Oakmoss is among perfumers’ most beloved ingredients: an essential element of fragrances within the chypre family (which you can read more about here), in partnership with bergamot: it ‘anchors’ volatile notes. Its more romantic French name is ‘mousse de chêne, but this tight-curled plant – botanical name Evernia prunastri – is actually a lichen which grows on oaks throughout Europe and North Africa, only flourishing in unpolluted air. It can range in colour from light green to black depending on whether it’s dry or damp – and it smells a lot more beautiful than it looks.
Oakmoss smells earthy, and woody, sensual with hints of musk and amber and is really not like anything else in the perfumer’s ‘palette’ because it also works fantastically as a ‘fixative’ to give scent a longer life on the skin. As you might suspect, there’s a touch of damp forest floor to this material, too.
The use of oakmoss in perfumery goes back a long, long way. Coty’s Chypre perfume, in 1917, popularised this type of fragrance – but in fact, chypre scents, inspired by the island of Cyprus, had been beguiling people for centuries. For hundreds of years, from Roman times (that’s as far back as we know about) this style of perfume blended styrax, calamus and labdanum; in the Middle Ages, oak moss began to be added, to create ‘pastilles’ for burning.
But there’s one snag with this exquisite material: it’s been ‘blacklisted’ by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) as a potential irritant, its use restricted by European regulation to 0.1% in perfume compositions that are applied to the skin – a restriction which has sent ‘noses’ into tailspins in labs across the world, as they were forced to remove or reduce this lynchpin ingredient in their often very famous formulations. Some ‘noses’ played around with ingredients like patchouli, or synthetic ‘imitations’ of oakmoss to try to achieve some of the same effects as this wonder of the natural scent world, but there’s no question that some favourite fragrances started not to smell like themselves.
Now, though, there’s a way through – which is glorious news for chypre-lovers everywhere. Through a process of ‘fractionation’ – separating the different elements of an individual ingredient, and removing the potential sensitiser – it’s possible to get an ingredient that’s much closer to the oakmoss we know and loved.
However, as Guerlain’s in-house perfumer Thierry Wasser explained to us, whenever something is removed from an ingredient through fractionation, ‘it leaves a hole’. Thierry’s stroke of genius was to plug the gap with a touch of celery seed, instead. Hey, presto: Mitsouko – probably the most famous chypre in the world still available today – is restored to its former glory. (And we just love the way that perfumers rise to challenges like this…)
PS Oakmoss has a near-relation, known as ‘tree moss’ – Evernia Furfuracea – which grows on pine trees, has a turpentine-y scent before it’s blended, and is also very highly-prized among perfumers.)
Smell oakmoss in: