Olfactory Orientalism

Most fragrance families have strange, if not weird names. But "Orientals" almost sounds racist... And it kind of is. The term originates in the "Orientalism" movement in art, architecture and design which was most prominent in the 19th Century, but began before and continued after as well - and is still alive and kicking in the world of perfumery. Orientalists had one thing in common - what seems like an obsession and perhaps even idealization of cultures in the Middle East, Asia and North Africa. But there is also a sense of condescending. A view that has a subtext that says that Western culture is better, and could imply a view that these cultures are static, primitive or inferior. Which of course is far from the truth. 

The Orientalism in 19th Century Europe was largely related to imperialism. It romanticized Asian, North African and Middle Eastern cultures, in a way that is neither authentic nor free of prejudice. With that being said, it has largely influenced popular culture as well as perfume and the design and art that go with it. From bottle design to the actual "jus" - the Orient was infused in many perfumes of the early 20th Century - and beyond. Names such as Mitsouko, Shalimar, Crepe de Chine were some of the first to derive their inspiration, name and design from "Eastern" themes; perfumes such as Opium, Cinnabar and Samsara revived the interest in Orientalism towards the end of the 20th Century; and now we have Tom Ford and Serge Lutens as the leaders of the post-modernist Olfactory Orientalism movement, with perfumes bearing names such as Shanghai Lily, Japon Noir, Plum Japonais, Bois Marocain, Arabian Wood, Ambre Sultan, Arabie, Borneo 1834, Muscs Kublai Khan, Fumerie Turque, Rahat Loukum, etc.

Besides the aesthetic idealism of this style and movement, there is also a clever marketing decision, cashing on the Westerner's constant desire to be swept off their feet by an exotic culture; be transported into distant places with only a whiff from a bottle. Admittedly there is much magic in this; but also the danger of caricaturization an entire culture, and innocent yet wrong interpretation of names, concepts and symbols. One such example is Samsara - a wonderful floriental by Guerlain created in the 1980's, with an evocative name that mean "seven heaps of dung" - a metaphor to the material body's various stages of life. Hardly a romantic meaning for this gorgeously orchestrated jasmine-and-sandalwood perfume.

As one can see by the choice of name, marketing and advertising materials - there are plenty of stereotypes packed into each one of these, perhaps all exemplified and demonstrated by this long-yawn-inducing video clip for Guerlain's iconic Shalimar, a mega production that seems to cater to the teenage male fantasy of computer-games and completely unrealistic courtship: misogynistic as well as patronizing a bundle of Eastern cultures (kind of hard to tell where one begins and another ends - we have here an amalgamtion of what seems like an Arab prince on a white stallion, the iconic Indian Taj Mahal, and a passively bathing gal in what seems like a Turkish hammam). FYI: This main female character is blonde and blue-eyed, and does nothing the entire 5:44min film except fantasize about her prince and prepare for his return from the trip to save her from months of boredom in the palace (which will be achieved, of course, by building her another palace). What a shame, since Shalimar was inspired by a very tragic love story - Mumtaz Mahal died in childbirth, and the Taj Mahal was in fact a giant tomb which once completed, her lover was buried in it too.

There is no shortage of Orientalists-inspired perfumes, Opium being one of them - launched in 1977, alongside Yves Saint Laurent's Chinese-inspired haute couture collection. It's a wonderfully spicy oriental, with balsamic-resinous counterpoint as well as fresh citrus, and yet the cloves and patchouli at its centre make it unmistakably connected to China (the first place to distill cloves, by the way). Opium has always been provocative with its ads, walking a fine line between portraying languid, opiated women as if they're in the midst of sexual climax. No matter how wonderfully they are photographed - they are highly objectified: the woman in the 1977 ad above seems like part of the tapestry and design, not really like a flesh-and-blood person - at the time of launch criticized more so for the name, suggesting a legitimization of drug use; and Sophie Dal from the more recent (and even more provocative campaign) looks as white as a dead petal of orchid or a marble statue (not to mention completely naked except for her jewellery and stilettos). But no matter how you slice it - there is more than just a hint of suggesting that Asian culture can be shrugged off by these opium-den references, never to be taken seriously.

