∴ perfume basics and reviews ∴
This is Evernia prunastri, commonly known as oakmoss. This simple lichen, native to temperate climates, tends to grow on oaks, but it’s quite adaptable. For example, the 60-year-old azalea in my front yard here in Seattle is lousy with it.
It’s also the keystone note to two of the most successful, ubiquitous, and famous accords in perfumery: the chypre and the fougère. The basic chypre accord consists of bergamot, oakmoss, and labdanum notes. The basic fougère is lavender, oakmoss, and coumarin. Both have oakmoss at their hearts.
In 1991 the perfume landscape was dramatically altered when IFRA, the European body that sets guidelines for the safety of fragrance ingredients, set strict limits on the amount of oakmoss that a perfume could contain: one tenth of one percent. IFRA set the limit after conclusive evidence showed that oakmoss -- despite being 100% all-natural, vegan, and organic — is an allergen that can irritate the skin and mucous membranes, among other things. (More specifically, the allergens in natural oakmoss are atranol and chloratranol.)
As a result of the new classification of oakmoss as an allergen, countless perfumes had to be reformulated to reduce their use of the note. For perfume nerds, these reformulations were the equivalent of repainting the Mona Lisa or redecorating the Sistine Chapel. Monuments to perfumery such as Guerlain Mitsouko (1919, by Jacques Guerlain), Christian Dior Miss Dior (1947, by Jean Carles and Serge Heftler Louiche), Robert Piguet Bandit (1944, by Germaine Cellier), and hundreds of others were changed. Depending on the scent and the zeal of one’s opinion, these changes ranged from tweaks to the utter ruination of masterpieces.
Allergen classification and IFRA regulations aren’t the only reason perfumes are reformulated, and in my opinion IFRA is somewhat unfairly vilified in the perfume world. Other reasons perfume formulae are changed include ingredient prices and availability, attempts to suit contemporary tastes, and even whim.
Estée Lauder, Aramis, 1965, by Bernard Chant
Notes: bergamot, clary sage, myrtle, clove, patchouli, sandalwood, vetiver, treemoss, leather
I’m fairly proud to say that this leather chypre is the first fragrance I ever bought with my own money. I think I saw it in a friend’s dad’s bathroom and decided it must be for the rich and mature. I bought it to seem grown up only to find it f*cking bizarre. I still have my original bottle from 1985 or something — a splash that makes subtle application impossible. Aramis opens with bergamot (sure), clary sage, myrtle, and clove (what the hell?). Strange and virtually unwearable now, in my humble opinion. I’d bet Robert Downey Jr. wore it as a young man.
For a simple hybrid of sweet lemon and bitter orange, the humble citrus called bergamot reaches far. About a third of all masculine perfumes and about half of all feminine perfumes contain bergamot as a note.
The vast majority of bergamot is grown in Calabria, in the south of Italy, where it’s grown not for its juice but for its oil, the flavor and scent of which turns black tea into Earl Grey. Bergamot oil is also a major component in Johann Maria Farina’s Eau de Cologne, the first blockbuster perfume.
The word Chypre is French for Cyprus, the Mediterranean island. It’s named after the first fragrance that made it commercially successful in the modern era: the great François Coty’s Chypre, 1917. Yes, two of the classic accords in perfume are named after abstract concepts (the other being fougère).
You’ll probably never smell Chypre — it has been out of production for decades — but you might smell the monumental perfume that some say owes most of its success to it: Guerlain’s Mitsouko, 1919, the Citizen Kane of perfumery.