Perfumer Ernest Beaux got many directives from Coco Chanel for the design house's first fragrance. Among the qualities Chanel No. 5 was to have: tenacity, versatility, and abstraction. "On a woman," Chanel said, "a natural scent smells artificial. Perhaps a natural perfume must be created artificially." *
For the other requirement — that it should be a perfume no other perfumer could copy — Beaux complied by using ingredients so expensive that few could copy them if they wanted to, for example, jasmine from Grasse, Rose de Mai, and superior ylang-ylang.
What marks Chanel No. 5 as a landmark perfume, however, is its 1% overdose of aliphatic aldehydes, the chemical that lends sparkle to fragrances and has been described as fatty, watery, tallowy and even like the scent of a snuffed candle. Beaux wanted to use such a strong dose of aldehydes "to let all that richness fly a little." * *
I have always thought of Chanel No. 5 as a lady's fragrance, something a chic Parisian or New Yorker who favors classics and eschews trends wears without thinking, like red lipstick. Pretty, but nothing that exciting — that is, until a generous reader sent me a 1940s-era Chanel No. 5 extrait. (Thank you, Robin!)
Bathed in the golden light of musk and civet, with the crisp edge of aldehydes like the faintest touch of cinammon or burnt caramel, the florals in Chanel No. 5 come alive, alternately spicy, gourmand and sensual. Chanel No. 5 is draped in fur: feminine elegance and restraint plus an animalic extremity. Who knew that an animal lurked beneath its elegant exterior?
Smelling the '40s extrait is like finding out about your mother's wild past after having childishly idealized her as chaste, perfect, pristine. She has a libido, she is rounded, alive, with an added dimension that makes her more elusive and tantalizing.
Top notes: aldehydes, bergamot, lemon, neroli
Heart notes: Jasmine, rose, lily of the valley, orris, ylang-ylang
Base notes: Vetiver, sandalwood, cedar, vanilla, amber, civet, musk
* Quotes from Michael Edwards' Perfume Legends: French Feminine Fragrances
** This description of aldehydes from H & R Book of Perfume
*** I wasn't sure where else I could put this strange and fabulous quote, so I decided to put it here. This is the divalicious Diana Vreeland on Coco Chanel: "She was a peasant and a genius. Peasants and geniuses are the only people who count, and she was both." Ha! Talk about a backhanded compliment. Anyone care to parse this one for me?
**** The Jacques Polge reformulated Chanel No. 5 parfum, although it doesn't have the fat, the growl or the animalic fur that vintage Chanel No. 5 has, is still quite lovely, round, and rich. And much cheaper than vintage extrait, I imagine!