Orientalism and exoticism has also found traction in European culture through the performances of the legendary Mata Hari (the stage name for a Dutch exotic dancer, whose olive skin and darker hair, complete with Indonesian (then known as the Dutch-East-Indian) inspired outfits and music. Mata Hari was executed by a firing squad after being prosecuted for espionage during World War I (in 1917)*.

On a more nerdy and technical level, there is much more to be said about Oriental perfumes, besides bottle designs, names, or using exotic materials. Historically, perfume technology evolved in the East first - beginning in Mesopotamia, where fragrant resins were discovered, and continuing to Egypt, where the first perfume-incense-blend Kyphi was created, using no less than 16 secret ingredients (the formula was written on the walls of a temple, and re-discovered thousands of years later).

From Egypt, the knowledge and technology of perfume making (which was strongly tied to practical as well as spiritual practices of alchemy) moved to the Mediterranean region. In the island of Cyprus archeologists recently found the remains of the first perfume factory that was destroyed by an earthquake in 1850 BC were discovered.

In Asia - primarily in India and China - there were also (probably parallel) developments, where the Indian and Chinese alchemists were hard at work looking for similar things though with different names than the Western ones - Chrysopoeia (transmutation into gold, which was universally considered by alchemists as the ideal physical matter), the Aqua Vitae aka elixir of life or longevity, and Panacea (the cure-all medicine). The Indians knew how to distill essential oils as early as the 6th century AD.

"The first evidence of distillation comes from Greek alchemists working in Alexandria in the 1st century AD" - mostly of hydrosols; and around the same time (during the Han Dynasty), the Chinese also got their hands in distillation - although it won't be till hundreds of years later that they would widely use that technology for distilling beverages.

In the 6th century, the Indians were also distilling their own essential oil, from agarwood; and the Arabs and Muslims, who likely learned this from the Alexandrians (in Egypt) and India (by way of Persia). Nevertheless, the Arabs and Muslims are credited for perfecting this technology, and for discovering alcohol (ethanol) and how to separate it from wine, and last but not least - spreading their advanced technologies to the West as they concoured Europe.

Ibn Sinna (aka Avicenna), a Persian doctor, have found a way to separate ethanol (alcohol) from wine - not an easy feat, especially considering its low boiling point and high evaporation rate and flammability. And if it weren't for the Muslims concurs of the Balkan, North Africa and then Spain - Europe might be never become fragrant at all. The Muslims brought their technological advances with them to wherever they traveled. And these have made their mark on today's chemistry and medicine.

The Chinese as well as the Indians have perfected the art of incense, which transformed from a crude burning of resins, gums and woods into a technologically advanced  and the beginning of distillation technology was developed. It was not until the Middle Ages, that thanks to the Muslim alchemists and doctors, the science of distillation have been truly perfected and distilling delicate flowers such as rose and orange blossoms became possible - first as hydrosols (floral waters) and then as attars (the Arab name for essential oils). The term "Attar of Rose" means "rose essential oil" (Attar is an Arabic word, which refers to the spirit or “ether” of the plants, i.e. the essential oil. The word “attar” or its permutation “otto” is often used to describe rose essential oil (in perfumery literature, it is referred to as “rose otto” or “attar of rose”).

There is much more to "Eastern" perfumery than meets the eye. And this is owing greatly to the fact that the knowledge and formulae were not typically recorded - but passed from generation to generation as oral tradition and through apprenticeships. Till this day, Indian and Arabian perfumery spark one's imagination with their exotic raw materials and dreamy compositions unlike any others found in the West (though imitations abound).

