I’ve always associated Chanel No. 5 with my mother, who wore it with evening gowns and upswept hair to years of James Bond-style galas filled with diplomats and spies.
To me, No. 5 signified elegance and womanliness, and it never occurred to me to try to parse the perfume into mere ingredients. But with the appearance last year of No. 5’s latest iteration, Eau Première, I decided to take a closer sniff at this fabled essence.
The story goes that Coco Chanel’s brief for perfumer Ernest Beaux was for a "woman's perfume that smells like a woman”, and not like a flower -- in contrast to all the soliflores popular at the beginning of the 20th century.
The creation launched in 1921 was borderline avant-garde: an abstraction of peachy florals and woods pixilated behind a glittering curtain of aldehydes. The highest grade of jasmine and rose blended with aroma chemicals resulted in something born of nature, then jet-propelled way the hell beyond it. Adding to the modernity was the minimalist bottle with industrial-style graphics -- now a design classic.
But Chanel No. 5 isn’t entirely about good looks and brains. Underneath this flapper’s fringed dress is No. 5’s musk accord, which given the classy context is almost shocking -- like you’ve walked in on some unexpected intimacy.
Rasputin, a fellow fumehead, had a great take on it in Basenotes: “No. 5 smells like a woman who bathed herself, powdered herself, and peed herself, in that order.”
I don’t know if I experience the scent as viscerally as that, but I concur that No. 5 probably got her “good behavior badge” revoked a long time ago.