The Chypre’s Child

It was 1917 and François Coty invented something new – a perfume that was floral, but also woody, light but also dark, sexy but also restrained, and, like Jicky,  a fragrance that could be worn by women or by men.

Naturally it was a hit.  Coty – or Spoturno, to use the name he was born under –  was a natural perfume impresario.  Like P.T. Barnum then, like Simon Cowell nowadays, he had an instinct for what attracts the public’s attention and – the real trick – holds it.

He’d done this before, with Le Rose Jacqueminot in 1904 and L’Origan in 1905,  but Chypre, the 1917 perfume, was something new, what the French call Le chef du ligne, the head of the line.  Every other chypre fragrance ever produced looks back to that initial release (now discontinued) during World War One.

What is surprising is that it caused as much upheaval in the perfume world as it did.  Chypre, when you can find it these days, smells kind of understated. If you want a comparison with a perfume still in production, your best bet is Guerlain’s Sous le Vent.

Sous was not the first attempt made by Guerlain to send an answering volley back over the commercial net.  No, the first effort was 1919’s Mitsouko, a darker, drier perfume than the Chypre sample I have, with the famous peach note that set off the whole sub-genre of fruity chypres like a string of fire crackers.  The irony here is that while the incendiary Mitsouko is still smouldering, Chypre, that dark dry earth scent, is long gone.

There’s another distinction.  Mitsouko, although nearest in time to the Coty original, is not the closest in smell.  Jacques Guerlain’s instinct in these instances always seems to have been to compose something similar but …different.

Well, who can blame him?  The top accord of Mitsouko is beautiful and contrasts nicely with the sober-sided dry-down of the rest of it, and there is nothing so enduringly fascinating in a perfume as a paradox.

Regarding Chypre itself, the curious fact is that Coty was up to a very old trick of his when he created Chypre namely, evoking the smells of Corsica.  He did it first with L’Origan (hello, oregano) and he varied the effort considerably with Chypre (dry wood, restrained florals and…oakmoss).  Both are atmospheric, the smell of home – or at any rate, the smell of home to Coty.  And yet, it didn’t seem to matter that however things smelled in your neck of the woods – say, the East River of New York City, or the lavender fields of Grasse – the perfumes were popular anyhow.

Naturally, there were more attempts to capitalize on Coty’s hit: Crepe de Chine in 1925 and Aphrodisia and Miss Factor (Revlon’s effort) and so forth until in 1972 Clinique released Aromatics Elixir.  And with that you have the only true contender for the title of most popular chypre since the Coty.  Every year when you look at the top twenty perfumes sold in France, you will find Aromatics on the list.  Generally you find Mitsouko as well, but Aromatics never seems to exit the list and this despite its being American.

What accounts for this popularity?  For one thing, it’s the only perfume in mass production today that really smells like a chypre.  Even Mitsouko with its reformulation does not smell quite like the real thing anymore (to me, at any rate), but so far, Aromatics does. It’s a curious line of descent, I agree, but it does seem to be a legitimate one. And what about my statement that Sous le Vent smells most like Chypre?  I stand by it.

Sous le Vent, however, costs something on the order of $300.00 or more a bottle.

Aromatics Elixir you can get at the $35-40.00 mark.

This would be marketing that Francois Coty would have understood.  The $300? I’m guessing not.

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