Reading With Fakename: The Secret of Chanel No. 5

Subtitled:  The Intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfume.  Technically speaking, this is not a subject that would ordinarily catch my attention.  I mean, who cares?  But I was hooked by the inside of the book cover.  It’s part history, part biography (of Coco Chanel herself), part cutthroat business, part chemistry.  I found all of it interesting, although this is not the best-written book I’ve ever read.  I quickly got to the point where I thought if the author (Tilar J. Mazzeo) used the word “icon” or “iconic” one more time, I was going to start screaming and be unable to stop.  Nevertheless, the above photo shows the icon that is Chanel No. 5, in its iconic bottle.  You get the picture. 

Here are a few factoids:  perfumes come and go, but Chanel No. 5 has been a best seller, if not THE bestseller among perfumes for NINETY YEARS.  A bottle of it is sold somewhere in the world every thirty seconds, even though it’s $400 an ounce.  And here’s another thing:  scents cannot be patented or trademarked, so all those perfume knockoffs you see in drugstores and flea market stalls are perfectly legal.    That doesn’t mean that perfume makers don’t zealously guard their “recipes”.  You can replicate it only if you can smell well enough to do so.

There are so many interesting parts to the book that it’s hard to pick one to highlight.  But I’d say the most interesting to me was the chemistry. 

The earliest method for perfume-making was a process called enfleurage.  Of course, prior to that, you could simply crush flower petals or herbs and scent things (including your body) that way.  But it was short-lived. 

“Modern” perfume making is considered to have started in an area of France known as Grasse, in the Cote d’Azur, where there were acres and acres of jasmine fields.  From the book:  “The Cote d’Azur is the far northern limit of the natural climate for jasmine, and there is a truism in the world of aromatics that flowers take on the finest scents in the places where they struggle.”  Now perfumes are created through distillation.  The “essence” is turned first into a “concrete”–a waxy, raw form of the scent and then into an “absolute” with further purifying.  Chemistry not being my strong point (ha ha!), I got the impression that ultimately the process is similar to enfleurage, which involves mixing alcohol with the fat which has been saturated with the flower scent.  The alcohol absorbs the scent, then is evaporated, leaving “grains” of pure scent.  This would be the absolute. 

Chanel No. 5 is composed of jasmine, roses, musk, and aldehydes.  Both musk and aldehydes have a scent of their own, but are primarily used as fixatives and enhancers.  Fixatives are important in order to prolong the scent both in the bottle and on your skin. 

Which brings us to musk.  There are a number of natural sources of musk, the most prized being that of the musk deer.  It appears that during rutting season, musk deer stags drop little balls of musk from their musk glands, located in the abdomen, onto the ground.  So you could just go pick them up, but generally, they just kill the deer and take the whole gland.  The author wryly notes that at some point (I assume once it became known), this practice became “unpalatable”.  I believe this was in the ’70’s, when all I knew about was the uproar over testing cosmetics on rabbits. 

Interspersed with all the technical information about perfume-making, there is serious intrigue.  Coco Chanel’s early life and her “re-invention” of herself (i.e., lying about her past).  The heady days of the flapper era.  Coco’s flirtation with or outright Nazi collaboration.  The smuggling of “concrete” from Grasse to the U.S. during the midst of the war and the Nazi occupation of France. 

So although I did say it’s not terribly well-written, it’s still worth reading.  I learned a lot, which is my criterion for whether or not it was a good book.


6 responses to “Reading With Fakename: The Secret of Chanel No. 5

  1. 1. I prefer a person’s “natural” scent, unless that is so bad it needs to be covered up. But that need to cost $400 an ounce.

    2. > Nazi collaboration

    Especially in France, that issue has been a litmus test for the generation that was alive during the occupation. As late as 1998, a French politician (Papon) was found guilty of collaboration.

    So when the North Vietnamese acted against “collaborators” when they took control of the country, they were following in the footsteps of the Europeans after WW2. More recently, we have the “de-Bathification” of Iraq, which many now say was a mistake to go after “the little guys.”

    But that’s what happens in war: those who sided with the loser are punished.

  2. There is really no way to “cover up” a bad odor. It will always just smell like a bad odor covered up with a good one. You have to start with clean and fresh, whether it is air or skin. Coco Chanel understood that. She knew the scent she was looking for and worked with geniuses in the perfume industry to come up with it in practice. My favorite quote was Coco saying, “A woman should not smell like a flower. A woman should smell like a woman.”
    What you say about collaboration is totally true. During the occupation, thousands of women formed relationships with German soldiers (including Coco), which for some of them may have been the only way to eat and survive. After the war, many of them had their heads shaved and were forced to walk naked through the streets, assuming they weren’t beaten to death in mob actions on the street. Coco, being fabulously wealthy, fled to Switzerland. It doesn’t seem that she was particularly political, but what happened was, she used the fact that her partners in perfume making were Jewish to try to get the Nazis to seize their business and give it all to her.
    Like I said, there is a lot of history and intrigue in the book–it isn’t all about perfume.

  3. I saw a movie about her in the last few years and she was interesting indeed. I am also quite familiar with the fragrance business, having managed an Eckerd Drug store and a cosmetic department for Montgomery Ward. In 1972 Javon Musk came out and was a Christmas smash for $5 a bottle. I bought 4 gross and massed it out near the chanel counter which infuriated the sales rep until she looked at the sales figures. Sold out of both and had a $100,000 December. Only State Street in Chicago beat me and they had all the national buyers helping them beat the kid from Tampa.

  4. That’s a great story pt! There was some point at which Chanel was pulled from drugstores, but for all I know it may be back. They’ve always walked a fine line between making it exclusive (you can’t get it just anywhere, yes it costs a lot but it’s worth it, if you spend the money it shows you have superior taste, etc.) and making it available to the masses everywhere ($). They go back and forth with that.

  5. Chanel #5 will always be the Acme. They can put it in drugstores, discount stores, 7/11’s, wherever they want, and it doesn’t matter where it is sold, because their product is the timeless penultimate of what perfume should be and transcends all socioeconomic boundaries. Chanel #5 is as close to perfection as humans can get without divine intervention. And the market obviously agrees with this contention, as sales keep going very strong, especially compared to any competition.

  6. That would be a good place to put your money, if the company were public, but I don’t think it is. As for Coco–when she began her relationship with a German officer during the war, she was 61 years old. She later said, “At my age, if I have the possiblity of a lover, I don’t ask for a passport”.

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