Note: The following history/review discusses the original Extrait de Parfum (1921) of No. 5.
No one wore N°5 in my family, so a lot of this is a new experience for me. It’s not that any mothers or aunts in the family couldn’t wear it, it’s just that a particular register is demanded by N°5, and there simply was never a need to wear it.
Contrary to the belief that suggests that all mothers gave their daughters perfume at a ripe age based on the principal of tradition, our family never had a sense of matriarchy in that manner. We are an oriental and woods based fragrant family, as Youth Dew from Lauder was donned by my oldest aunt, humble Night Magic from Avon worn by my grandmother, and the sparkly Obsession from Calvin Klein for the youngest aunt. Nowadays my mother and one of my aunt’s love to wear Prada Candy and pinch squirts of my Coromandel from Chanel, and I like to think that everyone in the family has stepped it up a bit thanks to my intrusion. Dans Tes Bras and Dries Van Noten both from Frederic Malle adorn bathroom countertops and dressers, whilst I, the male breaking the matriarchy, have a staggering level of oriental fragrances.
Chanel N°5 was always too far from the norm for the family and our tastes. It was never a smell common to our noses, and what we got instead were delicious ambers and vanillas.
To explain why I like Chanel N°5 comes down to my taste today in fragrance. My nose can recognise poorly constructed fragrances; and my nose knows that Chanel N°5 is far from that.
Fragrance has become an item glanced over and worn without much thought nowadays, and it was Chanel herself that was the first to link fragrance back into fashion as an accessory to compliment a ‘look’. What Gabrielle Chanel wanted came from knowing exactly what she didn’t want. ‘Intoxicating floral scents with pompous names’ were immediately out of the question, rather, in a strictly paradoxical sense Chanel decides that for a woman to smell of a woman she must smell abstract, removing perhaps any and all natural reference points. To do that, perfumer Ernest Beaux utilises and overdoses aldehydes in conjunction with a staggering floral harmony to create an abstract floral arrangement.
It saddens me when adolescent girls compare N°5 to ridiculous and fetid products, because they are most likely conditioned to get good things immediately without having to wait. I shake my head at the suggestions that N°5 is only worn because of clever marketing and image, because whenever I smell N°5 my eyes flicker in immediate ecstasy.
What is often not told at Chanel is that N°5 was a fragrance thats brilliance was a result of chance. Beaux had supposedly ten fragrances to present to Coco, but was rushed in the creation process, and thus he quickly mixed up an ‘incomplete’ floral accord with a generous glug of aldehydes within the set of ten fragrances. The ever so audacious Gabrielle Chanel naturally picked the fifth bottle out of ten presented to her, loaded with these novel aldehydes.
© 2015 Liam Sardea
One may argue the ingredients in the Extrait de Parfum version of Chanel N°5 makes it so timeless. They are simply the highest grade of material available. To ensure N°5’s inimitableness, Chanel herself ensured that very expensive, if not opulent, ingredients are used in the fragrant formula. Often equated to the crispness of the arctic circle, there is a crisp quality to N°5; and this is especially apparent when the rush of effervescent aldehydes present themselves in the opening, enlivening the notes it exists with.
What these aldehydes initially hide, eventually reveals a precious melange of flowers – an opulent harmony. Ylang-Ylang sourced from the Comoros islands creates a venerable warmth underpinning the amber facet. May rose from Grasse, jasmine, and neroli emerge like a sun at dawn over the chilling arctic amongst the invigorating air, showcasing themselves like rays of warm and dazzling sunlight as bergamot enlivens the composition. Underneath this all, the florals are supported by a creamy revivified accord of sombre woody notes. Creamy sandalwood, Haitian vetiver, and a slick, moreish vanilla adding a glossy quality over the melange of florals.
As with most Chanel works, it is a game of contrasts. A convivial opening begins to fold into the wood notes, spiralling into a ‘worn-in warmth’ counterbalancing the calm stillness of the florals – generating a sense of restraint against the feminine flounce. An edible trail of musk wraps the notes together, driven by coumarin. Synthetic oakmoss at the base gives a glowing facet, ending with a nod to fine french perfumery – via promiscuity – through a hint of civet.
The idea of abstraction rings true. N°5 doesn’t smell of natural flowers, it smells like the ideal woman.”A woman’s perfume with a woman’s scent, radiating an extravagant floral richness”.
Alternatives: N°22 by Chanel; Liu by Guerlain; and Vega by Guerlain.
N°5 – A timeless perfume contained in a timeless container. N°5 is a resplendent creature, but you must get to know it.
Subjective rating : 5/5
Objective rating: 5/5