Rochas Mystere ~ fragrance review

Mystere de Rochas advert

So many perfumes smell like things we know: flowers, fruit, wood, food, spice and funk. A few fragrances — mostly created before the disco era, it seems — are more difficult to pin down. They smell only of themselves. They’re sophisticated, and they’re undoubtedly a challenge to fall in love with in the thirty seconds most perfume shoppers these days take before making the decision to purchase. Rochas Mystère is that kind of fragrance.

In response to a post a few weeks ago, a commenter lamented Mystère’s disappearance. I didn’t have a lot of confidence in my decant, a bonus in a swap years ago, shoddily labeled with scotch tape and a sharpie. As fate would have it, I stumbled over a bottle of Mystère Eau de Parfum at Goodwill just a few days later.

Perfumer Nicolas Mamounas developed Mystère in 1978. Jan Moran’s Fabulous Fragrances categorizes Mystère as a “Chypre – Floral Animalic” and lists its top notes as galbanum, cascarilla, coriander and hyacinth; its heart as violet, narcissus, May rose, jasmine, tuberose, lily of the valley, carnation, ylang ylang and orris; and its base notes as cypress, oakmoss, cedarwood, musk, civet, patchouli and styrax.

Isn’t that a blockbuster list of notes? It sounds grand, rich, and deep. Really though, if I had to sum up Mystère in a few words, I’d say it smells like a soaped leather saddle heaped with oakmoss, settled somewhere downwind of the stable. Mystère is a chypre from the get-go, but it steps away from the old lady-ish (but wonderful) fruity chypre standards like Guerlain Mitsouko or Rochas Femme. It ventures a shade more urban and full-bodied than the tart green chypres so popular in the 1970s. The result is a perfume at once clean and metropolitan, dirty and experienced.

Mystère’s tapestry of notes forms a fragrance different than the sum of its parts. It’s almost a mood more than a scent. Mystère smells like I’d imagine Yves Saint Laurent’s dinner parties smelled when Loulou de la Falaise and Betty Catroux were at the table surrounded by candlelight, smoldering cigarettes, 1930s art and careless wit. In that same way, Mystère is dated, yet eternally chic.

I’d also compare Mystère to wine, although it doesn’t smell a bit like something to drink. Some wine is pretty and easy to drink, but the wine that satisfies best with a meal often isn’t the fruity stuff that’s so great as a summer apéritif. Instead, like Mystère, it’s structured, bitter as coffee, yet silky and rich with the character of the grape from which it’s made. Also like serious wine, Mystère isn’t a perfume for new palates.

And now for those of you newer to fragrance, an aside on oakmoss. Mystère is thick with it. Oakmoss has mega cachet among perfumistas, yet it’s not easy to detect if you haven’t smelled a lot of perfume. If you want to suss out oakmoss’s effect, Mystère is a good fragrance to try. I find oakmoss to be almost more of a texture than a scent. It isn’t particularly appealing on its own. It smells musty and thick, but adds an earthy edge that planes the preciousness off and adds body to many a fragrance. Oakmoss is key to making Mystère something like Studio 54’s intoxicated wink at shower-fresh.

Mystère keeps its shape for hours. It’s clean enough to pass at the office, but mysterious and earthy enough to satisfy after work. When Mystère fades, after about five hours, a touch of sweet musk kicks in before the perfume disappears altogether.

Rochas Mystère is discontinued but still available online. If you’re new to perfume, please don’t spend a lot of time and money tracking it down, because you’ll only curse me when you smell its initially quotidian soapy-mossy-animal scent. But if you stumble over Mystère in a swap or thrift shop, snatch it up. Someday you’ll be very glad you did.

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46 Comments

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  1. sweetgrass says:

    Surrender To Chance has the vintage pure parfum. My curiosity’s up now, so I may order a sample.

    • Angela says:

      I bet the parfum is gorgeous! Definitely worth sampling, in my opinion.

  2. Emily says:

    HA! When I was new to serious perfume, I *did* spend a lot of time and money tracking down a bottle of Mystere, because it was exactly the kind of thing I wanted to think that I liked. Naturally, I hated it. But I held on to the bottle and tried it again later on, and I liked it a little better (by which I mean I didn’t immediately reach for the Tide). And as it developed, it really grew on me. I haven’t busted it out recently, but perhaps this review is a hint that it’s time?

    • Angela says:

      You were smart to hang onto it! And I hope you’ll try it and let me know what you think now….

  3. Abyss says:

    *sigh* I love abstraction in perfumes and I love chypres, leather and oakmoss but discontinued frags are hard to sample and I never, ever buy un-sniffed. I try to be zen and figure that if, I’m meant to smell something, then I’ll come across it one day. Hopefully Mystère and I will cross paths sometime, it sounds well worth testing.