How Indian perfumes differ from Western perfumery is first and foremost in that the perfume is blended before it is actually distilled. You make a "masala" of perfume materials, then distill them in the traditional copper still, into a receiver full of sandalwood oil. It's a completely different mindset, thinking of the finished blend in advance, before measuring the ingredients into the still - as well as predicting how they will behave in a sandalwood oil carrier. It requires the ability to envision how these essences will be transformed in the still together, mastering the unique temperature and pressure needed for best results; and thinking in advance about the raw materials before you actually have in your hand the finished essence. It requires a similar mindset to that of making incense: You need to not only know how things smell; but also how they smell when they burn, and how to make them smell wonderfully while burning together, not to mention the technicalities of getting them to burn through, but not too fast, so you can smell their essential oils before they turn into scorched spices... 

The traditional Indian perfumer is not only an olfactory artist and a master distiller - but also a forager of wild treasures. Armed with a copper still small enough to carry on their backs, they travel the jungles and fields, collecting seasonal perfumed plants and distill them fresh on the spot into sandalwood oil, creating rare attars such as blue lotus, white lotus and pink lotus (which they need to harvest while immersed as high up to their waists in marshes and ponds). You can read more about Indian perfumery in White Lotus Aromatics' newsletters, such as this one about making Hina.

Traditional Indian perfumes are also called “attars” and are created in a completely different technique and approach than Western perfumery. Indian attars differ from modern perfumery on several levels. The most obvious are the technical ones:

1) The formulation process takes place with the raw materials prior to distillation. The spices, woods, resins, herbs, flowers and so on are measured and blended together in their raw state and only than placed in the still. My guess is, that the principles of blending these perfumes may be in tune with Ayurveda or spiritual and religious principles such as the chakra systems. Rather than blending based on technical qualities such as volatility rate and tenacity - plants and raw materials are chosen for their elemental affinity, energetic qualities and healing powers (i.e.: moist/dry; warming/cooling). 

2) Sandalwood oil forms the base or “carrier” for Indian attars (much in the same vein that rather that alcohol or a fixed oil are used in modern perfumery). Thus, even the simplest attar will contain at least two botanicals. For example: Attar Motia is made from jasmine sambac (Jasminum sambac) which is distilled into the sandalwood (Santalum album) essential oil. Sandalwood oil is one of the few oils that can be worn neat on the skin, it has a rich, viscous and sensual teqture, and a very subtle aroma that deepens the perfume of single flowers and adds fixative qualities to the attar.

3) Last but not least, unlike modern Western perfumers, the Indian perfumers actually distill their own essence. They are in touch with the plants in their original raw state, and at times even pick them from the wild. Using a light, portable copper still, the perfumer can carry it on his back while entering the wilderness to collect flowers in their blooming season, be it from the coast, the jungle or the pond For example: lotus and water lily have to be harvested while the perfumer goes into the marshes, and immerses himself waist-deep into the murky waters.

Arabian perfumery is also rather secretive, as they were strongly associated with religion. Mohammed was particularly fond of roses and perfume and saw the importance of bathing and perfuming one's body: "The taking of a bath on Friday is compulsory for every male Muslim who has attained the age of puberty and (also) the cleaning of his teeth with Miswaak (type of twig used as a toothbrush), and the using of perfume if it is available" (Sahih al-Bukhari).
 Arabian perfumes were at first macerations of various spices, woods, resins and animal materials (i.e.: ambergis, musk) in a fixed oil (such as olive). When advancements in distillation technologies took place, their perfumes became more refined and sophisticated. Similarly to the Indian "Attars", suspended in sandalwood oil - the Arabian perfumes were carefully blended oils of rose, musk grains, and other costly essences, in a base of non other than the rare agarwood oil. This gave them an over-the-top richness that even surpasses that of Indian Attars. In additional to oud, the Arabs were - and still are - very fond of musk (which they mixed with the mortar when building some of their mosques), rose, ambergris and saffron. These potent essences were blended in full-on concentration into the agarwood oil, creating at times very richly animalic perfumes, sometimes smelling almost like "barnyard" - for example when darker, more animalic ouds formed the base for even funkier animal essences.

