Pronounced SHEEPra, the word refers to the island of Cypress, known for its oakmoss, but Cypress has little to do with the evolution of the modern chypre. Instead, the classic chypre style was introduced in 1917 by Francois Coty who created a perfume by that name based on oakmoss, jasmine, and bergamot with musk, civet, patchouli and woody notes. He also used isobutyl quinoline, a compound that has a peculiar odor that some say reminds them of leather. I find the odor off-putting except when it’s added to rich and powerful mixtures to which it adds a definite complexity.
Tragedy befell this beautiful genre several years ago when IFRA (International Fragrance Association) prohibited oakmoss except in derisory amounts. If any component is essential to the chypre’s identity, it is oakmoss with its irreplaceable fragrance of forest floor. True, there are substitutes. Evernyl, to which I add a hint of celery seed, gets us halfway there and de-potentized oakmoss, which has a lot of, but not all, the aroma of the original.
Sometimes when I’m up against a lot of restrictions, I’ll make the original so I know what I’m aiming for. I then gradually take out the offending materials and replace them with viable substitutes. I decided to make a classic chypre with all the forbidden ingredients. I broke out my best oakmoss, Nepalese musk, Ethiopian civet, and 16-year old patchouli. After some tinkering, I made something quite beautiful—it’s hard to miss with ingredients like these—and reminiscent of my mother’s perfumes from the 40s and 50s. (She used to brag about having perfumes from her wedding day in 1940.) Now I need to see what I can take out without damaging the effect. Obviously, natural musk and civet are going to be missed, but it may be possible to come up with something viable without them.