Monday, November 16, 2009

Chanel No. 5

Let's talk about Chanel No. 5.

Ask a random stranger on the street to name a perfume, chances are he or she would say Chanel No. 5. Let someone who has absolutely no interest in fragrance and doesn't wear any to sniff a No. 5 test strip and the person would most likely either recognize it by name or tell you which one of his or her acquaintances wears it. It seems to have always been part of our perfume skyline, beautiful and unmistakable.

Chanel No. 5 is very much an Art Deco perfume. From the use of the then-modern synthetic aldehydes over a classic and opulent rose-jasmine heart, to the elegant and statuesque overall construction. Just think of the Chrysler Building (built a few years after the 1921 launch of Chanel No. 5.

I have several bottles of the assorted formulations and strengths from various vintages spanning the last 25 years. The parfum extrait is the most recent, dating from around 3-4 years ago. While each concentration is an almost entirely different perfume in the way certain facets were treated, they are all still easy to identify as No. 5, no matter if it's sharper, more floral or sporting a very determined sandalwood-vanilla base. Since my No. 5 stash is a bit random and was collected as the bottles crossed my path, mostly from antique stores*, each one has its own attributes.

They all start with that familiar burst of aldehyde notes, the one we are trained to recognize simply as "perfume" and often also as "soap", probably because so many soaps- high end and generic- have been made to resemble this scent over the decades (at least until the idea that it's acceptable to smell like blackberries or a melon took over the world by a terrible storm). Then there's that abstract floral body, which by itself shaped the idea of a floral perfume for generations- Madamoiselle Chanel wanted her first perfume to smell man-made, like a couture gown, not like something that grows in the garden. It's the idea of a flower as depicted in an interpretative artwork.

When it comes to the drydown, some are woodier than others. I tend to favor the sweeter, more vanillic versions. I have half a bottle of the EDP from the late 80s which seems to suit me best on most days, but that's more a skin chemistry thing than a quality assessment. They are all beautiful, but I'm not really a floral-aldehyde fiend and the whole concept doesn't go with my personal style. It's more about a mood. Sometimes I like to play the part- wearing all black, minimal accessories and a vintage piece of jewelry. That's when No. 5 fits best.

Chanel (the fragrance house) has put in a lot of effort to protect their crown jewel over the years and maintain its integrity. I have yet to come across an (authentic) Chanel No. 5 that smells wrong or cheap. Changes and reformulations were made throughout the years, most notably when nitro-musks had to be replaced because of serious toxicity issues. The raw materials are also different between the formulations- only the parfum extrait today is made with Grasse jasmine. The EDT uses Egyptian-grown flowers. However, it seems that the draconian regulation imposed on the industry by IFRA are putting No. 5 in danger. While the concentration of the natural raw materials in the EDT is most likely below the specified level, it is unclear what will happen to the parfum. Chanel isn't very forthcoming with information (as far as I know they wouldn't even admit any changes were made since 1921), which has many perfume lovers worried.

My personal opinion is that if anyone can be the force who would bring back some sanity to the industry it is the house of Chanel. Having an iconic, national treasure status in France, Chanel No.5 must be worth defending and lobbying. It is remained to be seen if this would actually happen (don't hold your breath. There are other factors at play here).

*Chanel No. 5 in EDT and usually also EDP is available in several sizes from most half-decent department stores. The parfum can be found at Saks, Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf and their like, and if you're lucky enough to live in Paris, also on the shelves of Sephora and many other perfumeries. One place to avoid is eBay. Chanel perfumes are extremely popular with counterfeiters, thieves and loathsome individuals who refill empty bottles with who knows what and sell it as vintage. Don't. Seriously.


  1. I'm actually wearing this today (the EDT...which is my favourite).

    I was a bit disappointed recently to find out the bottle of parfum I purchased had been changed to remove much of the floral heart, but frankly, it still smells great. Pity though.

  2. Makes me think of the bottle of Chanel 5 I would always covet on my mother's dressing table! :-)


    --CHIC news from Paris--
    --sample sales--
    --press sales--
    -- etc. --

  3. I'm wearing the EDT today, too. It's one of the go-to scents I wear when everything else seems too complicated.

  4. I feel like I should buy a bottle of this before it's ruined just for the heck of it..

  5. So there are no real flowers on the eau de parfum? How do you know?


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