To summarize: Egyptian perfumes, Asian perfumes, Arabian perfumes and Indian perfumes are created with completely different principles in mind. Although  literature in English barely exists on the subject, I have my guesses on what these guiding principles are. What is common to all these traditions, is that they are the true origin of perfume, and it is strongly tied to spirituality. Perfumes were first viewed as the spirit of plants, and as having the ability to alchemically transform those who smell them and use them. A far cry from the passive opium-den, harem-bound women portrayed in the "Orientalist" fragrances, these perfumes were meant to transform the soul, heal the spirit, and invite it back to the body and connect it to the divine force and bring it renewed health and vitality. 

*Another not any less famous dancer, who was also a spy but did not suffer a tragic death as a consequence was Josephine Baker, who inspired at least two perfumes that we know of: Bois des Îles and Sous la Vent.

Tea and Perfume: Time is of Essence

Mariage Frères, purveyors of Tea, originally uploaded by maralina!.

Although tea and perfume both have a deep connection in the history of mankind through medicine, rituals and the magical species in the plant kingdom, it was not until recently that tea made its way as a note into perfumery.

Both tea and perfume are art forms and ancient rituals that take place in time: the many aspects of tea take place in time. Time is of essence in every aspect of tea: The art of growing, harvesting and processing the tea (i.e.: fermentation, oxidation, roasting, etc.) and than of course the preparation for brewing a cup of tea – waiting for the water to reach the ideal temperature, steeping the tea, and finally, sipping it in perfect harmony with the leaf, oneself and the company involved.

Perfume also requires time for preparing the raw materials (growing, harvesting, and distillation or extraction) and than there maturation – the magic that happens in the beaker when all the molecules connect and mingle and marry. It takes time to make a good perfume, not to mention the planning that goes into it on behalf of the perfumer who designs it (and the same goes for the ancient wisdom that evolved into the sophisticated tea cultures we can see today).

But more than that, perfume also changes over time. From the moment it escapes the bottle and lands on one’s skin, it morphs into at least 3 different stages, most commonly known as head notes, heart notes and base notes. And the pace and exact evolution that occurs on one’s skin makes each perfume a unique, unmatched experience.

Similarly in tea, there are different stages at which the tea can be enjoyed – the dry leaf or blend, before it has been brewed; the aroma of the brewed tea as it rises with steam from the cup, than the way it tastes in one’s mouth, and finally – the aftertaste that is left behind, usually at the back of the palette or the throat. My friend and tea master Dawna Ehman pointed out to me that these stages are very similar to the top, heart and base notes in perfume.

Perfumed tea is a term known mostly to true perfume connoisseurs and it’s a very ancient term in tea culture and is the ancient art of perfuming tea with fresh living flowers or plant matter. For example: rose congou is achieved by layering rose petals among black China tea. The process is very similar to enfleurage, only it is tea leaves that soak the fragrance of the flowers, rather than animal fat. Thousands of petals of Jasmine Sambac are layered between tea leaves and are replaced by new ones until the green tea achieves its distinct aroma. And a similar process creates other more rare floral teas such as magnolia oolong or pomelo blossom green tea (the one used in Charisma).

And while perfume made its way into tea thousands of years ago, it is strange perhaps that it’s only in the past 15 years or so that the one can hear of the notion of tea within a perfume composition. Why?

We said it earlier: tea is subtle. And so is tea absolute (both green and black). It doesn’t give the hit that an essential oil of grapefruit would have, for example. It really is not that impressive raw material. My guess is that tea really needs the chemistry that water gives it to open up. And so it is not really surprising to find that tea as a note did not make it to perfumery until the early 90’s. The 90’s were marked by the craving of fresh, clean, gender-neutral scents. At the same time, as is usually the case with trends, it all starts with a fad of one innovative individual who’s either stubborn to death or very intuitive about what everyone else is secretly craving. In the world of perfume, that person happened to be Jean-Claude Ellena.

