I’m reviewing Chanel N°5 to celebrate National Fragrance Week 2019 and National Fragrance Day on March 21st. Depending on how versed you are in Chanel ‘lore, you may know that certain names or themes consistently appear in the brand. Take her lipsticks as an example, with some named after important people in her life such as Misia, Arthur and Dimitri. Dimitri was one of Gabrielle Chanel’s lovers and according to the sequence of the landmark moments in her life, Dimitri introduced Chanel to Ernest Beaux, the perfumer she worked with to create and bring No. 5 to life around 1920 or 1921.
Accounts of Chanel’s life; the years, the people, the places, some, if not a lot of it is enmeshed in mystery or has deliberately not been told with complete accuracy because Chanel herself was notorious for distorting things or re-framing things to suit her whims. Ernest Beaux was the perfumer for Coty, yes that Coty at the time he met Chanel. She went to Grasse and worked closely with Beaux, puzzling through raw materials and ultimately, the bottle design.
Around the time N°5 was created, perfumes tended to be heavily floral or herbal but Chanel wanted something different. To directly quote her, she wanted her first perfume to smell like ”a bouquet of abstract flowers” which ultimately lead to the heavy use of aldehydes, (purported to be about 1%) which is quite high. Defined as straight chains of carbon atoms, aldehydes are found in a number of different sources from essential oils to some foods and are used across a wide range of industries. Also, N°5 was not the first fragrance which incorporated aldehydes in its composition, so let’s put that belief to bed.
Now let’s talk bottle design and then we’ll explore what N°5 smells like. Yet again we’re met with an aspect that’s not clear, in that Chanel wanted her bottle design to break with the tradition of the day but we’re not completely clear on who designed the bottle…maybe. Apart from Chanel herself as the bottle’s designer, other names have been floated including Dmitiri’s, along with speculation that it was fashioned after a flask belonging to Boy Capel, Chanel’s reported one true love. Over the years, the bottle’s design has been tweaked in very subtle ways. But the most dramatic alteration emerged for Christmas 2018 when N°5 was released in a red bottle.
And what does N°5 actually smell like? The opinions are as vast as the outer reaches of the earth and the galaxies beyond. According to the book Mademoiselle Coco Chanel and The Pulse of History by Rhonda K. Garelick, ‘Beaux combined floral and botanical essences (including ylang-ylang, neroli, sandalwood, vetiver, tuberose, and jasmine)’.
It’s important to note that the Chanel N°5 available today has a different formulation from the original. Around 2014, the European Union (EU) began introducing regulations limiting or prohibiting the use of specific ingredients widely used in perfumery. Chanel was one of the companies impacted by these changes. And so, the current incarnation has been deemed lighter, which may appeal to younger consumers. Years ago, before reformulation was required, I had a bottle of N°5 that I finished in less than a year, so I can only imagine how I must have smelled whenever I wore it because I clearly recall being heavy-handed. Now that I know better, using it has become more of an incantation, so I’m more ‘meditative’ when using it.
On freshly showered skin, I spritz it at the back of my calves, low down on the back of my neck and very lightly on the inside of one arm only. It’s hard to not describe N°5 as being sparkly or fizzy, but I’ve learned to be aware of it as it changes and unfolds as the hours tick away, with the first shimmery, (silvery?) notes giving way to citrusy peaks, and that dusty, silk-lined drawer-like scent. It’s the smell of clean, expensive underthings, with musky notes humming at the base, holding the entire composition together. But then there are moments if I move quickly or suddenly, it gives me the impression that I’ve roused it from slumber, as that’s the moment more notes peek through, powdery and floral, like a blend of the colours pink, green and gold. At least it’s how I imagine colours might smell. That’s the thing about this fragrance, to me it smells the way I imagine colours would smell…if we were able to smell them.
I vaguely recall the headiness of my first bottle two decades ago, it was far more ‘mature smelling’, whereas now it’s certainly lighter and more approachable, plus, you don’t have to do a full-on baptism by spraying it from head to toe. Depending on your tastes, it can be worn during the day and for the evening, full throttle or just as a hint to waft about you. On me, I can’t always detect it the next morning if I spritz it on the night before like I can with other scents. But I love its freshness, it’s allure and more than anything, I never get tired of the narrative that’s just as much a part of this fragrance as the components of the scent.
N°5 solidified Chanel’s wealth, especially when it became a hit in the United States about three years after its initial debut in France. Ernest Beaux, the Russian perfumer who managed to bring Chanel’s olfactory vision to life, had no idea the impact his creation would maintain on average people and celebrities alike.
For Chanel’s Holiday 2018 makeup collection, a Limited Edition Rouge Allure Velvet N°5 Lipstick made a debut and I was really tempted to get it, but didn’t. Easily, N°5 is likely the most storied fragrance ever created. It was or is more than just a fragrance, as it galvanised Gabrielle Chanel’s notoriety and her place in history.
Admittedly, I have difficulty with some of what she stood for, and I also have difficulty with some of her alliances and company she kept in relation to the Second World War and more. But one can never discount her volition, her intuition and her tenacity. To evolve from a peddler’s daughter who spent some of her early years living in an orphanage, to a force to be reckoned with in the world of fashion and cosmetics. Dare I say the fashion and beauty industry would likely be a very different place had Gabrielle Chanel never been born or never dared to envision herself transcending the family and circumstances she was born into? I’ll leave that for you to decide but her impact, more than one hundred years later and still going, is nothing short of miraculous.
Sources: Mademoiselle Coco Chanel and The Pulse of History by Rhonda K. Garelick
Chanel N° 5: The Story Behind The Classic Perfume via bbc.com