Something marvelous happened after the great François Coty introduced his famous Chypre fragrance in 1917; it was endlessly imitated, but in the best possible way, by talented perfumers seeking to improve upon what has become the most durable template the art of perfumery has ever known. This structure, composed of a bright citrus bergamot top note, a complex floral heart, and a base of plant resins, animal notes, patchouli, and oakmoss became the basis for innumerable variations on the original theme. Even the slightest change to this perfected combination of ingredients could produce a new scent, recognizable as being a member of the chypre “family” but not the same. Back in the day, many imitators also named their creations Chypre, before the names of fragrances were as regulated as they are now. (Some names, such as Rose or Jasmine, cannot be trademarked because they are also the common names of flowers or other perfume ingredients or styles. Chypre is now recognized as a genre of perfume in itself and is not capitalized, but back then, everyone was jumping on the bandwagon.)
Eventually the chypres sorted themselves out into different sub-genres. The classic chypres were closely allied to the Coty original; Miss Dior and Guerlain’s Mitsouko are outstanding examples. Then there were the leather chypres such as Robert Piguet’s Bandit and Balmain’s Jolie Madame. Others were spicy, fruity, animalic, or aldehydic, and the rose chypres such as Houbigant’s Demi-Jour were especially lovely. One of the most enduring variations is the green or green floral chypre; the most famous ancestor of these is F. Millot’s great Crepe de Chine, launched in 1925. From this lineage, perfumes such as Carven’s Ma Griffe (1946) came into being, and this kind of fragrance remained popular for many decades, right up until the “monster” perfumes of the Eighties and the resulting Nineties backlash of pale, colorless scents changed the industry and public taste. However, before that happened, some of the greatest green chypres ever made were still making an impact – the first Jean-Louis Scherrer, Rochas Mystère, Le Galion’s Megara, and the one that many believe is best example of the green floral chypre ever created, Givenchy III, launched in 1970.
All true chypre perfumes contain oakmoss, a plant material that both acts as a fixative to make the scent last longer and contributes its own character to the fragrance. It is an earthy, green smell in its pure state, as rich and dense as the humus on a forest floor, yet pungent and sharp at the same time. Chypre lovers (such as myself) can’t get enough of the stuff, and since modern regulations in the European Union have now severely restricted its use in perfumery, the real thing must be enjoyed mostly in vintage formulations. The original Scherrer fragrance, which is quite close in style to Givenchy III, is overdosed with oakmoss to the point of making it bitter-green and very dry; I love it, but it has very strong projection and must be used judiciously around other people who don’t appreciate it.
This is where Givenchy III shines – it has all the green intensity of the Scherrer, but its power lies in its stealth. The oakmoss is there, yet instead of being bold and somewhat rough and raspy, it is subdued by the other ingredients to become as smooth as silk, as slinky and sophisticated as one of the couture gowns that Hubert de Givenchy did so masterfully; like the designer’s dresses, which were often of deceptively simple construction but made of the finest, most sumptuous materials, the fragrance seems streamlined and spare, yet it is richly endowed. The brilliant green top notes of bergamot and galbanum are softened with peach, and the exceptionally beautiful flowers in the heart also serve to lessen the oakmoss impact. The base contains amber and sandalwood; in the vintage, the latter is the real deal, not the alternatives or synthetics used today to substitute for the now-rare Indian sandalwood. Everything about this fragrance speaks of the best quality ingredients, from the bracing citrus opening to the delicate lily-of-the-valley, hyacinth and jasmine of the heart notes to the smooth resins and woods of the base; this was clearly intended to be a showpiece, and it is. Givenchy III is timeless and effortless, the kind of fragrance that is never the wrong thing to wear.
There is some good news; it is still being made, and the 2007 reformulation is very good. Even if one prefers the vintage (or pre-reformulation) version, the new one is better than most of the reformulated scents I have tried, even if it is a little light on the oakmoss now. For my part, I will continue to seek out older bottles; Givenchy III was pure magic in its original form, and it’s impossible to improve upon perfection.