mercredi 10 mars 2010

Thoughts on the death of chypre and Amouage Jubilation 25

Chypre is dead.

It wasn’t just IFRA’s de-oakmossing that did it in. That was just the final blow. It was the public’s disaffection with the genre – if people were marching on the Champs-Élysées to get their old Mitsouko back, as Luca Turin once said, IFRA would’ve backtracked on oakmoss just as it did on vanillin when the industry protested the 44th Amendment restriction.

Chypre is dead, despite the puzzling obstinacy of the industry to bestow the name on fragrances that barely carry a fragment of its DNA, as Robin from Now Smell This underlined in a recent post.

The thought struck me as I was taking notes for a review of Amouage Jubilation 25 – a scent that came so close to smelling like the proper thing that perfume lovers felt, well, jubilation -- while reading a collection of essays by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben.

Writing about Venice, Agamben establishes the distinction between the specter and the larva, a creature of Roman mythology.

“Spectrality is a form of life. A posthumous or complementary life, which can only start once all is over and which thus has, compared to life, the incomparable grace and astuteness of what is accomplished, the elegance and precision of that which has nothing to look forward to.”
Larval spectrality, in contrast, is born of those who “reject their condition and try to repress it by pretending at all costs that they are endowed with weight and flesh.”

“While the first species of specters is perfect, because it has nothing to add to what was done and what was said, larvae must invent themselves a future to make place to torment about their own past and their inability to accept that they have reached their own end.”

I would say, borrowing loosely from Agamben’s distinction between specters and larvae, that a fragrance like 31 rue Cambon is a spectral chypre: it lovingly conjures the appearance of something that no longer exists, knowing full well that it is dead. MDCI L’enlèvement au sérail takes a pretty good stab at larval existence: its lovely old-style lushness a reminder of what we’ve lost, with a formula I suspect Francis Kurkdjian of having lifted/adapted from something much older.

As for Jubilation 25, I’m of two minds.

Initially, I’d deemed it a fin de race chypre. In English, the expression translates as “degenerate”, but that translation doesn’t quite convey the aristocratic connotations of the French. Someone who is fin de race is the last of a noble lineage whose excessive inbreeding has exasperated every family trait to the point of caricature: think Habsburg chin or Bourbon nose.

Jubilation 25 is indeed fin de race in many ways: in it, Femme’s dark plum has fermented into boozy davana with its grappa and rum facets; spices have risen to nose-tingling prominence, while oak moss is furthered darkened by leather-scented clouds of incense. The scent also exhibits more than a trace of Opium’s DNA, with its aldehydic shimmer and resinous-fruity myrrh facets (Lucas Sieuzac is, after all, the son of Jean-Louis, Opium’s co-author with Raymond Chaillan).

Somehow this singularly opulent iteration of a classic genre seems to be a chypre that doesn’t know yet that chypre is dead. Is it because it has come to us all the way from Oman? Perhaps the Middle-eastern location of Amouage, in the very cradle of perfumery, is what gave the family its last burst of vitality, just as the first Amouage perfume, Guy Robert’s Gold, resurrected the grand aldehydic floral of yore – the first straight-faced interpretation of the genre since, well, Van Cleef and Arpels First in 1976 .

The Middle-east may actually be the last place to really believe in perfume enough to infuse lifeblood into the decaying flesh of old-school French perfumery, much in the way that the Japanese are the last who truly believe in fashion, as anyone who attends the Paris fashion week can observe.

It’s as though classic French perfumery, after a century of Oriental fantasies, was catching its last reflection in a mirror held up by the real Orient. Amouage produces idealized Oriental perfumes, archaic resins alchemically transmogrified by French artistry. In a way, Serge Lutens made the same journey before them, but starting from France, in his profoundly inactual, and thus eminently contemporary quest for something that was always already lost.

Meanwhile, we can let ourselves be haunted by Jubilation 25, the chypre that ignores the death of chypre. And that after it, there is perhaps nothing more that can be said about chypre.

And what if the darkness we perceive in chypres were our own nostalgia for a place we barely knew alive?

Picture by Flor Garduño

Quotes by Giorgio Agamben are my own translation from the French.

