The term “chypre” seems to be a rather fluid one these days. Technically, in order to be classified as a chypre, a fragrance should contain bergamot, labdanum, and oakmoss. But you can drive yourself crazy trying to sort perfumes into chypre and non-chypre categories, checking off notes lists, and so on.
In general, the nose can recognize a chypre right away, because of its immediately recognizable Yin and Yang of sweet and bitter. In its entirety, a chypre should smell the way a perfectly balanced Chinese meal tastes, with the bitterness and saltiness of oakmoss contrasting the brightness of the citrus, and the ambery base softening and sweetening the final “taste”.
In other words, a fragrance can smell like a chypre to your nose even if it doesn’t contain all three chypre notes, because as long as it gets that salt-sweet-bitter balance right, it’s done its job as a chypre. It’s a useful litmus test in this day and age when the use of oakmoss is restricted and perfumers are turning to other materials to replace its inky, bitter green feel.
See the proliferation of so-called “pink” chypres and “nu-chypres”, for example. 31 Rue Cambon by Chanel is not technically a chypre because it doesn’t contain oakmoss. But nonetheless, it smells 100% like a chypre because the iris-patchouli combination provides enough of that bitter effect to take its place. You smell it and you instantly think “Chypre.”
Memoir Woman by Amouage, on the other hand, does not smell like a chypre to me, even though it is classified as one. To me, this fragrance smells like a plummy, smoky oriental in the vein of Poison or Coco. But many do think of it as a chypre, so it seems like this chypre litmus test is a highly subjective one. Anyway, what I’m trying to say here is that chypre is more a state of mind than a rigid classification these days. Use your nose to navigate, and forget the notes lists.
Is Chypre 21 a chypre? Absolutely not – at least not to my nose. But it is a beautiful, sheer ozonic fragrance, and one that I would happily wear in summer. The opening notes of fresh, watery violet leaf and citruses remind me somewhat of Cuir Pleine Fleur – briefly – before being washed down in a crispy, bright ozonic breeze with a fair bit of sea salt in it.
In a recent interview with James Heeley, I read that he used algae notes to replace the oakmoss in this fragrance. The algae notes are indeed quite noticeable here and the final result is something more in the direction of his wonderful Sel Marin than a true chypre. It smells exactly like that wonderful aroma you breathe in when you are collecting clean laundry from the line – a blast of “clean”, yes, of course, but also the smell of outdoors air, and the salt-laden breeze from a nearby sea. There is something so linen-fresh and ozonic about this that I’m reminded not only of Sel Marin but of some of Francis Kurkdijan’s “white shirt” fragrances such as Cologne Pour Le Matin, Acqua Vitae, and so on. You know the type.
Chypre 21 goes on in this lovely Eau Sauvage-cum-Sel Marin-cum-Acqua Vitae kind of track for a while. It is never less than crisp and clean. A slight woody undertone develops, bringing in some clean patchouli and a hint of rose. The notes list oakmoss too, but I don’t smell its rugged bitterness in the composition at all. Finally, saffraleine offers its leathery, rubbery flavor to the composition, anchoring it slightly at the base.
But saffraleine does not and cannot replace either fixative powers of moss or the sweet, smoky heft of labdanum. So, despite the name, I must admit that Chypre 21 is not a chypre to my nose. It is beautiful, though. As long as you go into Chypre 21 expecting a citrusy, slightly woody ozonic fragrance and not a chypre, you will not be disappointed.
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