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.