Saturday, November 20, 2010

Chanel N°5 Revisited: Russian Leather Connection? Part II

It appears what I had written in Pink Manhattan blog about Chanel No.5 smelling like Russian leather had the right idea. According to The Secret of Chanel No. 5 by Tilar J. Mazzeo, a book featured in The Wall Street Journal (Sweet Smell of Success by Pia Catton, November 20, 2010 WSJ), Chanel N°5 was indeed based on a Russian formula created in honor of the 300th anniversary of the House of Romanov.

An excerpt from the book according to the article says: "The perfume's formula (...) was based on a fragrance made in 1914 to honor Russian royalty. More surprising is the fact that, for part of World War II, this paragon of French fragrance was produced in Hoboken, N.J."

Hoboken - wow. Home of Frank Sinatra. The perfume Chanel N°5 is based on Rallet No.1 (formerly known as Bouquet de Catherine) by Ernest Beaux. Beaux, the in-house Chanel perfumer who created No.5, came from a Russian perfume family. According to Wikipedia, "he celebrated his first commercial success with the Bouquet de Napoleon, a floral Eau de Cologne created to mark the centennial of the Battle of Borodino. A female pendant was to follow, the Bouquet de Catherine, an hommage to Catherine the Great marking the tercentenary of the House of Romanov. Since Catherine the Great was however of German descendent, the scent, which was inspired by Quelques Fleur (Houbigant, 1912) with a pronounced aldehydic top note, was renamed Rallet N°1 with the outbreak of Word War I in 1914."

The excerpt continues: "Most off-putting, though, is the news that the perfume's creator—who would see Chanel No. 5 turned into a cultural totem in the U.S. by G.I.'s who brought it home from Paris as a fancy gift for their wives and girlfriends—spent the Occupation holed up at the Paris Ritz with a German officer as her lover."

German, of course meaning Nazi officer. This is Coco Chanel we're talking about. The article goes on:

"Working with Chanel, Beaux used his Catherine the Great formula to capture the qualities that Chanel was looking for in her product: It would have to be seductive and expensive, she said, and "a modern work of art and an abstraction." A perfume based on the scent of a particular flower—which at the time had the power to define its wearer as a respectable woman (rose) or a showgirl (jasmine)—would not do. "I want to give women an artificial perfume," Chanel once said. "Yes, I do mean artificial, like a dress, something that has been made. I don't want a rose or a lily of the valley, I want a perfume that is a composition."

"The composition she and Beaux arrived at had strong notes of rose and jasmine, balanced by what was, in the 1920s, a new fragrance technology: aldehydes."

How fascinating to read about rose being marketed as a proper scent and jasmine an improper one. Whoever had decided on this distinction, I wonder what the reasoning was based on: geographical location where these flowers came from, or some political reason, would be one guess, but I would have to research this. It could also simply be that a heavy (Oriental) scent was considered taboo, as Guerlain Jicky with its vanillic notes had caused quite a stir among ladies back in the day.

It wouldn't be far off to theorize that Chanel N°5 is a perfume that could allow royalty to get away with smelling sexy like a showgirl, without anyone suspecting her of wearing that carnal jasmine. Is it fair to say (albeit crudely) that vilifying jasmine in the story makes No.5 a secretly Pimped Out Rose? I still prefer to think of No.5 as Russian Leather inspired by Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich Romanov, but a more feminized, Quelques Fleurs-inspired version. Chanel N°5 has always smelled powdery to me, but I had recently discovered that it is more base note-heavy (woody and dry with a patchouli base) than most perfumes marketed as Floral (such as Jean Patou Joy or its predecessor smell-alike Caron Acaciosa, and Houbigant Quelques Fleurs), giving it a more traditionally masculine, or androgynous, feel.

Even if the formula contains copious amounts of rose and Grasse jasmine, those aldehydes would make the whole composition hazy enough that most people wouldn't know what they were smelling at all. Such is the abstract perfume Coco Chanel had desired, a unified composition capturing the desired effect of allowing one to possess the sex appeal of a showgirl, that is - you know, like Marilyn Monroe - while still managing to smell freshly scrubbed and proper. Isn't technology grand?

The author is correct in pointing out that there were other Aldehydic perfumes besides No.5. As for Aldehydic Floral perfumes born in 1912, Caron L'Infini was born in the same year as Quelques Fleurs, but it is not given credit for being the breakthrough perfume for the Aldehydic Floral family. That crown always goes to Chanel No.5 born in 1921. I can't tell you what L'Infini used to smell like, but the current 1970 version is just as aldehydic-smelling as No.5, only greener, mossier, a whiter floral. If you've ever smelled an aldehydic accord on its own, you might say it smells sour and fizzy-powdery (weirdly reminds me of both Alka Seltzer and Ramune but not as sweet) - not quite lemony but high-pitched (also synthetic and long lasting, of course, or it wouldn't make No.5 the scientific technological breakthrough perfume it's known to be).

Related articles: Chanel N°5 Revisited: Russian Leather Connection? Pink Manhattan May 19, 2008

"In 1912 Beaux achieved his first great success with his Bouquet of Napoleon, created to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the battle of Borodino, Napoleon's last but very bloody victory in Russia. Beaux was known to be a great admirer of Napoleon and, for the occasion, Rallet produced an entire booklet on Napoleon to go with the promotion of the perfume (...) In 1913, for the tercentenary of the Romanov dynasty, Beaux created Bouquet of Catherine, a feminine counterpart for the Bouquet de Napoleon." A. Rallet & Co. -

"Today, Bouquet de Catherine, in it's Rallet Le No.1 rebirth, can be seen as the predecessor of Chanel No.5. The overall concept of Rallet Le No.1 is followed in Chanel No.5 — the use of a "cocktail" of aldehydes — to overcome the fatty note of the jasmine absolute and rose oil. It was this fatty note that had plagued perfumery in the 19th century when all perfumes had the unwanted fatty note but this had simply been accepted as it could not be overcome. While Rallet Le No.1 stands on its own merit as a fragrance, its role in the development of Chanel No.5 gives it a special place in the history of 20th century perfumery." Le No.1 1913/1923 Rallet -

"In 1912, the perfumer Robert Bienaimé first used 2-methylundecanal in the successful perfume Quelques Fleurs for Houbigant. Ernest Beaux imitated this breakthrough in his new perfume Rallet No. 1 (1914)." CHANEL No 5 and 2-Methylundecanal - University of Bristol School of Chemistry

"The aldehyde that Beaux chose was 2-methylundecanal, which in those days was known as methyl nonyl acetaldehyde? This was first used by the perfumer Robert Bienaime for his Quelques Fleurs, which appeared in 1912. And we now know that Beaux had previously used the aldehydes undecanal and dodecanal in his perfume Rallet No. 1 launched in 1914 because an original, sealed bottle came to light and its contents were analysed. What aldehydes offered was a 'cleaner' less cloying fragrance blend. Beaux described the effect like 'lemon juice on strawberries'. " Whiff of Success: Chanel No.5 has been one of the classic Christimas gifts since it was launched - by John Emsley, Chemistry and Industry, Dec 22, 2008 Bnet CBS Business Network

Added on Nov. 23, 2010: Jazz and Jasmine: The Scent of a Brothel vs the High Class Rose - PINK MANHATTAN