As hard as it is for me to believe this, today marks the fifth anniversary of my column. And when I started thinking about what to write for this auspicious event, the first thing that popped into my head was the iconic perfume Chanel No 5.
Perfume is a tough business. It is estimated that more than 600 new fragrances are introduced annually around the world; few make it into production past the second year. And fewer still last longer than a decade. A select handful are positively ancient: Farina Eau de Cologne from 1709, Creed’s Royal English Leather, which dates to 1780 and Caswell-Massey No. 6, introduced in 1752. These perfume houses are still in business, along with Roger & Gallet which was founded in 1806 and Guerlain, started in 1853. Compared to these, Parfums Chanel and No 5 are relative newcomers.
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No 5 was first introduced in 1921 and has been sold continuously since then. It is so popular today that it is estimated that a bottle is sold somewhere around the world every single minute. Half a million bottles of perfume a year might not sound like much in terms of the multi-billion dollar perfume industry, but that figure applies to the “parfum” itself; the highest concentration of fragrance. The product is also available in lower concentrations called “eau de parfum”, and “eau de toilette” (“eau de cologne” was discontinued in the 1980s).
Coco Chanel set out to make a perfume unlike others available on the market in the 1920s. At the time, floral scents dominated the industry; but Mademoiselle Chanel herself said "I want to give women an artificial perfume. "Yes, I really do mean artificial, like a dress, something that has been made. I don't want any rose or lily of the valley, I want a perfume that is a composition." No 5 was the first scent to use synthetic aldehydes as a top note.
Along with the aldehydes, the other top notes (scents that are noticeable as soon as you put it on) are ylang-ylang and neroli. The middle notes are May rose and jasmine and the base notes (the ones that seem to last all day) are sandalwood, vetiver and vanilla. And the House of Chanel goes out of their way to make sure that the perfume still smells exactly as it did in 1921; they contract exclusively with flower growers in the area of the south of France called Grasse — the part of France that was the source of the modern perfume business. Flower production has moved to cheaper centres around the world — mostly India — today. But just as soil is important in wine production, it also affects the quality and scent of the flowers.
Just as iconic as the fragrance is the Chanel bottle — the rectangular, clean lines stamped with the name of the perfume in a simple black script. It is used in some variation for all other Chanel perfumes. And, as with other cultural items that were immortalized in his art, Andy Warhol made a colourful silk screen of No 5 that the company later used in an advertising campaign.
While Marilyn Monroe was never an official spokesperson for the brand, she added to the mystique of the scent when she declared that she wore nothing but Chanel No 5 to bed. And advertising has been helpful in keeping the perfume in the public eye since Mademoiselle Chanel died in 1971; famous faces have included Catherine Deneuve, Carole Bouquet and Nicole Kidman. Audrey Tatou, the star of Amélie and The Da Vinci Code, will become the new face of the scent later this year when Chanel launches an “eau première” — a new version of the scent in between the perfume and the eau de parfum.
In an interview last fall with "The Independent" (a newspaper in England), Jacques Polge — The Nose — of Parfums Chanel stated that the reason this one fragrance has lasted so long can be attributed to one thing — that “it smells good”.
I’ve never worn No 5, or any Chanel fragrances, myself. To my completely untrained nose, they just don’t “smell good”. But I thought I should give it another try for this column and dutifully went to the store to get a sample of the eau de parfum to try. At the store, I picked up the bottle and gave it a sniff — still didn’t seem appealing. So I sprayed it on.
But no … I just plain did not like it. Perhaps it’s the aldehydes, but I find it to be too “chemical-y”. I passed on getting a sample and couldn’t wait to get home to wash it off.
Luca Turin, the author of The Secret of Scent, describes Chanel No 5 as “a regally beautiful thing”. I can’t agree with him; perfume is one of the most intensely personal things we wear, and not all of us have body chemistry that appreciates aldehydes in all their glory.
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