If you don’t count my grandmother’s crushed velvet bedspread or the beaded doorway of the bedroom of the prostitute who lived across the street, my life at age fifteen was largely devoid of glamour. I was just learning about perfume, and I’d saved enough from babysitting to buy a bottle of Babe, but I scouted the mall for something more sophisticated, something people who had passports and ate caviar might wear. Then, one day at the mall, I discovered Chanel.
A saleswoman placed testers of Chanel Nos. 5, 19, and 22 on the glass-topped counter, but she pushed the bottle of No. 22 forward. “I think you’ll like this one,” she said. To me, Chanel fragrances were the epitome of chic. They didn’t need an elaborate bottle or television ads of a man pretending to be a prince in a puffy shirt to signal quality. I ended up buying the No. 22 bath oil. The oil was fragrant and much less expensive than the Eau de Toilette. (The prostitute had been terrible about paying her babysitting bill.) The inside of my wrists and behind my ears were well moisturized that year.
Ernest Beaux created Chanel No. 22 in 1922, the same year Caron Nuit de Noël and another Chanel, No. 55, were released. The top notes are aldehydes, white roses, jasmine, tuberose, lily of the valley, lilac, and orange flower. The heart is orchid and ylang ylang, and the base is vanilla, incense, and vetiver.
I clearly remember the bath oil’s square, white glass bottle and the lid’s silver band, dissolved slightly by oil, but I only had a vague recollection of its fragrance. A lot of scent and a few decades stood between me and Chanel No. 22. One whiff of the sample tube of Eau de Toilette a few days ago, though, and the scent came right back.
As is true of the other numbered Chanels, the first hit of No. 22 is aldehydes. After twenty minutes, when the shrieking coloratura of the aldehydes fades, a gorgeous duet of white flowers — mostly orange flower to me — and gentle incense emerges. Imagine the heart-rendingly beautiful duet “Viens, Mallika” from Delibes’ Lakmé translated into scent, and you have the middle of Chanel No. 22. After an hour and a half or so, just the incense, grounded slightly by vetiver, burns along quietly. I don’t really smell the vanilla in the dry down at all, and the jasmine, ylang ylang, and tuberose are blended so that none of them stands out from the others. The whole show lasts about four hours and stays close to my skin.
Overall, the scent is warmer and more interesting than its raft of white flowers might lead one to believe, probably because of its incense rather than the more usual vanilla, amber, or sandalwood. I sure was one terrific smelling teen. No. 22 is warm enough to save for cool weather, and could be a day or night fragrance, although it might be too pretty for work.
My local Nordstrom carries Chanel No. 22 Eau de Toilette, and it’s available at gloss for $84 for a 100 ml spray. The parfum, which I’d love to try, is more difficult to find, but at least one online discounter has it for $92.99 for a quarter ounce. Sadly, I couldn’t track down the bath oil at all.
Update: Chanel No. 22 is now part of the Les Exclusifs de Chanel collection, $200 for 200 ml Eau de Toilette.