100 Years of Chanel No. 5
This article by Tania Sanchez for Swiss magazine Die Weltwoche was published in German translation in the issue of 16 September 2021. This is the original English.
A Touch of Soap
What does it mean for the same perfume to be sold continuously for a hundred years? Clearly, it can’t be exactly the same, and I don’t mean because of the voodoo they call “skin chemistry.” You never buy the same bottle twice (forgive me, Heraclitus). The truth is, since 1921, when a Parisian couturier decided to manufacture a small batch of fragrance as a Christmas present for her 100 best customers, naming it after her lucky number, the world has changed wholesale at least a dozen times over, and so have all the perfumes. Many if not most perfumes made decades after release survive like a Madonna or a David Bowie would, constantly changing packaging and contents to maintain interest. But Chanel No. 5 has been a kind of Helen Mirren of perfumes. By tuning up ever so slightly with the years and making its maturity a point of pride, it stands as ever, a universally admired beauty.
To manage this in an industry known for crassness, faddish caprice, penny pinching, lies, and condescension is a spectacular achievement. No. 5 is one of the last surviving artifacts of the high modern era. Aside from the great perfumes of Guerlain, where are its coevals now? The irreplaceable works of Caron’s founding perfumer Ernest Daltroff—Narcisse Noir, En Avion, Tabac Blond, to name a few—were unrecognizable the last time I met them in a shop. The current incarnation of Houbigant, famed for Fougère Royale, could be described generously as inspired by the original. Coty, which invented nearly all of modern perfumery, let the quality of its legacy perfumes fall off long ago. Others—Lucien Lelong, Schiaparelli, F. Millot, Parfums de Rosine, to name a few—are forgotten except by the most nostalgic cognoscenti. And since the soul of Guerlain’s glorious plush vulgarity—velvet, tassels, gilt—belongs forever to the Belle Epoque, it is really Chanel and Chanel only, signaled by the unchanging, priestly, black-and-white minimalism of its perfect packaging, left to keep the spirit of the 1920s alive.
No. 5’s longevity is often credited to heroic feats of marketing. But if marketing were all any scent needed, many more would survive. It is easy to credit business acumen, but what about the perfume?
Let’s get the business story out of the way. Impeccable Gabrielle Chanel—whose innovations in sportswear, severely limited neutral color palette, and focus on women with boyish bodies torment us to this day—bet on the wrong side during the war. Having cared little for the business when she first agreed to allow cosmetics company Bourjois to produce her perfume, she came to resent her ten-percent cut. Bourjois was owned then as now by the Wertheimer family. Predictably, Chanel sued for control of the business under anti-Jewish laws, only to find the Wertheimers had outfoxed her by transferring ownership to a friend. After the war, the family realized that it would be best for business not to fight with their star product’s namesake. They therefore struck a bargain. Chanel preserved her reputation in addition to winning ample compensation. The Wertheimers maintained control of her brand, and continue to polish the memory of their one-time nemesis with a reverence so worshipful that, mad as it may seem, it even feels genuine.
The usual tale, reported whenever it is time to write the history of No. 5, tends to gloss over two important facts. First, contrary to claims the perfumer’s assistant accidentally dumped in more aldehydes than Chanel asked for, to the lady’s delight, Chanel herself had nothing to do with the composition of the scent. It was but one of the historically important works of legendary perfumer Ernest Beaux. (The tale of how he did it is told in this year’s widely and well reviewed The Scent of Empires by Karl Schlögel.) Second, the perfume structure exemplified by No. 5 was one of the great olfactory inventions of the classic age of perfumery, one of the few not invented by François Coty: the aldehydic floral. (Coty himself copied it in L’Aimant.)
The remaining story of the last hundred years of the aldehydic floral is of an arresting, unnatural, new smell born late in the history of the world, which has grown and evolved through generations of homages, variations, and outright copies, until at last it has earned its status as a minor god. In that pantheon it joins, for example, the metallic apple-lavender of Davidoff’s Cool Water, which is the olfactory god we might call Sporty Clean Man; or the particular buzz of white flowers, dry woods and musk embodied by Molinard’s Habanita, the god of Baby Powder. Such symbolic smells feel so fundamental that it can be difficult to understand they were invented by human hands. So what god is the aldehydic floral? Depending on the light and time of day, it might wear one of two faces. One is clearly A Classy Woman. The other is tawdrier but more deeply felt: Plain White Soap.
