There's a metric circulating on the internet that a bottle of Chanel No. 5 is sold every 30 seconds. The number, if true, is not grabbed from outer space- Chanel's signature fragrance is the best-selling perfume of all time. The perfume launched in 1921, and there's an understandable question of whether its endurance is due to Chanel's unprecedented global position as the ultimate producer of aspirational luxury goods, or whether the fragrance would equally succeed if housed in an unrecognizable bottle under a different name.
Millennials who are considering purchasing a luxury perfume have to wonder whether a scent they associate with their grandmother is still current, or will make them ooze the dreaded "old lady" stink. And, even if the scent has remained relevant after 95 years, what's the point of investing in a fragrance that so many others wear?
For answers to these questions, I have copied and pasted excerpts from the excellent book Perfumes the Guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, highly respected noses in the consumer fragrance community.
Before turning to reviews of Chanel No. 5, it's important to understand how concentrations of perfume are distinguished. These categories didn't even register with me until recently- "eau de toilette" vs "eau de parfum" vs "eau de cologne" just seem like random French words haphazardly associated with perfume. The reason to pay attention is that the categories not only denote the concentration of perfume (aka bang for your buck when considering how long a smell will last on your skin), but some houses, Chanel especially, use different compositions of materials in different dilutions. Yes, that means eau de parfum of Chanel No. 5 has a different smell than its eau de toilette and parfum sisters.
Pure Perfume: 98% alcohol, 2 percent water - pure perfumes are not generally sold as they're so concentrated that they lose scent legibility.
Eau de Cologne (EdC): 5% perfume oil
Eau de Toilette (EdT): 10% perfume oil
Eau de Parfum (EdP): 15-18% perfume oil
Parfum: 25% and higher. To quote The Guardian's beauty editor Sali Hughes: "A connoisseur will generally prefer a parfum formulation, seeing as how it's probably closest to a perfumer's original version."
Now that you know the differences among the concentrations, see the below 3 reviews of No. 5's eau de parfum, eau de toilette, and parfum dilutions by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez.
It turns out that the EdP is a different fragrance from the parfum and the EdT, and was composed in the eighties by Jacques Polge as a modern version of No.5. Nothing is less modern right now than eighties fragrance. I sprayed the EdP on my arm, and after the nice aldehydic start and floral heart, I started getting whiffs of Polysantol, the oily and prodigiously durable sandalwood drydown of Samsara. However good, such a latecomer synthetic has no business being in a 1921 idea: it's as if Ben Hur wore a Rolex during the chariot race. There seems no point in buying this if you want the real thing. LT
I confess I had until recently failed to understand the differences between the various versions of No.5. Chanel's engine room tells me that the fragrance has been recast several times over the years, the parfum being the original 1921 formula. This smells like fifties work, with woody violet notes up top and a lactonic peach drydown. This version is the one I associated with No.5 all along, largely because I could never afford the others. It is exquisitely beautiful, the true precursor to their recent 31 Rue Cambon, and feels slightly more ladylike than the imperishably crisp real thing. LT
When I lived in Villefranche, a little harbor village near Nice, I would occasionally walk to the nearby marina to look at a thirty-foot wooden sloop parked halfway down the pier. It spent most of its life under wraps, surrounded by white fenders. It was one of a pair by a local boatbuilder called Silvestro, his last boat, and had taken fourteen thousand man-hours. When the owner was aboard, you could see it entire. It was more beautiful than an object has any right to be. In fact, it hurt to look at. Other such artifacts: a ladies' black and gray loafer I once saw in Lobb's window in London; the two-thirds-size platinum watch my doctor wears and about which he will reveal nothing; and now, more affordably, Chanel No. 5 parfum.
Fragrances very occasionally achieve a compelling 3-D effect, as if you could run your hand along them in midair. The original Rive Gauche and Beyond Paradise are relatively recent examples, but they are still recognizably florals, made of soft, perishable matter. No. 5 is a Brancusi.
Alone among fragrances known to me, it gives the irresistible impression of a smooth, continuously curved, gold-colored volume that stretches deliciously, like a sleepy panther, from top note to drydown.
Yes, it contains rose, jasmine, and aldehydes in the same way that a perfect body contains legs and arms. But I defy all who smell this to keep enough wits about them to worry about the parts. LT
The beauty and fragrance industry has lied to women for so long, convincing us to fork over cash for crud in shiny packages, that at this point even pure quality has trouble getting taken seriously. Evidence: the persistent and silly question "Has Chanel No. 5 been a bestseller because of the fragrance or because of its marketing?" Clever marketing can get us to buy something once, but rarely again. We don't wear Chanel No. 5 because Marilyn Monroe wore it; we wear it for the same reason that Marilyn did: because it's gorgeous.
What marked No. 5 as different from its lesser known and largely defunct cousins was an advantageous mutation: an overdose of the bright aromamaterials known as aliphatic aldehydes, harsh alone, but lending an intense, memorable, clean white glow to the rest of the woody floral, which was similar in structure to dozens of others at the time.
Whether, as the legend goes, the slug of aldehydes was a serendipitous mistake on the part of a lab technician preparing a trial, or whether Chanel's perfumer, the brilliant Ernest Beaux, came upon the trick himself, it's impossible to know, but they changed fragrance forever. Yet many more aldehydic florals have entered the market since; they have trickled down to soap formulas to the point that we think of them as the smell of soap. Chanel No. 5 stands out more than ever. Why? Because the firm has done everything in its power to maintain its beauty, even as other famous perfumes have suffered slow attenuation of their former greatness. In a sense, what it once had in common with other fragrances is what helps set it apart now.
Chanel made the wise decision years ago to buy its own jasmine and rose fields and is otherwise known to be fanatic about sourcing materials. Amazingly, despite the fluctuating qualities of natural ingredients from year to year, by careful and constant tweaking, No. 5 continues to smell like No. 5. On my right wrist, I have a No. 5 parfum that predates the fifties, and on my left, a brand-new batch. The musks have changed (wow, those obsolete nitro musks smell grand), and the top notes on the vintage stuff are damaged (smokey off notes, a whiff of burnt butter), but after fifteen minutes these two are nearly the same scent: a masterpiece of modernist sculpture from 1921, one you can wear. It has none of the tasseled-velvet-pillow plush of Shalimar or Vol de Nuit, none of the edgy weirdness of Tabac Blond or Narcisse Noir, none of the drama of Fracas or Bandit. It is an ideally proportioned wonder, all of a piece, smooth to the touch and solid as marble, with no sharp edges and no extraneous fur trimming, a monument of perfect structure and texture. And some people think perfume is not an art. TS