    • Angela says:

      Who knows? Maybe you’ll stumble over a bottle at a yard sale or thrift shop. Or maybe some will show up in a swap. As you say, if you’re meant to smell it, you will.

  4. hajusuuri says:

    I’m still working on Femme – I got the vintage EDP from STC. I’ll save Mystere for my next order.

    • Angela says:

      Femme is one of my favorites!

  5. austenfan says:

    Wonderful review as always. I think I may safely try to hunt down a mini of this one.

    • Angela says:

      A mini is a great way to go.

  6. FragrantWitch says:

    ‘smells like I’d imagine Yves Saint Laurent’s dinner parties smelled when Loulou de la Falaise and Betty Catroux were at the table surrounded by candlelight, smoldering cigarettes, 1930s art and careless wit.’

    That description would induce me to try any fragrance! I hope this is in my fragrant future.

    • Angela says:

      I hope it is, too! There’s something about the clean sophistication yet bohemian edge of 1970s YSL that reminds me of Mystere.

  7. RobWales says:

    Great review!

    • Angela says:

      Thank you–I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  8. annemarie says:

    I think I will pass on this one, given its comparative rarity. I just don’t need to be spending any more money or taking any more risks on perfume before Christmas! I own many chypres but did not start collecting them seriously until after re-formulation set in. Probably the most oakmossy thing I own is Niki de Saint Phalle, which is all oakmoss and, as you mention, tart greenery. Surprisingly, Laura Ashley No 1, which I have owned since the 80s, is very oakmossy too, but unsurprisingly (for Laura Ashley) very soapy as well. Estee Lauder’s Beautiful performs the same trick but with greater refinement: both the moss and the soap are more subtle.

    I’m much taken with your remark that a perfume can be dated but eternally chic. I’m trying to think of other perfumes I know like that. EL’s Private Collection maybe? Oh, I know – Habanita!

    • Angela says:

      Private Collection definitely seems eternal to me. Kind of like Grant’s Tomb. How could you modernize it? Habanita feels eternal in a retro-eternal way, if that makes sense.

      For new perfumes, Azemour les Orangers is loaded with moss.

      • annemarie says:

        Oh good one, yes. I tried to like Orangers but to me the oakmoss in it is the dirty ashtray type, and I just can’t go there …

        • Angela says:

          I know just what you mean, yet sometimes I like a little ashtray in my perfume. Not everyone will, though!

  9. poodle says:

    How do you find all these fabulous things at good will? I can’t find anything even half as good. When I do see bottles, most times they are empty. I want to go shopping with you.
    This is interesting but you really have me wanting to try Femme.

    • Angela says:

      Basically, the only gift I have (besides gorgeously shaped ears) is being able to find good stuff at Goodwill and thrift stores. If you every find yourself in my town, let’s definitely go shopping together!

      Oh, if you haven’t tried Femme, do give it a whirl. The new formulation has a bawdy kick, but I can’t live without it.

      • poodle says:

        *click* …and there’s another blind buy. I keep saying I’m not going to do it anymore but some nights I just have no willpower.
        You are such an enabler!

        • annemarie says:

          Femme is adorable. I love it to bits. It’s about the most ‘me’ fragrance I own, tho’ what that says about ‘me’ I dread to think! I hope you like it too.

          About thrift finds, I’m in Australia and I think there may be health regs here about perfume in charity shops because I NEVER see it. Just occasionally in antique or junk shops I’ll see a bottle of Arpege or something. Never in charity shops. Every time Angela mentions one of her strokes of luck at Goodwill I gnash my teeth and cover my face in despair.

          • Angela says:

            You must be right about the health regulations, darn it. I think lots of people have the idea that used fragrance is somehow damaged, too, sadly. I admit I have good luck in thrift shops, but it’s the only luck I have!

        • Angela says:

          You’ll love it!! If not, hang on and try again in a little while. If still not, get in touch with me and I’ll buy it from you. I live in fear it will be discontinued.

    • Cornlily says:

      In San Francisco, I recently learned that each store is allocated goods presumed to appeal to that part of town. The stores I can get to carry over-used pots and pans, dusty plastic flowers, taped music from the 80s, and sad clothing. I’ve never seen perfume of any kind. Other stores feature Prada and similar. So, you might try a different Good Will.

      Long ago, in Boston, i happily set up housekeeping from my neighborhood Good Will store equivalent. The only problem was the store’s habit of price-marking lovely furniture with indelible Sharpies rather than tags. A visitor once asked why all my chairs, tables, armoires, etc wore bright numbers.

      • Angela says:

        I can’t believe they’d damage their furniture with ink! Terrible. I hope you were able to at least sand some of it away.