If No. 5 had stood alone, sui generis, forever, it would never have become an archetype. Its descendants established its legacy. The chronicle of attempted copies in all their idiosyncratic variation is in many ways the history of art, before mechanical copying changed the game; photographs changed what painters do, and today’s lab analysis of perfumes reduces the opportunities for perfumers to make interesting mistakes while trying to be derivative. No. 5 was copied relentlessly from the start, not least of all by Chanel herself who, as part of her campaign to vex the Wertheimers, gave away during the war a fragrance called Mademoiselle Chanel No. 1, likely also composed by Beaux. (How I’d love to sniff that!) Beaux worked on another, quite different, and for a time equally famous aldehydic floral, Soir de Paris, for Bourjois as well; and lest we deplore all this copying of himself, we must remember that No. 5 was a variation on his previous fragrance, Bouquet de Catherine, later called Rallet No. 1.
Then copycats came fast and furious. Some, like Lanvin’s Arpège, Piguet’s Baghari, and Givenchy’s L’Interdit (not the current one, no relation) found success sticking closely to the script. Variations appeared; Balenciaga’s Le Dix, a violet No. 5, is a personal favorite, as is Chanel’s own Bois des Iles, a sandalwood No. 5, and Galion’s Sortilège, a dry, spicy No. 5. Then a move to strip out the old-fashioned musk-and-amber plush from its undercarriage gave us the eerie, metallic lineage that goes from the suave, ladylike Calèche through the yet stranger Calandre and Rive Gauche, which ask you to imagine something soft and pillowy made of aluminum. Finally came the zenith, perfumer Sophia Grojsman’s masterpiece, White Linen. Beyond earthly concerns, it should be used to scent holy water for exorcisms and baptisms, so you can smell that souls have been cleansed.
No. 5’s signature synthetic materials, known generally as the aliphatic aldehydes, when smelled neat are unpleasant. They give a painfully bright, uncomfortably chemical odor, reminiscent of snuffed out candles, as if you could smell the sensation of a cut waxed lemon without actually smelling lemon. In nature, similar aldehydes are found in small amounts in fresh orange juice and not the stuff in the carton. They gave No. 5 its exciting, alien character, which Chanel was savvy enough to understand was interesting because strange, neither animal nor vegetable. Previously, Houbigant’s Quelques Fleurs used small quantities to put dew on its dead flowers. When I think of Beaux overdosing the aldehydes in No. 5, I think of my husband, against all culinary advice, upending half a bottle of wine into a dish that calls for half a cup. Beaux’s experiment created a new model for modern perfumery, in which utterly odd, novel aromachemicals are used in quantity to get our attention—at a bargain price to the maker.
Today, aldehydes no longer seem strange. Countless perfumed soaps have knocked off No. 5, with winningly effective, economical accords of aldehydes, artificial flowers, and cheap musk. Instead, what seems strange now is all it contains of the world before: its grand floral bouquet, welding the prettiness of rose to the humid, banana-like sweetness of ylang-ylang, and its heavy foundation of sandalwood, amber and musk. My bottle from the ‘50s features a gigantic animalic accord, with huge dollops of the now-banned nitro musks (potentially neurotoxic, smelling fantastic) in addition to the expected natural musk and civet. In bottles from the 2000s, difficulties sourcing sandalwood and the banning of the nitros might be the reason the perfume smelled thinner, the glow vanished, with a discordant smell of indole and civetone lending an unfortunate bathroomy odor. Then something picked up. Chanel’s perfumers, whose tricky job includes fine-tuning the newest batch of No. 5 so it smells as much like the ideal as possible, found their stride. Maybe they secured a new source of sandalwood. Maybe they found out how to use current musks to replicate as closely as possible the effect of the old. Maybe last year’s roses were simply the greatest roses ever to bloom in the month of May. I cannot say what happened, but the new bottle of No. 5 before me is the best I’ve smelled in years. On paper, it’s evident the new fragrance is different. Where the old bottle smells of untouchable ladies in furs, the new one begins alarmingly sugary, and the jasmine bubbles up in an unseemly vivid way. But on skin, a miracle occurs. After the weird current top note relaxes, both old and new perfumes converge to the same gleaming point—once the smell of the future, now the perfectly preserved scent of the past.