It's happened to everyone who loves vintage perfume. You're on a perfume forum, or reading about perfume, and some lucky bastard recounts the story of how they just happened to stumble upon a rare vintage masterpiece — say, an Iris Gris or Djedi — sealed and in pristine condition. Oh yeah, did they mention it yet? For $10. Damn you, you say under your breath. Why doesn't this ever happen to me?!
I'm here to tell you it can. Before you start gritting your teeth, narrowing your eyes, and involuntarily balling your hands into fists, relax — I didn't stumble upon a perfume so rare you can't find one eBay. I did stumble, however, on a vintage jewel that turns out to have a fascinating perfume history. Before I get into all that, the tale:
My best friend Galadrielle's mother Donna called me this morning and told me her friend Julie had a beautiful bottle of Arpège extrait with an atomizer, NIB (new in box). I went down to Julie's gorgeous store and was thrilled to buy it for less than a bottle of Kerastase shampoo.
Poking around the back, amid turn-of-the-century photo albums, weird lotions/potions, and vintage knick-knacks, I found — tucked in the corner of a wooden box — a micro-mini bottle of perfume still in its clear plastic container: Le Numéro Cinq de Molyneux.
I'd heard of Molyneux, but had never sniffed any of their perfumes. Excited to make a blind purchase and go down the inevitable research path, I paid for my Arpège and Le Numéro Cinq. I paid two dollars for this lovely thing, dear reader. Please don't hate me!
I couldn't wait to get home and try it, but the tiny gold lid was sealed onto the top, making it difficult to open. Galadrielle/McGyver wrapped a rubber band around it, giving it traction, and off it went. I grabbed it, dabbed the dark juice onto my wrists and took a whiff. Wowee! Cinq was fruity, spicy, vanilla-amber-warm and intensely beautiful.
Like any sleeping beauty awoken after a long slumber, Le Numéro Cinq was a little wobbly at the beginning. The top notes lurched out in an almost anisic/licorice-y screech, but just as quickly settled into the primary character of the perfume. (I'm guessing bergamot and aldehydes were top notes.) The rest (and this is just a guess) was: sweet, from fruit and florals, maybe plum and orange blossom or ylang-ylang; warm, perhaps from amber, benzoin/labdanum, vanilla and according to Luca Turin, iris/orris *) and spicy, (still guessing) from sandalwood, oakmoss, and patchouli or carnation.
Most places I look, Le Numéro Cinq is categorized as a floral fruit chypre, but Luca Turin in an old blog post calls it "the only example I know of an iris Oriental." Some perfumes straddle category lines, but in its heavy spicy sweetness, LNC does seem to fit the Oriental category better. It is beautiful and come-hither in a very unsubtle way, and has nothing of a chypre's reserve and good manners. (Think, Tabu, but on a particularly drunk and amorous night!) This is definitely a "come up and see me sometime" perfume.
Stewed fruit and indolic flowers rest on a vanillic and ambery-spicy base kissed with orris. This is Chanel No. 5's darker, more complex cousin — the one who went to art school while Chanel No. 5 went to finishing school. Louche Winona to perfect Gwyneth.
I mention Chanel No. 5 only because Le Numéro Cinq is often called "the other number 5." Lore has it that Edward Molyneux (1891 - 1974), an English fashion designer who started the Molyneux couture house in Paris, made a pact with Coco Chanel in 1921 to make a "Number 5" perfume. As both perfumes launched, so the story goes, they would see which one became more successful. (The other explanation of their similar names comes from Nigel Groom in The Perfume Handbook. Groom says that Molyneux named his perfumes after Molyneux's different addresses: 3, 14 and 5.)
Whichever story is correct, we all know which perfume became successful, and which one had to change its name. Le Numéro 5 became Le Parfum Connu ("the known perfume"), languished in obscurity (ironically enough, given the re-name), and was discontinued in the late '60s or early '70s. * *
Finds like this one keep my perfume lust alive. Not only did this tiny bottle hold an amazing fragrance, surprisingly intact and vibrant after 80-something years, it led me to a fascinating story. Magnificent.
* About iris/orris: Here's an interesting link about it on Basenotes. Usually if iris is mentioned with respect to perfume, they are referring to the use of iris's dried and incredibly expensive roots: orris. Some common descriptors, as one commenter reminds us, are "violets, carrots, powder, and lipstick..."
Here's what OsMoz has to say about iris: "Native to the Far East, symbol of Mediterranean culture, iris has a 'powdery, green-woody, violet' scent. Iris absolute, also known as orris, is produced from the plant’s roots, or rhizomes. It is one of the most expensive products in the perfumer’s palette, so it is used in prestige perfumes only." And this "Iris's treasure is hidden away in its roots (or rhizomes), which need to reach at least three years of age before they are pulled up, stored and dried for another three years. The rhizomes can then be crushed and steam-distilled to produce a solid essential oil known as iris butter, which turns into iris essence after purification. This veritable olfactory treasure chest contains a significant quantity of irones, the substances responsible for iris’s woodsy, powdery aroma that is in such demand. Iris is luxury incarnate."
* * Here's Luca Turin's fascinating take on what it might mean if Le Numéro Cinq was in fact created in 1921: "Assuming the fragrance wasn’t changed, the uncertainty about its age then becomes as exciting as the discovery of an Egyptian mummy clutching an iPod. 1921 is when the first oriental, Coty’s Emeraude, came out. 1925 is the birth date of its famous successor Shalimar. If Molyneux’ 5 dates from 1921, perfume history needs to be rewritten. If it dates from 1925, then both it and Shalimar were copying Emeraude, and the question is: why did Molyneux’ line die out ? Maybe the joke backfired, and everything would have been different if Captain Molyneux had said 'Numéro Six.' "
* * * Photo from Le Savoire Faire blog.