Chanel No. 5 is the world’s most famous perfume, and for nearly ninety years it has been one of the bestselling. In fact, it’s been the bestselling scent in modern history. But perfume has been around for several millennia. And in the first of perfume, there’s only one fragrance that has ever rivaled Chanel No. 5 for international sales and celebrity, although it’s a scent the history of which few people now remember. (But perfume enthusiasts will recognize its name as evoking a general category of fragrance.)
It was the celebrated perfume of the goddess Aphrodite. Or if not the personal favorite of the goddess (who, after all, never officially went on the record), the favorite of the priests and practitioners who celebrated her charms – and the charms of the young virgins who made racy sexual offerings to the deity – on the island of Cyprus. In the ancient world, the scent was believed to have – what else – aphrodisiacal qualities, and so it comes as little surprise that it went on to become a runaway bestseller. This perfume from Cyprus, known simply as chypre, was sent around the ancient world as precious cargo, and it remained the bestselling for many centuries. In fact, some scientists today still believe that one of its essential ingredients – labdanum – does have genuinely sexy qualities.
This heavenly perfume from Cyprus was still an international success as late as the eighteenth century, when scented incense cakes in the shape of birds and decorated with feathers were all the rage at the “perfumed court” of France’s Louis XV. Known as oyselets de chypre or “birds of Cyprus,” they were hung in gilded cages in fashionable boudoirs throughout Europe to freshen the air – and to light some amorous fires. After all, the idea of chypre as inherently sexy was one that persisted. Louis XV at any rate believed in its charms. He was a royal known for his amorous exploits and his mistresses. Madame de Pompadour, his powerful courtesan mistress, came to the boudoir highly scented. She refused to bathe in water at all and insisted, instead, on soaking in expensive perfumes.
Today, the original recipe for Aphrodite’s perfume of passion no longer exists: it and even some of the precise ingredients in it have been lost to history now for centuries. But perfumers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries worked to recreate modern versions of the ultimate classical scent, and they set off another craze that once again fueled the success of what is – without question – history’s longest bestselling fragrance. It’s the only scent to which, in terms of success, Chanel No. 5 has ever been second.
Famous chypre perfumes from the hey-day of the early twentieth century – the golden age of modern perfumery – include scents such as Guerlain’s Mitsouko (1919) and Coty’s Chypre (1917). Modern versions of the scent have distinct core notes of orange bergamot, woody (and sexy) labdanum, and the lichen scent of oakmoss. The Secret of Chanel No. 5 is one thing. Now someone just needs to write the secret of chypre in time for Valentine’s Day.
About the author: Tilar J. Mazzeo is the author of the New York Times bestselling business biography The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It and the recently released The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate Story of the World’s Most Famous Perfume. She divides her time among the California wine country, New York City, and coastal Maine, where she is an Associate Professor of English at Colby College.
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