The perfume with a life of its own
New book chronicles the astonishing history of Chanel No. 5
Think you know all there is to know about Chanel No. 5? Think again. The perfume that famously was the only thing Marilyn Monroe wore to bed has a fascinating history revealed by English professor Tilar J. Mazzeo in The Secret of Chanel No. 5. Read on for more.
Before The Secret of Chanel No. 5 you published The Widow Clicquot, a book about the woman behind Veuve Cliquot. How did one luxury item lead to another?
It was my interest in wine and scent that led me to perfume. If you think about it, there are very close connections there. Essentially, both are aromatic volatiles suspended in alcohol—just in wine it’s alcohol we can drink. I got the idea for the book one day at the kitchen counter of a good friend who is a perfume collector of sorts, when I had just come back from three months(!) of wine-tasting research for my book on The Back Lane Wineries of Napa. My nose was very acute after all that tasting, and I realized that perfume was a fascinating subject that I wanted to know more about.
"The idea that it’s an older woman’s perfume always makes me laugh a bit though. That’s like saying diamonds are for little old ladies just because your grandmother had the good sense to wear them."
When it came to writing The Secret of Chanel No. 5, were you initially motivated by the perfume, or were you more interested in the woman behind the bottle?
It was definitely the perfume. I wanted to know what made a great perfume. I mean, if we know how to talk about great wines, why not think about great perfumes? And of course that led me to Chanel No. 5 immediately, because it’s not just the world’s most famous perfume but also a scent that the experts still praise as one of the most beautiful scents from the golden age of the 1920s and 1930s.
So much has already been written about Coco Chanel—how did you manage to take someone who has spawned countless books and films and keep her fresh?
Yes, Coco Chanel certainly is experiencing a revival at the moment. She’s emblematic of style and savvy for a lot of women especially. What I wanted to understand was how Chanel No. 5 had its own unique destiny apart from her—because by the mid-1920s she wasn’t the entrepreneurial genius behind it already. At the same time, it’s really interesting: looking at Coco Chanel’s intimate relationship with her most famous “creation” reveals whole new aspects of her personality and art. There are sides of Coco Chanel we’ve never seen.
Can you tell us a little bit about what goes into researching something as iconic as Chanel No. 5?
This was some of the most fun research I’ve ever done—and for someone whose last book was on one of the great figures of French champagne, that’s saying something. Of course there was the library research. There was a lot of it. And that was fascinating if not fun exactly. But my writing is always personal too, so I visited with perfumers around the world, everywhere from Paris and Berlin to New York, the south of France, and Bermuda. I was lucky enough to work for a bit with the perfume professor at International Flavors and Fragrances in New York City and to learn some of the technical aspects of perfume appreciation there. I met with the odor artist Sissel Tolaas in Berlin, visited the rose harvest in Grasse, and talked with dozens and dozens of interesting people who have made perfume their passion. If I had life to do over again, I would be a perfumer. No question.
In your mind, is there a quintessential woman who wears Chanel No. 5?
Well, it’s an adaptable scent, but it’s a very distinctive perfume too. I think a woman has to have confidence to wear it. For me that’s the key thing about Chanel No. 5. It’s not your retiring wallflower fragrance, and I think of it as a scent for women in their 20s and 30s and 40s and not as a teenager’s first perfume. The idea that it’s an older woman’s perfume always makes me laugh a bit though. That’s like saying diamonds are for little old ladies just because your grandmother had the good sense to wear them.
So much about fashion and style is ephemeral—what is it about Chanel No. 5 that has made it timeless?
That’s really the question isn’t it? That was what I wanted to figure out in researching this cultural icon. Technically, it’s a wonderful fragrance, but of course there are other wonderful fragrances out there that haven’t become legends. And in the beginning, it wasn’t just Coco Chanel or marketing either that made it famous. So it was something of a riddle. But in the end, what makes it timeless is that way that it became a larger symbol of luxury during the Second World War, when it was one of the few beautiful things to cut across international borders. It captures so much of the complexity of the last century—and that’s what makes it so essentially relevant to the modern woman’s identity.
Tell the truth: do you wear Chanel No. 5?
Yes, I do wear Chanel No. 5 sometimes. I have a bottle on my bureau at home always. But it’s not my daily perfume. I actually prefer Chanel’sEau Première, which is a lighter and I think ultra-modern version of Chanel No. 5. It’s basically the same notes but more angular, and that’s my regular scent. I am also a huge fan of iris scents, but those can get fabulously expensive.
If someone were going to give you a gift, which would you prefer: a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, or a bottle of Chanel No. 5?
Unfair question! I hope the Widow will forgive me—because goodness knows there are few things in this world I love more than a bottle of Veuve—but I think I’d have to take the bottle of Chanel No. 5 just because a bottle of champagne lasts a night and a bottle of perfume lasts a year. That’s part of the reason during the Second World War perfume became the ultimate luxury. It was an indulgence that, in hard economic times, you could enjoy a little bit every day.
We don't want you to spill all your secrets, but what's one surprising thing readers will discover in The Secret of Chanel No. 5?
For me, one of the most surprising things was that Coco Chanel wasn’t the force behind Chanel No. 5. By the time she came to “invent” Chanel No. 5, this was already a scent with a fascinating history. And part of why she both loved and, at moments, hated her creation was because, quite early in its history, Chanel No. 5 slipped free of the woman whose name it carried. It was a perfume with a life of its own.