Monday, December 5, 2011

Delving Into Chanel No. 5

I’ve been reading the new book “Coco Chanel An Intimate Life” by Lisa Chaney — review next week — so have become more interested in Chanel No. 5 than before. (This is probably an admission of heresy for a perfume blogger, I know.) Having the requisite ¼ ounce bottle of the parfum and a little bit left in a 1 oz. coffret bottle of the Eau de Toilette I bought years ago, I didn’t think I needed to explore the subject further. I thought: really, what’s there to say about No. 5 that hasn’t already been said, and said better?

Then I went to an estate sale last Friday. I spotted a nearly full 2-oz. bottle of Chanel No. 5 Eau de Cologne, and bought it for ten bucks. It looked old, but one can never be sure with No. 5 — I’ve avoided buying it on Our Favorite Auction Site, as it’s the most likely of all perfumes to be fake. It smelled very different from either of my early 90’s versions, and I wondered if I'd been burned. I’ve been doing research on it all morning, have found that it is real, and could actually be significantly old, since the Eau de Cologne formula was discontinued some time in the 90’s. (The bottles are pictured to the left.)

The label has a very different typeface than the modern ones, finer sans serif lettering in a different arrangement than is used now on Chanel bottles — the “Eau De Cologne” is above the No5, and the name “Chanel” is at the bottom. The circled double C logo on the top is etched into the material — probably plastic, maybe bakelite, it’s hard to tell — whereas, on the new bottles, it looks and feels painted on. The back of the bottle reads “Chanel, Inc. New York Distributor,” painted on. The bottom has the word "Chanel" embossed, and, below it, the number 8.

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

Generally, I don’t give a rat’s about bottles. This one intrigued me, though, because its contents don’t smell like any other formulation of No. 5 I’ve tried. I get old aldehydes at first, of course, but then there is a slightly soapy, dark, nearly masculine quality. Aspects of it remind me of an old 60’s bottle of “Woodhue” cologne I have, which, I’ve been told, is chock-full of nitro musks, and I think maybe this is, too. I don’t really know, though, because I’ve only been able to date it as being sometime between 1951 and the 90’s. I read that the “New York Distributor” phrase on the back was used between the late 40’s through the 50’s. I found a print ad from 1969 showing the same label as my bottle, but without anything on the back — although that doesn’t mean much; it might have been airbrushed out for aesthetic reasons. 

A couple of months ago, a neighbor saw me outside, and rushed over with an empty Chanel ¼ oz. perfume bottle that had been his mother-in-law’s. He was sure it was a rare and valuable treasure. It was probably from the 80’s, as best as I could guess, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that there were approximately a million of them just like it out there. This is what bottle buyers go through, I suppose. I referred him to a Chanel perfume bottle dating site

Anyway, what I find to be interesting about all this is the different formulas for No. 5. My 90’s EDT smells of jasmine, a synthetic one, as I’ve read that only the parfum uses real jasmine or rose any more (and who knows if they still do.) The perfume is very different from that, sweeter, with a mellowness that says “naturals” to my nose — and there probably were at least some in the early 90’s. The old EDC screams aldehydes, almost like My Sin or Lanvin’s Rumeur. It could be that the midnotes are just degraded, though; eventually, it sweetens a little and becomes recognizable.

I’ve read that there have been around 60 books written about Coco Chanel, at least two films, and more books coming out. She was this; she was that, no she wasn’t, yes she was! She seems to me to have been a fierce sort of chameleon, someone who could, and did, adapt. All these versions of this perfume, her most enduring product — the formulae, the bottles, labels, fakes, controversy, quibbling over detail — could turn out to be her most recognizable legacy.

Any Chanel bottle experts out there? Fill me in!

Full review of “Coco Chanel An Intimate Life” will appear here next week. 


Kushuka said...
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Bloody Frida said...

I have no suggestions, but am intrigued!

Melissa said...

I'm in the same boat. When I started collecting, I ended up with a LOT of Chanel #5. It seemed that was the thing I ran across the most. I was always confused at how many different "versions" there seemed to be. I have a feeling it's about storage as much as formulation. I think in the past, maybe even more than now, it was common for women to keep their fragrances in the bathroom. Keeping it near to them for after a bath. And probably the EDT's and colognes the most. I guess that's the chance we take when we buy vintage is the risk of alteration due to humidity or sunlight as well as time. The good thing is that even though the top notes make have seen better days, the rest holds up pretty well!

Olfacta said...

Hi BF and Melissa -- I hope to someday find a pristine bottle of vintage No 5 perfume. It's true that most women did (and still do) keep their perfumes out in the light. Luckily, most of the time that "old aldehydes" smell disappears after a few minutes heating on skin, and the mid and base notes come through, as you say. In the meantime, when I go vintage shopping online, I look for full bottles with the box -- this generally means that they were a gift the receiver didn't like much and kept in a drawer in the box. More evidence that most women liked the No 5 just fine -- you hardly ever see a box!

Rappleyea said...

I wore No. 5 for a while back in the early '70's and that "almost masculine" quality that you refer to is what I remember. More recent versions of No. 5 seem more floral.

I can't help you with dating, but on the subject, I bought a supposed vintage bottle of No. 19 on the auction site, and it arrived with tea stains artfully dabbed on the box to make it look old! Live and learn!

Olfacta said...

Hi D -- I wore 5 as a signature scent for awhile when I was in college -- part of a whole set of affectations that included Gitane cigarettes -- but, anyway, I remember it as very aldehydic and hardly floral at all. I think it was the EDT I wore then. As far as bottles/ripoffs go, I've stayed away from buying Chanel on the bay, for reasons just as you describe. (What did you do, btw?) At the same estate sale, there was a big Ch5 perfume bottle, authentic, old, empty. I wonder how many of these are bought and then reflilled with new stuff by unscrupulous sellers.

eula_w said...

Chanel No. 5, one of a thousand perfume I want to own someday. Thanks for the read on this great blog. :)

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Perfume Mall said...
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