The story goes that he had the idea for a “tea” scent for a few years before it finally got accepted as a perfume by the jewelry house of Bvlgari. The inspiration was none other than Mariage Frères shop in Paris – a tea shop that even I can attest to its magic as an olfactoroy experience alone. They seem to have hundreds of different kinds of tea, and the atmosphere there is pensive as if time stops once you’re in. Monsieur Ellena did not try to capture the real-life aroma of tea, nor did he want to brew any specific type of tea. He created the abstract suggestion of un-steeped tea leaves by pairing two molecules: hedione (a component in Jasmine) and ionone (a component in Violet Leaf). And voila – he made tea. The only problem was that no one was interested in it as a commercial product, perhaps it seemed to avant-garde, or simple or strange; until the house of Bvlgari commissioned him to make a perfume to scent their shop, which became a perfume, which became very popular. And from than on, tea has become the craze of the 90’s and early millennium – as part of the trend for fresh, light, inoffensive, unisex, non-perfumey fragrances.

The copycats of Bvlgari’s Eau Parfumee au The Vert (that was the name of the perfume when it was finally released to the public, not just the Bvlgari jewelry boutique customers) are too many to count, but among the most significant and successful of them, we must mention Elizabeth Arden’s Green Tea (1999, by Francis Kurdjian). Later on, other types of tea entered the perfume counters: Lapsang Suchong in Bvlgari Black and l’Artisan Parfumeur Tea for Two (2000, Olivia Giacobetti), the South American Mate (Villorsei’s Yerbamate, 2001), and most lately rooibos tea notes in Eau Parfumee au The Rouge for Bvlgari (and my own Immortelle l’Amour).

Tomorrow: natural raw materials with tea or tea-like notes.

Black Rose's Matchbox History

Two years after I've received a little special gift of Goya's Black Rose in its adorable matchbox packaging, I received an email from Erica Baxter, the daughter of Ruthli Weilenman, who co-designed the matchbox with Jenny Rose, at Goya's packaging studio at Old Amersham, Hertfordshire, England, which was separate from the perfumery. Below is a little piece of perfume packaging history, in Erica's words.

Dear Ayala,

Following your posting in March 2006 about the little matchbox of Goya Black Rose Perfume, with the lovely story attached, I can provide some more information about the packaging.

The Goya factory maintained their own Packaging Studio, located in Old Amersham, Buckinghamshire, England. My mother, then Ruthli Weilenman worked there in the late 1950’s following her training at Watford art school. The studio was by all accounts a happy place to work, full of bright brains and creativity. Mum worked there with a friend, then Jeny Rose, as her supervisor. It speaks well of the balance of staffing that they have remained friends since, with Jeny and her husband recently welcomed at my parents’ Golden Wedding celebrations.

Between them the design was made and produced, in various forms which included the ‘matchbox’ size that you found. These were used for all the perfumes, and were simply a small item for sale in shops. I believe that all of these boxes contained a bottle in the same triple-stacked bubble shape. I also understand that a display board of the various Goya products in these small boxes was used to demonstrate the products to factory visitors – groups such as the Townswomen’s Guild would appear along with a factory ‘boss’ for a tour that was not always welcomed by the studio!

Jeny continues to design, including making stage sets for local productions, and Ruthli is an exhibiting artist, so the creativity was deeply ingrained in both of them, and they were delighted to hear that an item they worked on 50 years ago was able to raise interest today!

