IFRA, Oakmoss, Chypres & Perfume Houses

Let’s take a look at IFRA/EU restrictions on oakmoss, the future of chypres, the reasons why fragrance houses are eschewing chypres, fractional distillation to remove IFRA-forbidden allergens, the use of seaweed to supplement or create an oakmoss base, the type of oakmoss that suppliers make available to perfume houses, and how the fear of still more restrictions in the future is impacting the types of scents that perfume houses are making. A fascinating, highly informative discussion of these issues took place last night on Twitter with several experts chiming in to explain what is going on behind the scenes and its significance. I learnt a considerable amount, particularly regarding the type of oakmoss currently on the market, and I’d like to share that with you here.

Source: 10wallpaper.com

The oakmoss discussion began with my grumbling about the use of tarragon in lieu of oakmoss and how such outlier reinventions should not be called “chypres.” Things took off from there. Nick Gilbert (@NickGilbert), a fragrance expert and fragrance consultant at Olfiction, and Pia Long (@Nukapai), a trained nose or perfumer (who created Zoologist‘s lovely Chipmunk) generously took the time to explain what’s really going on in the industry with oakmoss and chypres.

One of the many things that I learnt was that the oakmoss currently on the market and available to the perfume houses has actually been stripped of the verboten allergens that IFRA targets; it’s essentially been purified already through a process of fractional distillation. Though the restricted, untreated oil is still available theoretically, the reality is that the raw material suppliers have little reason to have it lying on hand since they can’t really sell it to perfume houses due to the forbidden allergens. (Who is going to buy unusable, unapproved oakmoss?)

In other words, the oakmoss available now is already perfectly okay by current IFRA/EU standards and the perfume houses could use as much of it as they wanted in their fragrances. So why don’t they? That became a separate discussion.

I know many of you aren’t on Twitter or find it difficult to navigate threads, so I’m going to embed or screencap as many of the tweets here as possible so you can follow the conversation easily. For those who are interested in reading the entire thread and the many replies (or replies to replies) on Twitter yourself, you can click on the opening tweet just below or on the link to it that I’ll share at the end of this post.

https://twitter.com/Nukapai/status/1514426445904371712

https://twitter.com/Nukapai/status/1514504844693983232

A discussion on whether Parfum d’Empire‘s Marc-Antoine Corticchiato uses oakmoss oil and/or the seaweed absolute that he was experimenting with before led to a short conversation regarding the fear of future, additional IFRA/EU restrictions that might forbid even the currently acceptable trace amounts left in treated oakmoss. I have to confess, this part made me really sad because the perfume houses’ fear of potentially having to reformulate or remove entirely from the market any fragrance with even a small amount of the currently approved, IFRA-compliant treated oakmoss bodes ill for the future of the chypre genre.

Separately, there was a short, related discussion regarding the issue of “industry capture” or whether the fragrance industry is being held hostage to the big aromachemical companies that dominate the IFRA board. Pia Long’s reply to the question posed was:

You can read the full discussion thread and all the replies here. There is also the related discussion thread (partially quoted here) that touches on the perfume houses’ fear going forward and the overall unpopularity of chypres with consumers today.

I think the implications of all this for the future are clear, so I won’t state the obvious. I’ll simply say that, as a lover of chypres and the classical style of perfumery (which doesn’t involve tarragon in lieu of oakmoss!), I’m genuinely saddened. And as a firm believer in the old adage “misery loves company,” I wanted to share the discussion with all of you since I know I’m not the only one who loves chypres or is concerned about the impact of IFRA/EU regulations on perfumery.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go scream into a pillow.

24 thoughts on “IFRA, Oakmoss, Chypres & Perfume Houses

  1. Thank you so much for sharing the knowledge! I believe the reason that chypres will not sell is ironically due to the oakmoss restriction. Perfumers can’t creatively modernize an accord if they can’t experiment with classically used naturals and new molecules. Thus, the chypres have deteriorated and are sadly disappearing. How can consumers want something they don’t know exists? Know that you have company in your misery. Hope you eventually got some sleep! 🙂

    • First, welcome to the blog, Mosi. Second, you make a good point about consumers not wanting something that they don’t even know exists.

      On the other hand, the modern obsession with fresh, clean scents or highly sugared gourmands tends to suggest that tastes and interests have changed, perhaps in a way that would exclude even proper chypres?

      Then again, as you point out, how can we know if perfume houses think that they can’t really sell chypres so they never make them. As I noted on Twitter, I know quite a number of people who are really into “green scents,” even if they don’t know what a chypre is or how it may qualify.

      It’s food for thought and probably a discussion that people leading the perfume houses should engage in more.