  10. juicejones says:

    I admire these big, grab you by the lapels, take no prisoners chypres. I believe I went through two bottles of Mystere in my day.
    I was never a “real” smoker, maybe a few boxes of Shermans in h.s., but I always liked fragrances that could hold their own against, or even compliment, the smell of cigarette smoke. Jean Scherrer and Eau de Soir come to mind. Sophisticated, with no intention of being subtle. Not all mysteries are subtle, some hit you smack dab on the forehead. Nice review, as always.

    • Angela says:

      Good point about non-subtle mysteries. In fact, some of the best mysteries are real clubs to the head. Think romance, for instance.

      • juicejones says:

        Ah, yes! I have a knot on my forehead right now. Crazy about the perp!

  11. ad says:

    Great post! Love it! Thanks, Andrea

    • Angela says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  12. Merrily Row says:

    Lovely writing, beautiful review. This is the post I’ll forward to my pals who don’t get my “perfume thing.”

    • Angela says:

      Good luck cracking those friends. Once they come around to perfume, though, there’s no going back for them.

  13. nozknoz says:

    You really have a magic Goodwill store, Angela! (I guess you’ve earned it through perfume karma.)

    • Angela says:

      I just spend a lot of time looking, that’s all. And I can have dry spells of up to months.

  14. Ericgmd says:

    Angela,
    Thank you for reviewing Mystere.
    I actually feel very flattered as I was the “commenter” you referred to.
    Your description of the Mystere mood is very accurate. Late seventies at its best. A bit of a wilting Studio 54 after party ambiance and an awakening from the Champagne, cigarettes and drugs of the era.
    No wonder most people were thin back then. I don’t remember anyone describing America as obese then!
    Mystere surely did not survive the 90s switch to “cleanliness”.
    I heard that the P&G reformulations of Mystere in recent years were terrible.
    P&G seems to have decided to wipe the Rochas brand off the map despite the limited hype in-house perfumer Duriez’s mini launches make at times. No more presence in US department stores for sure. As if it was a decision from the board to kill the Rochas name. So long Marcel Rochas and your couture legacy. Goodbye Helene Rochas and your elegance and creativity. Soon Femme will probably follow and Luca Turin will have to live without Tocade…
    On a last note, I really want to visit your thrift store one day. I’m pleasantly shocked and so terribly envious you found a bottle of Mystere there. I’m also very happy for you at the same time. Enjoy it!
    Thanks again for yet another amazing review of a wonderful classic.
    Best,
    Eric

    • Angela says:

      I’m holding my breath that Femme won’t disappear with the rest! It seems like the rest of the Rochas fragrances are harder to find than the proverbial hens’ teeth, and if they’re not discontinued, at least they’re not actively promoted. (Jubilation 25 has Femme’s spirit, but at ten times the price.) Madame Rochas? Try Amouage Gold or forget it. Alchimie? Tough to find. Tocade fans will have to go to the jillion dollar Bond No. 9 West End. Sad sad sad.

      • Ericgmd says:

        I was watching a 1.6 oz bottle of Mystere Parfum on Ebay earlier today. The bottle hat looks like an ellipse, exactly like the one in the advertisement picture you posted in this post. The final sale price was $370!
        I have to tell you that I really made a superhuman effort and strapped my fingers in those last few seconds so I would not bid.
        I wonder if the parfum is still good and if the buyer will appreciate it.
        Sad sad sad as you say.

        • Angela says:

          That’s outrageous! At least we can take comfort in that great perfumes are still being made–that’s what I tell myself, anyway. Something as wonderful or even better than Mystere may be just around the corner.

          • Ericgmd says:

            Amen.
            I’ll be watching for the next CK One flanker.
            LOL
            (Hey CK One Shock for Him was not bad at all :-)

          • Angela says:

            O.K.–maybe I’m a little too Pollyanna…

  15. donanicola says:

    Thank you for this sensitive and beautiful review of a perfume which will always have a special place in my heart. My mother wore it back in the late seventies and I swore I would follow once I no longer lived at home, I loved it so much. The green bitterness fascinated me and there was always a skanky dry down though very sophisticated. Once I had left home I alternated between this and Cristalle (spending a memorable couple of months with Cardin’s Choc inbetween). I have a bottle of EDP bought in a French perfumery a few years ago and it’s in pretty good shape but I’m horrified that vintage stuff goes for such prices as were mentioned above. It’s the oakmoss isn’t it.

    • Angela says:

      I can see Mystere and Cristalle being fabulous perfume companions! Between the both of them they cover a lot of ground, yet they’re kissing cousins.

  16. Bela says:

    I bought Mystère when it first came out and wore it for a long time. It was wonderful. Everything I liked.

    I have no idea what it smells like now, and I don’t think I want to know: I’m sure it’s been totally destroyed. So, if I were you, I wouldn’t bother unless you can get hold of a bottle from the early ’80s.

    • Angela says:

      Or an inexpensive bottle at a thrift shop, I have to add!

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