I've done a bit of reading on the subject of Chypre perfumes. Sometime last year, I learned Chypre was actually a style of perfume that came from Cyprus in Roman times, long before 1917 when Coty capitalized on the style and name. I also learned, thanks to Marian Bendeth of Sixth Scents, that a Chypre isn't one without cistus labdanum, aka rose rose, as one of its key ingredients. I'd heard about bergamot and oakmoss but labdanum was not usually brought up. Then, I found some info about how labdanum was acquired by the Crusaders in the 13th century from the Arab world where perfumery was highly developed, where labdanum was a fixture in the scent repertoire. It's amazing to learn how a simple thing like smell could carry within it so much history. When we smell a Chypre perfume, we are in part smelling the remnants of ancient Rome.
Chypre's come a long way since then, becoming popularized during the 20th century for many decades before the '80s (mainly during the '30s, '40s and '50s). In a way, they've made a significant comeback in the past few years with the creation of more abstract, modern Chypres, brought back by the help of the classicism trend in fashion. Still, Chypre is notoriously a difficult genre of fragrance for the majority of people to like; for the most part, it seems to be an acquired taste, although some people never warm up to its intense aroma. In my years of loving perfume, I've only occasionally fallen in love with Chypre perfumes but I've found a handful I would never want to be without. Paloma Picasso was one of my first Chypre loves; Amouage Gold is my most recent.
There are many types of Chypre besides the traditional and modern; there are (relatively) light and fresh ones, Floral blends, Fruity blends, Aldehydics, Oriental-crossovers and ones with modified base notes and structures such as the use of patchouli or leather instead of labdanum. Although they don't all smell the same, I would say most, if not all, are supposed to smell one way, how a Chypre should smell. In preserving the old, it's difficult to get away with pushing the boundaries and allowing too many variations on the theme. If anything, that's the aspect of the Chypre that makes it the most classical--it is rigid and conservative, requiring specific stylistic elements for a blend to be considered one of its own. Usually, this is why you wouldn't mistake the scent of a Chypre as anything but a Chypre once you know what it smells like. Still, creative perfumers will always try to push the genre, which is good for perfumery's evolution.
What does a Chypre smell like? In one word, it's perfumey! By that, I mean it often smells heavy, woody or forest-like, mossy and complex, yet like nothing in nature except perhaps like an abstract olive. Another word I have for this type of aroma is "stew". If it were assigned a color, it would probably be dark green, although the ones with patchouli or leather bases might smell more brown to me. I would almost say they are the antithesis of the "blonde perfume"--another term I've had to research and all I found was that this is a type of scent associated most often with sweet white florals. Famous Chypre perfumes include Guerlain Mitsouko, Gres Cabochard, Piguet Bandit, Rochas Femme, Givenchy Ysatis, Carven Ma Griffe, Estee Lauder Knowing, Agent Provocateur, Vivienne Westwood Libertine, Jean Patou Colony, Fendi, Cassini, Halston. Prada smells Chypre to me but it's listed as Oriental.
See my other Chypre post, Chypre: The New Classics Trend, Nov. 2006.
(Images: www.klassiekegeuren.nl, hiperfumeria.com, www.parfumsalon.ru, instylebyyvette.com)