With best regards,


The Dawn of Pink Chypres

Since the early 90’s, IFRA and other European regulatory organization have gradually tightened their embargo on the use of oakmoss in perfumes. Ever since than, slowly but surely, the rich heritage of Chypre is gradually collapsing. First, with the sneaky reformulation (partially rumours from devoted Chypre consumers, partially official statements from renown houses) of what seems to be all the mainstream chypre classics; Currently, the minimum amount of oakmoss allowed in a fragrance have reached the lowest of lows: a mere 0.1%. Reformulating all the classics – Miss Dior, Jolie Madame, Mitsouko – must have taken a few good years. It is now a sad but true common knowledge amongst fragrance aficionado that the chypre of today is not what we learned to love and cherish. This article, however, is about what we are gradually conditioned to perceive as the Chypre of Tomorrow.

The motives and the reasoning behind the IFRA regulations is something I prefer not to delve in. It opens up issues that are complex and quite puzzling, full of contradictions and conflict. Unfortunately, the recent developments in the Chypre world force me to open this Pandora Box at least a tiny bit, and I hope I will not be tempted to look back as I might just petrify right there and than. I will, however, refer you to this article on Cropwatch, which addresses some of the issues that every modern perfumer that is interested in using certain natural aromatics is now facing.

Until very recently (perhaps just until last year), perfume labels were mysterious and vague. They usually looked like this:

Alcohol, Parfum (as shown on my box for Miss Dior parfum extrait from 4 years ago). If it happened to be an EDT or an EDP, there will also be “Aqua” in there. Occasionally, maybe, also a name of one other the other colouring agents.

Now they look like that:
Alcohol, Parfum (Fragrance), Aqua (Water), Hydroxycitronellal, linalool, alpha-isomethyl ionone, hydroxyisohexyl 3-cyclohexene carboxaldehyde, cinnamyl alcohol, coumarin, limonene, benzyl benzoate, benzyl alcohol, evernia furfuracea (treemoss) extract, citronellol, geraniol, evernia prunastri (oakmoss) extract, hexyl cinnamal, eugenol, amylcinnamal, cinnamal, benzyl salicylate.

(This is from the package of the Miss Dior EDT I bought a few weeks ago; and no, this is not the actual formula for the perfume inside the bottle, it’s just a list of all the ignredietns that are suspicious as allergens or sensitizers). My apologies for any spelling mistakes in the above list. Neither me or my computer know chemistry well enough to run a spell check through it.
To read more about the oakmoss ban, I urge you to read through the Cropwatch site, as well as read Elena's excellent article on Perfume Shrine.

But if you think that the solution for that lies in reformulation alone, you are mistaken. In the 90’s we have witnessed a new trend in perfumery, that was at first silent and polite towards the old-timers Chypres that we have learned to know and love (and spend lots of money on because they deserve it). Compositions that are not quite floral; not quite musky; not quite anything that we know really, and contain a safe 0% concentration of oakmoss; yet they have a certain appeal to the exact same perfume-user-group that adores Chypres. I can’t point out which scent has started it all, but lets just assume it was Agent Provocateur (2000), a stunning seductress that gives off the impression of a classic floral-animalic Chypre of yesteryear, without using as much as a single drop of oakmoss or even labdanum for that matter. Agent Provocateur uses a combination of aldehydes, along with spicy and floral notes over a base of vetiver and musk to create a seamless, old-fashioned shamelessly erotic scent that fits with the Femme Fatale image of the lingerie brand that created it. Though the first impression of Agent Provocateur is very Cypre, in the last phase of dry down, there is none of the typical forest-floor, decay and earth-like warmth that is always found at the bottom of each true Chypre. Instead, we find a new kind of musk. A sensual musk, nevertheless, yet a clean and dry one, rather than the heavily warm and powdery suffocating musks of the era that Agent Provocateur reflects in its first phases of development.
What is to follow in the next seven years is a slowly but steadily growing number of releases that use the word chypre either as their classification or as a note. Yet there is no oakmoss (or labdanum) to be detected, and unlike Agent Provocateur, which ironically lived up to its name as a provocateur of the so-called new concept of Chypre. Lets assumed it was just sent out there to test the waters: would people notice if we DON’T use oakmoss? Would they still think it’s a Chypre? The answer is yes. But this is because Agent Procovateur is so well crafted and also has enough natural ingredients in it to resemble the rich floral bouquets at the heart of most Chypres that live up to their classification. What has followed is nothing shorter than horrifying, from a Chyprophile perspective.