      (I got 3 hours of sleep, so thank you, lol. And I greatly appreciate the company in my misery corner. )

  2. Reminds me of Roja Dove saying he made chypre extraordinaire without oakmoss because it might be completely banned and he wanted to basically challenge himself to make a chypre without it. Well setting aside my issue of the actual scent (ugh bitter galbanum) and the ludicrous pricing (2nd only to the wonderful haute luxe) the concept behind it is just depressing.

      • Actually as soon as I sprayed it on It instantly reminded me of the 99 cent fruity gum I chewed as a kid. Having said that it’s not a bad scent tbh

        • There are quite a few Juicy Fruit scents already on the market (Agonist’s from 9 or 10 years ago instantly comes to mind) and they are not anywhere as expensive. So, unless Roja’s offers something substantially different or adds more to the scent profile, the pricing (which you noted in your first comment) seems even more ridiculous.

          • No I agree. I can think of many other fruity chypres with white florals I’d buy in a heartbeat over it.

  3. There is always lively discussion where regulations and artistry meet. I think this topic could probably extend for quite some time. A few important points that I think might give additional perspective: It’s becoming increasingly hard for us to really know what the isolated oakmoss smell is and what it contributes to chypres; for example, I’ve smelled lots of oakmoss essential oil in my day, but it’s very likely been stripped of its allergens. So, my reference point of oakmoss (in isolation) has already been the “safe” oakmoss. In perfumes, I’m judging it against an entire composition which of course adds many facets to that perfume. And in vintage perfumes, that will add the impact of time and age on what we’re smelling so we’re not smelling what the perfumer intended (which was for it to be worn “fresh”.) So, even our sense of what pure oakmoss actually is may be becoming something of an anachronism. I think this is a slightly sad fact, but not something we can’t work with.

    What I am glad to know, however, is that there is a lot of very exciting work happening in the various technologies out there, and extraction techniques are growing and expanding every day. The palette of options gets wider, so I never worry too much that we’ll be completely bereft of what something like oakmoss offers us. I think that we’ll be able to navigate this territory with either new techniques, new materials, or a bit of a brake on restrictions. I’m strangely optimistic about this, maybe because I’m seeing some evidence of more parties at play (Pia made a suggestion about this) so there’ll need to be a meeting of the minds / forces somewhere, for example between IFRA and EU. Between that negotiation, the forces of technology (for good!) and the artistry and innovations of fragrance makers, some new possibilities to work within the grand and rich realm of chypres still has a lot of space. Where I get this optimism from I don’t quite know 🙂 But thank you for raising this topic, it’s a really important one.

    • John, fantastic, insightful points (per usual for you) on a number of important issues such as “safe” oakmoss, vintage, memory, and new materials. Thank you for adding to the discussion and raising even more food for thought.

      PS – I wish I had your optimism, my friend, but I’m afraid I don’t.

      • I may very well be proven wrong 🙂 in which case I’ll owe you one! I do understand the concern, though, because a fantastic genre of fragrance is losing ground. That alone can be hard to watch because the complex chypre IS indeed wonderful because of its complexity and depth, and it’s frustrating to realize that some in the market do not appreciate the complexity.

        • The thing that concerns me and which I hadn’t realized before talking to Nick is the taste issue, specifically the Catch-22 mentioned in one of the comments above or below here. Namely, the perfume houses don’t create Chypres because they think that there is no demand for that genre of perfumery BUT…there is no demand because they don’t make the fragrances so customers don’t have the opportunity to develop a taste for them.

          Consequently, even if there are new techniques, raw materials, or synthetics to get around regulations, the same Catch-22 and disincentives will remain. I mean, if the houses have been able to make chypres with the treated, approved oil for the past few years but haven’t, who is to say they ever will because they haven’t created the demand for it in the way that they have with the fresh clean galoxolide or ISO E/Escentual Mole 01 scents or the gazillion sugary gourmands that resulted from Baccarat Rouge and its predecessors?

          It’s an extremely frustrating situation. Hence, my desire to scream into a pillow.

      • I am looking at a bottle of Opium Secrete right now for a purchase. I’m justfying the price because of the quality, and it’s sealed.I have been picking up good vintages for good prices. This Teatro Alla Scala isn’t bad. I won the ebay bid, well I was the only one on the bid, for just under $40. It’ a 25 ml. Joint by roccobarocco, a 50 ml for just under $60. Francecso Smalto, another ebay only me bidding 30 ml for under $40. Actuer by Loris Azzaro 50mls for $50. Gianfranco Ferre For Man 2.5 for $70. All of these have the short ingrdient list, Most have the Italian tax code UTIF, meaning before 1990. Some have the 80* not the 80%, meaning before the 80’s. Two of my favorite finds are ther Karl’s. Lagefeld Cologne and KL. Both have the UTIF. Thank god for Raiders of the Lost Scent, and YouTubers like Rich Mitch and Ramsey for taking out the time to teach us about the vintages, and of course you Kafkaesque. I’ve fell in love with perfume again with my recent vintage purchases,
        BTW, I’m sure you know, the oakmoss bomb prices have gone through the roof.

