down the strength of the woods), at times smelling dressy and decadent, other times sober and serene/professional, sometimes boozy, meaty and robust or intense and forboding. Some smell damp, some smell dry. Even the lightest Chypres (the ones that smell citrusy and light such as Eau de Rochas, Cristalle, 4711) are actually woody scents that show their true character as the fresh top notes fade.
According to Michael Edwards in his book, "Perfume Legends: French Feminine Fragrances", Chypre traditionally becomes popular post-war. Are we seeing a resurgence of Chypre in the market right now? If Miss Dior Cherie (the "New" New Look perfume) and Narciso Rodriguez For Her are any indication, I would say so. I also feel that the reintroduction of Green perfumes (iris/violet/orris, hyacinth) and "sophisticated (abstract, soft and powdery)" Aldehydic Florals (marked by the return of Estee Lauder White Linen) push our taste closer to the types of perfumes that were more popular in the past--specifically pre-1980s. Chypre perfumes were especially popular from the late '40s throughout the '50s (Carven Ma Griffe, Christian Dior Miss Dior), '60s (Hermes Caleche) and '70s (Revlon Charlie). Of course, Chypre never completely went away and had a starring moment in 1984 with the launch of Givenchy Ysatis, and many '80s Chypres such as Paloma Picasso are still very popular today.
I often refer to Jan Moran's classification of Chypre based on her books, "Fabulous Fragrances" and "Fabulous Fragrances II" in which she colorfuly breaks Chypre down into the following groups: Chypre, Chypre-Green, Chypre-Fresh, Chypre-Fruity, Chypre-Fruity Floral, Chypre-Floral and Chypre-Floral Animalic. What I find interesting is, since I've come to know the perfumes listed under each group, I've discovered that my nose (perception of scents) agrees with hers (more often than not) and her classifications make sense to me. I highly recommend her books to understand the basics regarding perfume families and subcategories. They have been as instrumental to me in my perfume journey as my beloved Michael Edwards' book cited above (which, being beyond a wealth of information, is a beautiful book brimming over with "fragrant eye candy" (a great collection of perfume and perfume-related photos, advertisements and illustrations).
Some favorite and/or famous Chypre perfumes are: Coty Chypre, Rochas Femme, Robert Piguet Bandit, Chanel Pour Monsieur, Antaeus, Cristalle, Cuir de Russie (Russian Leather), Givenchy Ysatis, Gres Cabochard, Paloma Picasso, Halston, Cassini, Fendi, Van Cleef & Arpels Gem, Guerlain Mitsouko, Parure, Sous le Vent and Chant d'Aromes, Jean Couturier Coriandre, Carven Ma Griffe, Yves Saint-Laurent Y, Jean Patou 1000, Sisley Eau du Soir, Estee Lauder Knowing, Private Collection and Aliage, Versace White Jeans, Emanuel Ungaro Diva, Niki de St. Phalle, Gucci No.3, Givenchy III, Bulgari Black, Agent Provocateur, Ralph Lauren Pure Turquoise, Christian Dior Miss Dior Cherie and the original Miss Dior, the New Look perfume launched in 1947. I have also seen Chanel Chance, Coco Mademoiselle and Gucci Rush classified as Chypre but opinions may vary.
(Images: natperfume.net, fashionista.ru, linternaute.com, iparfem.cz)