45 commentaires:

  1. What a wonderful and poetic post!

    greetings from Holland,


  2. Your writing is always beautiful and thought provoking.
    I won't say anything about Jubilation 25, and its being the last in the lineage of chypres, because to be honest, I'm still struggling to understand the definition... Le PDT, that you mentioned lately as part of the genre, left me bewildered and I realised that I will never be able to assess the right family - unless it is patent obvious!

    But I love the thoughtful articles that you and other publish on the subject! You never know, I might grasp the lesson at the end ;) !!!

  3. Zazie, you do mean Le Parfum de Thérèse? You could do a chypre exercise: smell Mitsouko, Femme (vintage), Diorama (if accessible), Dior Eau Fraîche, Thérèse, Eau Sauvage, Diorella and see how one comes forth from the other. There will be enough common points to see a family.

  4. Great last point, D-
    Regarding the "comparative sniff" method ;-)

    I love all the philosophical references.
    Heartily agree, and feel the sorrow, as chypres were my "gateway drug", from very early childhood.

  5. Let's hope you are wrong Denyse, it would be such a loss to the perfume world.
    I remember reading somewhere that Roja Dove predicted chypres as the next big thing, but he may have been 'talking his book', to use trading jargon.
    For sure 31 Rue Cambon (wearing today!), Enlevement au Serail and Jubilation 25 are wonderful scents. Love your classifications.
    Thanks for another great post!

  6. Ida, what's wonderful about Roudnitska is that he's so *clear*... I would suggest adding on Eau d'Hermès right after Femme: it springs directly from it.

    I've been taking some notes about my childhood gateway perfume drugs too, and that perhaps also influenced the nostalgic/elegiac tone of this post.

  7. Silvia, Roja *did* do a chypre in his trilogy, didn't he?
    That said, even if we had a spate of new chypres (as opposed to neo-chypres), such as EL PC Jasmine White Moss or the tweaked Acqua di Parma Profumo, it would still be in many ways a retro revival. Trends are not the way forward: they're just a blip on the fashion radar.

  8. Denyse - Love your post. Thank you for mentioning V&A's First. I feel it's often an overlooked perfume, yet if I had to mention one gateway drug, that would be it. In my book, it (at least the original formulation) ranks among the pinnacles of achievements in grand perfumery.

  9. Denyse -

    This post is as gorgeous as a real chypre perfume! thank you for this. I still struggle with Jube25 - I 'get' it and it is gorgeous - I am just not sure I'm quite up to the task of wearing it. And for me, that's saying something! I think I always need to be dressed for it, perhaps in bespoke black trousers and Anne Fontaine blouse with my good pearls - and a giant emerald ring.

    Oh, wait. That would be how I would like to dress every day anyway! LOL!

    On another note, have you tried Liz Zorn's Love Speaks Primeval? It's a softer (to my nose) take on her historical chypre, which I love. I'd love to know your thoughts on those.


  10. D -

    Great advice to Zazie. I've done that exercise (not on purpose, though, just trolling through my collection).....I think I will revisit those in that order...


  11. OperaFan, First was amongst my first grownup perfumes in my teens. I haven't worn it in a very long time though.

  12. Anita, I've worn Jubilation 25 to work, but then, work is a fairly dressy affair for me anyway.
    I don't know Liz Zorn's work because it doesn't get to Paris -- there are so many things to smell out here in Paris that I don't tend to order in samples.

  13. Musette, of course you could add the rare Dior-Dior to the series. And do a comparison with DelRae Emotionnelle just to see how Michel's take on his mother's perfume differs from the original.

  14. Is there no hope? Could we not pray for a revival of perfumes using real oakmoss made outside europe?

  15. Krista, it's not just Europe: most perfume companies are members of IFRA (including the labs that make Amouage), and IFRA standards are stricter than the European Cosmetics directive.
    The labs *are* working on oak moss substitutes (I've smelled two good Firmenich products) but after that, it's a matter of taste.
    My point is that it's not only a matter of materials and restrictions: chypre is a language of the past and, like much of the art of the past, it is getting harder and harder to comprehend by the majority of people. So while there may be tributes to the genre, my hope is more that the classics will be restored, at this point, so that they can go on being loved by the much smaller segment of the population that "gets" them.

  16. I have to agree with your point. It isn't just the ban on oakmoss that's the issue. They do feel a bit dated or retro, and this feeling keeps me from buying that bottle of Bandit. I keep thinking, could I really pull this off? Chypres get me that "old lady" comment so often, and I suppose I have to give some attention to why that is so. That being said, there are some stunning examples out there, and Mitsouko is a go-to for me for a fine evening out. Oddly, it always gets compliments- it's the only time strangers have stopped me to ask what I'm wearing. Now...I think as a final go at the genre, I need to buy that bottle of Party in Manhattan!