Coco Mademoiselle (2001) has an alternating classification floriental or fruity-chypre. As charming as it may be (and this scent has wide fan-base) here is nothing in this composition to resemble Chypre even in the wildest of dreams. This younger sister of the bombshell oriental of 1984, Coco, maintains only a few ideas from the original, such as it’s expanding sillage that is equally sweet and spicy, charmingly bold yet with a certain unique transparency. Coco Mademoiselle is a concoction of fruity citrus, litchi and a marine accord over a floral heart and a base of clear patchouli, vetiver, musk and vanilla. But it couldn’t possibly have prepared us for the upfront sacrilege of what was about to come from the esteemed house of Chanel in 2003, in the form of a round Wheel-of-Fortune bottle of Chance. Chance is officially classified as a fruity chypre, and while it shares some similarities with Coco Mademoiselle, it fails to have any connection whatsoever with any true Chypre family member. Where this concoction of marine and fruity notes had let down many old-time Chanel fans it sure has attracted some new client base of (probably younger) consumers. With watery fruity-floral marine accord of pineapple, hyacinth, jasmine, and spicy pink pepper over a base vetiver (again) and patchouli (yet again) and musk, this is one slap in your face if you actually know what Chypre is. Of course, if you don’t, you might buy into it just the same as you would if you didn’t know that the whole idea behind keep all the bottles the same was a sign of classy minimalism and pure good taste. Which also happens to give more importance to the fragrance rather than the packaging.

Also in 2003, and this time classified as a Chypre-Floral – Escada Magnetism. This is more fruity than floral if you ask me, opening with mouthwatering pineapple, black currant, melon and litchi. The heart may be floral (official notes are magnolia, rose and jasmine) But don’t be deceived, this develops into something completely different and original (and I am not being sarcastic): once dried down, it’s the most sensational milky scent of orris, muted heliotrope, creamy sandalwood, and (although not listed as a note) white chocolate. Like other modern Chypre wannabes, this also has vetiver and patchouli at the base, though I can’t claim I noticed them too much. Again, no oakmoss in the horizon of this Roman milk bath.

Following the same train of thought of the two Cocos, we are now facing in 2006 something that couldn’t be more tragic: Miss Dior is being blessed with a baby sister, but this time it is a vicious one who threatens to replace the original. The bottle design is very similar (unlike Chanel, who for the most part use the same bottle design for all their fragrances, Dior is known for coming up with very different designs for most of their creations; so the same bottle is a huge statement; and in a visual world like ours, many people accidentally miss the word “Cherie” at the end and buy it by mistake – for themselves or for others – while intending to purchase the original. Even the scent ribbons has that “New Look” – white stripes, yet with silver lettering). Miss Dior Cherie is now the “New Chypre”, classified as a fruity chypre, this time strawberries, paired with the less than agreeable combination of patchouli and caramel popocorn. The result, I am afraid to say, is horrid. Especially when knowing the chances that Miss Dior (the original lady) will survive are very slim - what with that glamorous looking sister around paired with the toning down of oakmoss in its reformulation.

Pure Turquoise by Ralph Lauren was launched this year as well (2006), the same year where we see the reformulation of many beloved all-time-classic Chypres. This scent is quite nice actually, with intense grapefruit top notes that linger longer than usual, and a very clean, dry base of refined (meaning very synthetic smelling) patchouli. In between there are all kinds of fantasy notes such as cactus flower and night blooming cereus and even rum (which I couldn’t find there at all). This is all nice and fun and refreshing, but to call this is Chypre is going completely overboard.

