Nothing says Grand Perfume like a classic aldehydic floral, and nothing says classic aldehydic floral like Chanel No. 5. But I’ll be the first to admit that I often have trouble with aldehydic fragrances. In the name of personal olfactory growth, I’ll be reviewing a week’s worth of classic aldehydic fragrances in the order in which they were created. At the top of the list, by birth date and by reputation, is Chanel No. 5.
Ernest Beaux created Chanel No. 5 in 1921 as part of a suite of nine fragrances he presented to Coco Chanel. Depending on which story you believe, No. 5 was an accident when too much of a particular aldehyde was added to a scent or was a deliberate attempt to replicate Coco’s modern and blatant use of synthetic materials — think of her ropes of faux pearls.
As is true of many perfumes, No. 5 contains more than one type of aldehyde. Aldehydes provide sparkle and can boost the dispersion of some notes. When you get a strong hit of aldehydes right away from a fragrance, chances are that you’re smelling an “aliphatic” aldehyde. Although some people think of a dose of aliphatic aldehydes as “perfume-y” and old fashioned, when Beaux made it the signature of No. 5 (and No. 22), it was revolutionary.
Osmoz describes No. 5 as having top notes of aldehydes, bergamot, lemon, and neroli; a heart of jasmine, lily of the valley, rose, and orris; and a base of vetiver, sandalwood, vanilla, and amber. I’ve tried No. 5 Eau de Toilette dozens of times in my life, each time hoping that I’d finally be able to wear it. I loved No. 5’s clean bottle and the rim of black around the box’s edges, and No. 5’s advertising campaigns over the years have been genius, featuring everyone from Catherine Deneuve, Ali McGraw, Claudia Schiffer, Jean Shrimpton, and Carole Bouquet to, most recently, Nicole Kidman. But the Eau de Toilette left a thin, sour odor on my skin.
Now I know that I should have tried the Eau de Parfum. No. 5 in Eau de Parfum form is a lush but restrained skin scent. Once the aldehydes subside, a summery blend of fresh flowers emerges with a pinch of something slightly spicy, like a sprig of dianthus. Its sillage is gentle. Chanel is famous for growing its own fields of jasmine in Grasse, but I can’t distinctly smell one flower over another. My favorite part of No. 5’s rollout is when the flowers start to warm and blend with amber and sandalwood. The vetiver grounds the drydown but registers as a little weedy on my skin. I bet the Parfum is marvelous.
Chanel No. 5 is ladylike but personal and could go just about anywhere, any time of the day or night. It’s not an astonishingly beautiful fragrance on me, but it’s easy and lovely. Is it worth all the hype? I don’t know. I’d probably use five bottles of No. 22 for every bottle of No. 5 if I had both.
The Eau de Parfum is $80 for 50 ml at Chanel and is available at department stores in Eau de Toilette, Eau de Parfum, and Parfum.
Note: image via Images de Parfums.