  17. As I read your reference to Agamben's formulation of terms, I am reminded of a childhood friend who spent all his time inhabiting comprehensive worlds of his own imagining. He required his fellow children to join him, to call him by his assumed names, to buy into life as he created it. Unlike much of today's perfume, which fails to draw the flagging interest of a diffident public with its endless revivals and dilutions of the various spectres, my friend succeeded in winning adherence to his invented worlds. Theorists like Agamben have an audience more miniscule than perfumers. My question is, who (perfumers? politicians? animators? plastic surgeons?) is most successful today at selling their discourse, slinging their juice? The theorist or perfumer who figures the answer to that question will be living the good life.

  18. Jared, chypres are amongst my most beloved perfumes, but then I also love Monteverdi and Rabelais, also languages that speak to me though it would no longer be relevant to produce them as is today. Unless one thinks of Borges' Pierre Ménard, who wanted to be the author of Don Quixote...
    What I'm saying is that there are fewer and fewer people who have access to the language of chypre. It is now a nostalgic genre, though still powerfully beautiful.

  19. Cait, let me go all Guy Debord on you and say the spectacle speaks through all of them. Some people make the money, very few originate the discourse. They are all mouthpieces. Philosophers like Agamben, like some artists, are the ones who step aside: they are no *of* their time which allows them to be in it.

  20. Is it too late to sign up for the march?

    I've loved chypres since wearing Mitsouko in high school, long before I'd ever heard the term. It's mate on the Guerlain counter, Shalimar, was just too sweet for me. Femme, Diorella and the original Givenchy III were also favorites.

    Alas, something in the very beautiful Amouage scents gives me a headache - the only line that has ever happened with.

    Beautiful post, especially your rather profound last line.

  21. Rappleyea, I haven't tried all the Amouage, but I can tease out a material in a couple of them that I call the "spiky wood" which is indeed something that bothers me. For instance, the man Jubilation has it in spades and I'm hyperosmic to it, so I can't wear it, despite it being by dear Bertrand D.

  22. Hmmm.

    An interesting train of thought. I agree, for the most part.

    I wonder if you could, without pushing too hard, say the same thing about Perfume, with a capital P, "proper perfume," "classical perfume" in general. All is awash in nostalgia and mythology, the original of everything has been lost, and so on and so forth. If there ever was an original in the first place...

    Of course, you are saying something subtler and more specific here. And there is always more hope in specificities, and in the concrete, I think. I am one of those resistant to spectrality, I suppose, in spite of the amount of time I spend on the internet.

  23. Alyssa, I think you could absolutely have the same line of reasoning about Perfume with a capital P. But other families are still thriving (orientals, fougères, even aldehydic florals are enjoying a revival). Chypre is more symptomatic it seems.
    I am now following a different train of thought while reading an essay about fashion and modernity (the timeline starts with Baudelaire), about the way fashion constantly leaps accross timelines to periods past, while never repeating itself. I think this could be applied to the various forms/families/templates of perfume. But it's a big book and the thoughts might take some time to formulate.

  24. "much in the way that the Japanese are the last who truly believe in fashion, as anyone who attends the Paris fashion week can observe."


  25. Oh, dear, I'm feeling a bit like an elderly crone, the last speaker of the language of one of those tiny, dwindling tribes whose young people spend all their time watching MTV! At least the privilege of knowing that language compensates some of the losses of age. I always love your choice of artwork, Denyse, and this time you outdid even yourself! --nozknoz

  26. Nathan, if I wanted to go all Borges on you or something, I'd say that if the Japanese stopped collectively believing in us, we might disappear. I mean vanish, poof! You see them at shows, and they've got the faith. Those looks! No irony. We survive with irony.

  27. Nozknoz, I don't know how many living languages are disappearing from the face of the Earth as we speak, but apparently the death rate is appalling. Current mainstream perfumery is the equivalent of business English. Expect perfumery "Engrish" to appear any time soon.

