A heart washed with noon


– a review of Rogue Perfumery’s Chypre-Sîam

To use a British expression, of all the things that can get a perfumista’s knickers in a permanent twist (and they are legion), nothing cuts closer to the bone than the dreaded IFRA. IFRA, so we like to tell ourselves and each other, has ruined perfumery forever-and-a-day by banning our beloved oakmoss and replacing it with ‘tree moss’, limited bergamot and in general wreaked havoc on everything that gotus into this flaming fragrant passion to begin with.

Once beloved perfumes are still sold under old names in hugely limited circumstances, many altered to such an extent they’re not even shadows of their previous, gloriously deep, evocative selves, thanks to either a dearth of raw materials, which is entirely plausible, or else, and more commonly, to shambolic, indifferent reformulations, which sadly has become the rule and not the exception.

For years and years, on Facebook perfume groups, on Messenger and Twitter DMs, we’ve railed against them and wished it were possible to just bang a sticker on proper perfumes laden with all things forbidden to alert for any allergies, and just leave it to the customer to decide.

Meanwhile, with the ever-increasing avalanche of perfume releases, we’re spoiled for choice. There’s something for everyone, whether you like your orientals opulent, your greens fluorescent, or your florals divalicious. No matter which way you waft or slice it, great, grand and glorious perfumes are still being made in spite of it all.

And yet. And yet.

One fragrant family has been left in the IFRA lurch above all others. Sadly, it’s my favorite of them all – the chypre.

What I worship and adore so much about chypres is precisely their ‘perfumeyness’. They’re abstract, richly textured, decidedly intellectual constructions that smell less of something and more like liquid, instrumental music, evoking feeling, aura and mood much more than material. Of all the perfume families, I sincerely believe that chypres are the hardest to create precisely because of that intellectual abstraction principle.

A truly great chypre is so much more than the sum of its parts, and in fact can be nearly impossible to parse. It is a feeling, a sensibility, a mood or an aura of something just beyond the reach of words, something found nowhere in nature and for long periods of time throughout the twentieth century, everywhere in civilization.

Contrary to popular opinion, chypres are nothing at all new. François Coty did notinvent the chypre in 1917 when he created Chypre, he simply took a very, veryold perfumery idea that originated in Cyprus in antiquity, and turned it into a massive, game-changing, world-wide success.

The word itself – pronounced ‘sheep-ruh’ with a very short last syllable – is French for the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, where perfumes have been made for at least 4000 years, well before even Egypt became famous for its scents. Interestingly enough, some of the perfumes manufactured on Cyprus in antiquity could not have been too far from the structure we understand as ‘chypre’ today: that trinity of bergamot, oakmoss and labdanum that leaves so much room for added magic; florals, woods, animalics and resins.

Here in the twenty-first century, chypres have fallen from grace in popular perfumery. The younger generations find them grandmotherly or ‘old-lady’-ish if they even think about them at all. Perfumistas hoard their vintage Cotys and count their blessings. Those of us who own other famous vintage twentieth-century creations, such as Guerlain’s Mitsouko, Piguet’s Bandit, Grès’ Cabochard or, say, Paloma Picasso’s Mon Parfum to name only a few, count our own, and dread the day those bottles run empty. No more glorious oakmoss, no more bright bite of bergamot or the slow, slinky burn of labdanum, just pale imitations of pallid intimations – of chypres.

Enter Manuel Cross of Rogue Perfumery. A self-taught perfumer located in California, well out of reach of the IFRA police, he decided to do precisely what so many of us wished someone would – let the customers decide for themselves. He would create politically incorrect perfumes with all the oakmoss, all the bergamot, all the nitromusks (!), with everything, in short, we Europerfumistas moaned and groaned for, with no apologies and less remorse.

I first heard of Chypre-Siam through two of my personal favorite Youtube reviewers; Wafts From the Loft. Naturally, that review spilled over to perfume discussions on perfume groups on Facebook, on Twitter and Instagram, on Basenotes and Fragrantica. One night in early April, a fellow perfumista friend (and longtime reader of TAG, bless her) generously offered to send me a small decant of Chypre-Siam, because she thought – knowing not a little of my own perfume inclinations – it was something I might like. It arrived on my birthday on the 23rd, and promptly blew my mind and my proboscis to mossy, bossy chypre smithereens.

Before I start gushing about just how great this stuff is and just buy it already, people!, let me state I have never experienced the original Coty creation, and even if I had, it wouldn’t be fair to either the late, great François Coty or to the very much alive Mr. Cross to compare them. Chypre-Siam is very much its own creation, but it has its pedigree in order, and indeed, the original Chypre was the inspiration for Chypre-Siam.

While researching chypres, Chypre and Chypre-Siam for this review, I came across a thread on Basenotes concerning nitromusks and musk ketones. One commenter stated he wouldn’t try it, because nitromusks and musk ketones are considered carcinogenic. (Well, they would be if they’re all a poor lab rat gets to breathe.)

So I grabbed that thread by the horns and asked Manuel Cross – as a service to my readers – if Chypre-Siam did contain nitromusks and/or musk ketones. He quickly replied that indeed it does – at a concentration of just under 2%. He also wrote – by way of comparison – that the original formula for Frederic Malle’s Carnal Flower contained a whopping 5% musk ketones. Should that be an issue for you, then simply spray a handkerchief or scarf with the perfume instead.

If not, then thank all the perfume gods who ever lived for Manuel Cross, for Rogue Perfumery and for his Chypre-Siam. Because this is what perfume should be, and more to the point, what the art of perfumery should be, just like any other art; free from restriction, from policing, from political correctness.

From the oakmossy green growls at its edges, its jungle-green makrut lime and basil opening, its hot, tropical floral sunshine glow of ylang ylang and a stunning jasmine tinted ever so slightly pink like the O’Keeffe painting I’ve used to illustrate this post, the long, slow burns of sandalwood and benzoin and a faint dusting of civet that gives it a vintage silk velvet texture, Chypre-Siam encapsulates everything I love about chypres and epically spectacular perfumes. It is seamless, containing a very high percentage of natural ingredients, and has all the lasting power of those classic vintage eaux de toilettes – and then some. Three sprays this morning have lasted 12 hours of gorgeousness, and only now, I’m left with a plush, soft, mossy whisper.

I’ve worn that decant very often this past spring and summer. Not one of my fellow classmates has stated at any point in time that I smelled like a grandmother, bless their twenty-something hearts. At this rate, a bottle looks not at all unlikely, and better still, even attainable for a poor teacher-to-be on a student grant.

Most of all, I’m reminded of a poem by the British poet Cecil Day Lewis I found again this morning:

Summer has filled her veins with light

And her heart is washed with noon.

Which is exactly what Chypre-Siam does. It washes my heart with noon.

Illustration: “Pink Tulip” by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1926

With thanks, love and deepest gratitude to Tora, who made this review possible, and to Manuel Cross, who graciously shares his creation with the world. Thanks to my sister Stephanie, for a champagne bubble conversation that knocked me out of a funk. And to Perfumeshrine for writing the ultimate guide to chypres.

Notes for Chypre-Sîam: Makrut lime, basil, spices, jasmine, ylang ylang, oakmoss, sandalwood, benzoin, civet

Chypre-Sîam is available as an eau de toilette at Rogue Perfumery on Etsy.