Another turning point was the release of Narciso Rodriguez For Her (2003). At first I was ambivalent towards it not only because of its popularity, but also because it is a very obscure scent. Since than it has become a staple in my perfume wardrobe, and I couldn't agree more with what Ms. Shortell had to say about it. Behind its prettiness hides quite a revolutionary concept and I am quite certain that a few decades down the road, it will be considered a milestone in fragrance history. This fragrance has a unique subtlety and is completely abstract (despite of the fact that certain “real plant essences” are listed in the brief, such as orange flower, osmanthus, vetiver). It’s a unique combination of manmade musk with abstract woods and florals. Although it’s categorized differently in different places, it was quite clear with defining the 2005 release of the Eau de Parfum version as a “Pink Chypre”.

Following Narciso Rodriguez we can now enjoy a few other scents that have a very similar concept – obscure florals, musky base with abstract, refind woody notes. Lovely (2005) by Sarah Jessica Parker has musk paired with refined patchouli, crisp alcoholic apple notes and abstraction of Paperwhites (a species of narcissus); Kisu (2006) by Tann Rokka explores rosewood and cedar along with musk and an abstract ylang ylang note. Incidentally, this perfume was developed by Azzi Pickthall, the same nose who created Agent Provocateur.

The bottom line question is: are oakmoss and labdanum being replaced by synthetic patchouli, vetiver and musk as the necessary requirements for the Pink ((aka New) Chypre? And why would we do so when there are so many fragrances out there who has been using patchouli and vetiver for decades if not centuries, but were classified as oriental, woody or florals?

These last scents mentions (Narciso Rodriguez, Lovely, Kisu) are all unique fragrances that stand apart from other “pink chypres” (i.e. combinations of fruit, patchouli and vetiver) so to speak. They have something new to add to the perfume sphere. Classifying them as chypres poses a serious question about the reasons behind that. I am no paranoiac, but there might just be a silent scheme to gradually phase out the concept of Chypre and replace it with something new. I can see in my mind a boardroom full of perfume industry market researchers trying to figure out what is it they can give Chypre lovers that does not contain oakmoss. Perhaps they even did a cat scan of huge focus groups of chypre perfume users to find out what else they have in common, scent wise, besides oakmoss. Are perfume industry marketing professionals afraid of creating a new fragrance family with a new name? Or maybe, they just want to capitalize on the Chypre market just before they completely take away the real chypres? These questions, for now, remain unanswered, unless, of course, you attempt to answer them by leaving a comment.
Image Credit: Salmon Pink Dawn, originally uploaded by Steiner62

The Origins of Chypre

Chypre is one of the most esteemed fragrance families and many of the most fascinating perfumes belong to the Chypre family. The term is somewhat of a mystery to the layman and the everyday perfume consumers, and even perfume sales people will often be puzzled by it (and now neither its meaning nor how to pronounce it).

Contrary to the common knowledge, the legendary Francois Coty did not invent the concept of Chypre perfumes. What he did do was modernize these composition with the use of contrasting citrus top notes as well as several synthetics; and also, he has created a solid foundation of popular demand for this magical perfume family with his witty marketing, that has lasted for many years to come.

So when did Chypre perfumes really originate? In the island of Cyprus, of course, and many cenruries earlier. We know about chypre scents being made on the island as early as the 12th century. They made primarily of labdanum resin and mixed with other local aromatics from herbs and flowers. Later on, pastilles or little Oyselets de Chypre (Chypre Birds) were formed from a paste of labdanum, styrax and calamus, mixed with tragacanth. The perfumes in those old days were burned as incense and the birds decorated and scented rooms. It wasn’t until the 14th century that oakmoss was added to these pastilles. A book from 1777 provides perfume formulas for two chypre compositions that included oamoss as well as civet, ambergris, musk and various resins and plant aromatics, including rose and orange blossom.

Image credit: Goat2, originally uploaded by Mareea

P.s. In case you wonder what the goats are all about - not only are they from Cyprus, but also, it was originally from the goats' hair that labdanum resin was combed and that is how it was traditionally collected.
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