  4. I wonder if perfume will see cycles of popularity sort of like fashion does, although perfume seems to be on a longer cycle. I do not have any big trends or studies to site, I am just pondering my reaction to both vintage and retro-modern perfumes like what Russian Adam seems to make a lot. I guess I am not necessarily young, but I am not old either.

    I sampled the big vintage Guerlain classics, and what surprised me the most was that I think by far the one I enjoyed most was L’Heure Bleue. I went into it with vague ideas that it was one of Queen Elizabeth II’s favorite perfumes and that the consensus was it smelled powdery, melancholy, and old. However I found it to be really fresh, calming, almost spa-like un in some ways, just very appealing. And similarly the recent Civet de Nuit by ALD struck me perhaps as powdery, but just fresh and sharp and different and modern and very compelling.

    To avoid writing a dissertation, these are just two examples, but I am becoming more and more suspicious that the disappearance of fougères and chypres from the market could be creating a vacuum pressurized by an overdose of ethyl maltol and galaxolide on the market and where vintage profiles that smell dowdy to gen-x and early millenials will smell fresh and new and radical to gen-z and whatever the next generation is already.

    I am not sure. Maybe I am just an outlier, I just personally find vintage L’Heure Bleue and Civet de Nuit to smell so modern and avant garde and refreshing in the face of a tidal wave of ambroxan bombs, Black Opium, and La Vie Est Belle.

    I mean if Batsheva dresses can suddenly be chic, I do not see why Jicky or Vol de Nuit could not do the same thing. Maybe I am being overly optimistic. I guess to argue against my point almost everything coming out of Chanel, Guerlain, and Dior these days is pretty profoundly bland and quiet. Europe seems intent on forcing haute perfumery to be restricted to the point of being indistinguishable from Bath and Body Works sprays.

    Unrelated: am I reading correctly that now the IFRA my actually be a victim of its own success and in succeeding in convincing the EU to restrict a few essential compounds to benefit their member corporations they created a monster with the EU that is now out of control and threatening the interests of the IFRA the same way the IFRA first wrecked the traditional perfume industry? I am torn between wanting this to be the last straw that inspires an uprising and wanting to fiddle while European perfumery burns to the ground as I take my business to upcoming American, Arab, and Southeast Asian houses where the really interesting and quality perfume seems to be happening these days. I am not sure I would even notice if Dior and Guerlain stopped making perfume.

    • Yes, you read it right and nailed the karmic twist that seems to be happening now to IFRA. There’s some schadenfreude to be had over that, that’s for sure, though we and the general public are bound to be the losers if we lose European niche houses like Papillon, Masque Milano, et al.

      Separately, I’m so glad you loved vintage LHB. Also, I thoroughly enjoyed your commentary on the “vacuum pressurized by an overdose of ethyl maltol and galaxolide on the market.”

  5. I used a wonderful aromatherapy blend that uses a heavy dose of oak moss. Using it in my bathroom immediately transports me to a forest. What Nick said was really interesting. I now wonder if the oakmoss in aromatherapy is also treated (like almost everywhere else).

    Taste does definitely matter. Chypre are not well known where I am. And those who know are probably not enough to create demand.

  6. Hello Kafkaesque, great article…

    I very recently discovered some lovely chypres: Chypre Palatin by MDCI and also Guerlain’s now discontinued Parure from small volumes of vintage EDT and extrait. I’m now desperate for oakmoss fragrances! I never quite understood what people meant when they used adjectives for oakmoss like “warm” or “plush”, but now I do. Do you have a blog post in which you discuss your favourite oakmosses/ chypres, similar to the one you produced for ambergris?

    I’m curious to hear from you if you think there are any post-IFRA Paruroids worth checking out… I trust your nose!

    • Hi there, welcome to the blog. I so wish I could help you, but I’m afraid chypres are dying as a fragrance family thanks to EU/IFRA ingredient restrictions on oakmoss while existing chypres on the market have been greatly reformulated as a consequence as well. There hasn’t been much point in creating a guide to scents that are being discontinued or gutted.

      As the discussion in this point demonstrates, the perfume houses aren’t even bothering to make chypres any more, in part due to fears that even current IFRA/EU levels will soon be changed to the point where any chypres will need to be pulled from distribution. So spending a lot of time on a soon to be obsolete guide isn’t a great use of my time, I’m afraid.

      Your best bet is to go for vintage versions on eBay of the old masterpieces: Mitsouko, Vol de Nuit, etc. I’m sorry I can’t be of more help.

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