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Perfume Notes: Chanel No. 5
by Dain

Jacques-Louis David, The Coronation of Napoleon (1806).

People are apt to complain about Chanel No. 5. It's too big, too recognizable, it's kind of the Tracy Lord of scents, caught right between the grand and the grandiose. You'd have to be gauche not to admire No. 5, but secretly you might resent its hard, perfect glamour. It's been a bestseller for 90 years, known in the vernacular as "le monstre". If you read reviews on No. 5, the most salient refrain is that label—"old lady", or "vile old lady", or occasionally a euphemism, "timeless". And, in a way, it's true. No. 5 hardly conjures up the playful vision of Estelle Warren's youthful vivacity or even Carole Bouquet's sultry whisper: "Tu me détestes n'est-ce pas? Dis-le... dis-le que tu me détestes." (Let us not speak of those awful, awful Nicole Kidman advertisements.)

But then, perfume is above all aspirational. Most people wouldn't know an aldehyde from a hysterectomy, so in part those miraculous sales depend a great deal on No. 5's reputation: the Chanel name, because Marilyn Monroe wore it to bed, and maybe your mother or grandmother wore it out to parties, No. 5 clinging to her furs. But in spite of its ubiquity, historical iconicity, and cultural status, anyone who expects a mere perfume to catapult them into the heights of glamour, to become one of those girls in the commercials, is liable to be disappointed. Aspiration plays tricks on those who know, too. Ernest Beaux's overdose of aldehydes may have been revolutionary in 1921, but by now there's so much in its wake, you can hardly see No. 5 for all the turbulence. So many perfumes smell of aldehydes, in fact almost all of them do, that fumeheads, who often pride themselves on tacking a course to unknown lands, draw a disappointed blank—they complain it smells too "perfumey", old-fashioned at that. We cannot ignore these prejudices in a discussion of No. 5, but as I sniff at my vintage extrait, I am struck, to put it as simply as possible, by its beauty. What other imperative matters?

Its heart is so lush and fine, the parfum features true jasmine de Grasse and rose de Mai (shown at left), from Chanel's own fields in the south of France. The resulting bouquet is well balanced, but the heady, indolic character of jasmine is perhaps more prominent than the salty austerity of rose, because the supporting notes cast a warm glow on the whole: a candied floral top of neroli and violet (the latter, I am guessing, is C12), the tropical humidity of ylang ylang, and a sumptuous vetiver-amber drydown, supplemented by creamy sandalwood and a hint of animalic musk. What makes No. 5 tick, however, is that slug of aldehydes that hits you straight from the bottle, which according to Elena's sagely informative discussion on aldehydes are of a specific kind and quantity. The effect of aldehydes is not unlike that of a bottle of champagne, what Jimmy Stewart calls "Cinderella's slipper" (hic!): the powdery, pearl-like, waxy texture, the volume of its sillage, a scintillation of candlelight gleaming off endless silver. Like other successful ventures, No. 5 has a string of direct imitations—the floral clarity of Jean Patou JOY, the downy softness of Lanvin Arpège, the fantastically warm, woody tones of Caron Nuit de Noël, Guerlain Véga and Liù, orange-tinged and austere, and even Chanel's own flanker, Eau Première, less floral with a high, metallic powderiness—these are all excellent perfumes, but the original stands head and shoulders above them all, the smell of pure, invulnerable charisma. If Napoleon were alive today, and sexism didn't enforce such rigidity of habit, he'd carry off Chanel No. 5 to perfection.

I've long resisted Chanel No. 5, because neither a floral bouquet, and certainly not one that features jasmine, nor strong aldehydes really appeal to my personal taste. But while the EDP is hardly a pale rendition, the parfum is revelatory, a glorious skin scent that banishes the trace of harsh, urine-like indoles that mark the EDP. Stylistically, the infamous aldehydes remove No. 5 from the raw, natural beauty of Caron Bellodgia, which smells exactly like a Provençal flower market, but in the parfum at least, the quality of jasmin de Grasse (shown at right) is not the least bit obscured, just abstracted. A dab of Chanel No. 5 transports you into a world free from the taint of cynicism, which, in my view, is the idea behind a floral perfume in the first place, like some magic universe populated by fantastic heels that never, ever hurt, that instant transformation of the ordinary to the regal. Is this an alchemical subterfuge? Most assuredly. Is it also a carefully designed, tightly controlled propaganda machine that uses imagery like Marilyn Monroe or Catherine Deneuve to boost sales? Absolutely. Is it accessible and easy to wear? Surprisingly, no. And not in that elusive, intellectual way of Guerlain Mitsouko, but more akin to a tiara: Chanel No. 5 seduces the inner princess in all of us.

Now Smell This

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12/28/2008 [2]

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