Star rating: 5 stars–outstanding/potential classic, 4 stars–very good, 3 stars–adequate, 2 stars–disappointing, 1 star–poor.
According to an oft repeated story, the iconic Chanel No 5 fails miserably in fragrance market tests, with the derived conclusion that the success of this great fragrance is based on the clever marketing strategy and carefully maintained brand image. Considering that today’s market tests have produced some of the worst excuses for perfumes, I do not find this to be the logical inference. Although an elegant brand image is an important part of the story, it is not enough to explain the mystery, the draw and the timeless beauty of Chanel No 5. I realize that trying to write a post of reasonable length on this topic is an ambitious task; after all, Tilar Mazzeo wrote a whole book on No 5 and yet many felt that she missed some important elements. Instead, I would like to describe Chanel No 5 in its different forms as it exists today and to hear your thoughts. I am convinced that the reason for its iconic status, is above all, the impeccable quality and allure of the fragrance itself.
Extrait de Parfum (1921, Ernest Beaux)
Every time I open my bottle of the extrait de parfum, I am never quite prepared for its exquisite beauty. It is not just that the materials that comprise No 5 are stunning, though they are the best of what is available today. On the whole, the fragrance has a unique and memorable character. It is elegant, yet it is neither distant nor haughty. It is sensual, yet it does not have a decadent aura. The sultry ylang ylang note with its unique juxtaposition of wintergreen brightness and ripe mango sweetness unfolds first, even before the famous Chanel No 5 aldehydes light up the composition with their characteristic effervescence. Although the initial impression is vivid and luminous, with the added brightness from the neroli and bergamot, the dark amber note gives a dusky, moody quality to the fragrance.
The contrast first set in place by the interplay between the sparkling aldehydic veil and the honeyed rose and jasmine notes continues as the fragrance moves into its dark base. The timbre of woody notes, including vetiver and sandalwood, gives a surprisingly masculine facet, which offsets the decadent languor of the floral notes. Vanilla and coumarin envelop the base notes, while plush, rich musks further soften the rough edges. The parfum has an alluring radiant quality, and yet, the sensation overall is soft, caressing and gentle. If you are only familiar with Chanel No 5 in other versions, discovering the parfum will be like finding a completely different fragrance.
Eau de Toilette (1952, Henri Robert)
While the original No 5 existed only as extrait de parfum, Ernest Beaux rebalanced the formula for Eau de Cologne in the 1930s to derive a lighter, fresher, less expensive version. In 1952, the new Chanel in-house perfumer Henri Robert created a new prêt-à-porter interpretation of No 5. It is not just that the concentration of the Eau de Toilette version is lower, it has a different intent as a fresh daytime fragrance. Nevertheless, Roberts’s Eau de Toilette retains all of the surprising juxtapositions that make No 5 so memorable. While the richness of the floral notes is toned down considerably, the rose, jasmine and ylang ylang still form a beautiful accord, reinforced by the woody violet and the sheer green hyacinth. The neroli, citrus and aldehydes give a fresh and vivid aura that is maintained even in the spicy vanilla and warm musk drydown. For me, the Eau de Toilette is like a chiffon wrap to the parfum’s heavy silk, and it has a joyful, sparkling quality that I find alluring. To many, it will be the most recognizable form of No 5.
Eau de Parfum (1986, Jacques Polges)
While the Eau de Toilette is my preferred version after the parfum, the Eau de Parfum created by Jacques Polges in 1986 is the modern twist on the iconic classic. If the parfum juxtaposes elegance with sensuality, and the Eau de Toilette underscores the luminosity and vivacious spirit, the Eau de Parfum exudes confidence and bold beauty. The creamy notes of peach lacing the rose, lily of the valley and jasmine heart are more prominent, while the smooth richness of the amplified sandalwood note replaces the musky darkness of the original. Instead, the Eau de Parfum is subtly colored by the darkness of leather and incense. It is less aldehydic than the Eau de Toilette, yet it is sharper. Overall, I find it more angular, in contrast to the polished smoothness of the original No 5.
On Chanel No 5 Today
Though No 5 is described as a beautiful abstraction, its high quality raw materials, particularly rose, ylang ylang, jasmine and iris, are what make it such a unique fragrance today. I get a shiver running down my spine whenever I smell the parfum with its incredible rose and jasmine absolutes from the Grasse region. The quality of the fragrance was the first thing upon which Coco Chanel insisted, mostly because she wanted it to be inimitable, but she could not have picked a more driven artist than Ernest Beaux. He meticulously searched for raspberry nuances in the rose oils he used in Chanel products and was very exacting in his requirements for every material that went into No 5. Henri Robert continued with this mission, and while he has authored several Chanel fragrances including Cristalle and No 19, he was above all a custodian of No 5, a true connoisseur of raw materials and obsessive in the pursuit of quality. Even today, while I might have qualms with Bleu de Chanel, Chance and too many Allure Homme flankers, I remain inspired by the impeccable quality I smell in Chanel No 5. One only needs to reflect on the sad state of affairs of Miss Dior, Dana Tabu and many other great perfume legends to see the difference.
As all livings things, perfume changes from the moment it is born; therefore, it is not surprising that Chanel No 5 smells different today. The natural animal materials originally used in the fragrance such as musk and civet have been banned. The plush and warm synthetic nitro-musks are gone from perfumers’ palettes and the quality of the ylang ylang notes is different. There are other examples, yet, as I open my vintage bottles of No 5 and smell each in succession until I reach the modern version, I find that the character of No 5 has been preserved. To be honest, I do not even care to do a detailed side by side comparison, because I find that No 5 as it exists today fulfills all of my yearnings: for beauty, for quality, and for elegance. Something this exquisite can never be old-fashioned.
What is your Chanel No 5 story? Do you or someone you know wear it? What is associated in your mind with No 5?
Samples from my personal bottles: extrait de parfum (review mostly focused on 2007 version), Eau de Cologne (1970s), Eau de Toilette (review focused on 2009 version), Eau de Parfum (review focused on 2009 version.)
Images: 1921 illustration by Georges Goursat Sem.