Chanel No. 5 is the world’s best selling perfume- and has been for decades. It’s been so popular for so long, in fact, that it’s actually become a sort of cultural icon- a symbol of luxury, capable of being recognized by the bottle shape, even by those who have never smelled the juice inside. This book is the ‘biography’ of No. 5.
I have a great interest in perfume, so I had high hopes for this book. As I made my way through it, though, I kept feeling like I’d read it before. I hadn’t, but I had read a biography of Coco Chanel a number of years ago. Unlike many modern fragrances which are created by committee (independent niche perfumes excepted), the story of No. 5 is closely tied to Chanel’s life. The majority of the story of No. 5 IS the story of Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel. It had great personal meaning for her; supposedly it combined scents from her past- rich flowers from around the convent school she grew up in, clean sheets, and the sweaty body of her great love, Boy Capel.
There are a great many myths out there about No. 5, and this book lays them to rest. It wasn’t the first perfume to use synthetic ingredients- not by a long shot. It wasn’t the first perfume to use aldehydes. And it wasn’t even a new perfume- it was a remake of one made for Russian royalty.
It’s an interesting story, how this one fragrance has held up all these years, despite business infighting, world wars, lack of (and even disappearance of) raw materials, terrible decisions, and changing tastes. But the book is repetitious- the author repeats the same facts chapter after chapter. It would have been a much better book had it been shorter. And it really never does discover the final secret- what is it about this scent that has made it survive so well?