lily of the valley
According to at least one version of the story of Chanel No. 5, its creation in 1921 was a happy accident. One that played right into Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel’s hands.
Chanel was known to be fastidiously clean; said to be an aversion to bad smells as a remnant from growing up in poverty. By 1921 she had already made impressive strides in the fashion industry and enlisted perfumer Ernest Beaux (who started his career in a family-owned soap company) to create her brand’s first perfume launch. As the story goes, Beaux presented her with an array of formulas and the fifth one was chosen to be released.
The accident in question was that (an assistant of) Beaux had added a higher amount of aldehydes than was supposed to go in the composition. Thus achieving the rare feat of a fresh, clean fragrance that had a great lasting power. Resulting in a massive success on which Chanel’s empire was (further) built upon. It remains one of the best selling perfumes a century later.
My story with No. 5 is, well, probably still common, given how much of it has been sold. As a perfume reviewer I often get asked what inspired me to get into the hobby or what memories of fragrances I have growing up. Frankly, I don’t have a romantic backstory for any of it. My parents had a couple of fragrances, which I wore from time to time, but fragrances were not of particular interest in the household, or to me until much later on.
One of the only memorable connections I have with perfume, is that my grandmother always wears Chanel No. 5. The family would get her a new bottle for Birthdays or Christmas every year until this day. So the scent of No. 5 always stuck with me as ‘smelling like my grandma’.
This remained true when I started getting into the hobby. Chanel as a brand, I didn’t really resonate with at first, but the enigmatic No. 5 in particular escaped my grasp. Mind you, I did enjoy the scent on my grandmother, but it was not something that I could ever see myself wearing.
Fast-forward an odd 3,5 years and my taste has evolved. I’ve since fallen in love with more of yesteryear’s fragrances and Chanel has started to grow on me. Especially their iris-centric fragrances, with 31 Rue Cambon being my favorite. So it was time for a proper revisit of No .5. I’ve worn it from an EDT miniature this time. I have no clue how old that miniature is; I’d guess it’s a couple of years old at least, but probably not all that much older than that.
No. 5 is still not for me. At least not for the first hours, but I’ve grown to enjoy the drydown a lot more. Perhaps this version is a tad less aldehydic and sharp than I remember, so that could factor in.
The opening however, is very much still a slightly screechy, green, aldehydic blast from the past. Mixed with a more pastelle green, softer undertone. There is enough acidity to keep it lively, but this time around, I don’t really get any daring facets from for example a civet note. I perceive it to be smooth for the most part.
This is especially true as it dries down to a more woody base. It has a vintage sandalwoody, slightly nutty and earthy tinge to it. It’s a tad spicy as well, but sweeter than I remember. On my skin, I get strong hints of cinnamon throughout; almost going in a Christmassy direction (perhaps I just have that in mind, because of Christmas dinners at my grandma’s place).
All the while, there is some green left and even some of that cleanliness, but the aldehydes are not dominating the composition to an extent that it keeps me from fully liking it. More so a mossy base. An acidity (maybe this is where the civet-esque qualities rear their heads) add some needed vibrancy and elegance throughout. Making it still classy; almost too classy to fit me.
No 5 has obviously earned its status and I’m happy that I’m coming around to appreciate it more. A lot more, if it weren’t for the opening not quite being to my taste. So, I’m happy to leave the wearing of it in my family to my grandmother, which is probably for the better.