  28. "Business English" - you are SO right (as always)! At the same time, there are a lot of new and different things to enjoy. CdG Monocle Laurel and Killian's Pure Oud recently are examples of scents I've sniffed recently that really tickle my nose, speaking figuratively. Sometimes I think it's like music: we may not have a Mozart or Bach, but we've got jazz, world music, hip hop - too many to name. Less depth and richness, perhaps, but a much wider range. We're inhabiting a kaleidoscope rather than a palace.... --nozknoz

  29. Nozknoz, I'm not complaining: there are a lot of things I've loved these past months, and I'm not the nostalgic type!

  30. So interesting...I'm a magazine beauty editor and was told that Guerlain Idylle is a chypre blend. But an impartial perfume expert told me --"it's not a REAL chypre"--and I didn't get her comment until I read your very illuminating piece, and the state of oakmoss.
    My fragrant "history" is redolent with TRUE chypres --la vrai chose.

  31. Anonymous, so many things have been labeled chypre recently... One wonders why, since it can't possibly resonate with today's clientele. I'm glad the post cleared up a few points for you!

  32. Except for the "clientele" who hunt down old fragrances...?Anwyay,
    now I know why my old bottles of Ysatis are hidden away in my sock drawer! Merci, encore.

  33. Anonymous: I guess you could say that it's a very niche section of the market, compared to the millions of people who buy the latest X or Y.

  34. Wonderful piece, Denyse! Your writing is always imbued with such great intelligence and insight.

    I just refuse to believe that something so wonderful as the true Chypre genre of perfumery can just be allowed to die. I can only hope that IFRA will back off someday soon and that the perfumers of the world will rebel if they are pushed too hard. I will keep collecting the best chypres I can find, at least enough to last me however long I have left in this world. When I think that a masterpiece like Houbigant Essence Rare is gone forever but apparently any perfume with Britney Spears' name on it can be a commercial success, that's not a world I want to live in.

  35. Flora, fortunately it is also a world that allows us the possibility of creating parallel worlds, where J25 can still come out and be appreciated.

  36. I've been chewing on this post for the past week; art, history and desire/senses is a bit melancholy, but provocative.

    I've been organizing some some cuban danzon classes by my favorite dance teacher, and it makes me think of similar issues around lost or dying art forms. Few people have the patience or interest in culture and history to really enjoy his classes. Danzon is so much slower and more subtle than salsa, and the heart of it was listening to the music cues as well as the intimacy of dancing close with someone.

    I want there to always be chypres because it expands our notions of what is beautiful. Not nostalgia, just wanting the vocabulary to be as expansive as possible!

  37. Dante's Bra: listening to the music's clues to dance -- it does indeed require much more focus, culture and sense of nuance. You're right, it's the same thing with certain types of fragrances: they require a musical ear and a certain culture.

  38. Chypres but also heady florals and orientals are a thing of the past!
    Nobody markets sophisticated perfumes to women that express and exude personality, class and character. Perfumery has become anemic and anorexic. And that goes beyond perfumery; in the US, the huge success of neutral beige lipsticks triggered a marketing explosion of all those "barely there" and "less is more" makeup brands and concepts. The "talibans" of fashion (who happen to be older female execs actually!) only use underage covergirls who are marketed to women all around world as an ideology or an image of who they're supposed to be like with this notion that women can only be happy if they're the size of a pencil or thin as a rail. What is the real ideology behind that - girls and women starving themselves? It's about disappearing. It's as if you become less and less, you actually won't exist eventually. You won't take up space. You won’t have power.

  39. Uella, I've been thinking about this trend for de-materialization and de-femininization: flesh and colour taken out until all that subsists is the garishness of the digital image. Ce sont les parfums "excusez-moi d'exister".

  40. Ce commentaire a été supprimé par l'auteur.

  41. I don't think it's de-femininization but more the sexist standards of femininity: young, fresh, sexy, slim, attractive...actually most of those adjectives were used by Thierry Wasser himself to introduce Idylle.

    Women feel they have to smell good yet unobtrusive and please men, the response to that is pale and thin fruity-florals and other unimaginative and dreary stuff that has been launched for a while now.
    Chypres were still good for the women of the '80s who strive for power until she realised 20 years later that a fat wallet doesn't give her a man, youth and a hot body with half a brain does!

  42. Uella, I still thinks it's a denial of the feminine, in the sense of womanhood as opposed to girlishness. And a form of spaying, as it were.

  43. carmencanada, in that sense I totally agree with you.

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