Fragrance and fantasy

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Ackerman, Diane. A Natural History of the Senses. New York, NY: Random House, 1990.

Aftel, Mandy. Essence and Alchemy: A Book of Perfume. New York, NY: North Point Press, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2001. [Also see]
Burr, Chandler. The Emperor of Scent: A Story of Perfume, Obsession, and the Last Mystery of the Senses. New York, NY: Random House, 2002.
Burr, Chandler. “The Scent of the Nile.” The New Yorker, March 13, 2005. Accessed at
Charles-Roux, Edmonde. Chanel and Her World: Friends, Fashion and Fame. New York, NY: The Vendome Press, 2004.
Classen, Constance, David Howes and Anthony Synnott. Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell. London, England: Routledge, 1994.
Devereux, Charla and Bernie Hephrun. The Perfume Kit: Create Your Own Unique Fragrances. New York, NY: MacMillan, 1995.
Glaser, Gabrielle. The Nose: A Profile of Sex, Beauty and Survival. New York, NY: Washington Square Press, 2002.
Howes, David, ed. Empire of the Senses: The Sensual Cultural Reader. Oxford, England: Berg Publishers, 2005.
Kirkham, Pat. The Gendered Object. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1996.
Koda, Harold and Andrew Bolton. Chanel. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New Haven, Ct: Yale University Press, 2005.
La Dolce Vita. Perfume. London, England: New Holland Publishers, 2001.
Le Guerer, Annick. Scent: The Mysterious and Essential Powers of Smell. London, England: Chatto and Windus, 1993.
Madsen, Axel. Chanel: A Woman of Her Own. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1999.
Molotch, Harvey. Where Stuff Comes From. London, England: Routledge, 2003.
Morris, Edwin T. Scents of Time: Perfume from Ancient Egypt to the 21st Century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Boston, MA: Bulfinch Press, Little Brown and Company, 1999.
Newman, Cathy. Perfume: The Art and Science of Scent. National Geographic Society, 1998.
Pybus, David and Charles Sell, compilers. The Chemistry of Fragrances. Cambridge, England: The Royal Society of Chemistry, 1999.
Schab, Frank R. and Robert G. Crowder, eds. Memory for Odors. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1995.
Schudson, Michael. Advertising: The Uneasy Persuasion. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1984.
Stoddart, D. Michael. The Scented Ape: The Biology and Culture of Human Odour. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Tisserand, Robert B. The Art of Aromatherapy: The Healing and Beautifying Properties of the Essential Oils of Flowers and Herbs. Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 1977.
Vroon, Piet. Smell: The Secret Seducer. New York, NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1994.
Watson, Lyall. Jacobson’s Organ and the Remarkable Nature of Smell. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 2000.

1The cover image of Marilyn Monroe posing with a bottle of Chanel No. 5 is from

 The title alludes to the tagline of an ad campaign for Chanel No. 5 circa the 1980s: “Share the fantasy.”

2 The icon of the Chanel No. 5 bottle is courtesy of the Web site

3 The story is mentioned in the Wikipedia articles on Marilyn Monroe and on Chanel No. 5 (at It is also mentioned in Axel Madsen’s biography of Coco Chanel (see bibliography) on p. 282. Interestingly, he notes that in that era, in the early 1950s, sales of No. 5 were slipping for the first time, although its mystique was as strong as ever. It is true that in the mid-1950s Chanel launched what was considered to be a career comeback in her work as a clothing designer; perhaps the popularity of her perfume had waned in tandem with her fortunes as a designer.

4 These quotes were originally accessed in February but I have referred back to this Web site often during the course of the semester. Two interesting notes about this Web site as a resource: 1) It is mainly intended for male fragrance fans; its owner and many of those who post comments are men; I have noted with an “M” or “F” those commentators who have identified their gender. 2) It has an exhaustive data base of fragrances that can be cross-referenced in a number of ways: pull up the Chanel No. 5 page and, in addition to reader reviews and a description of the various layers of notes in the fragrance’s formula, one can link to: all other perfumes launched in 1921, all other perfumes launched by Chanel, and all other perfumes created by the same perfumer, Ernest Beaux.

I mention the concept of layers because perfumes are composed in a series of top notes, middle notes and base notes. These layers unfold and disperse over time, beginning at the top. Base notes are those that anchor a fragrance and have the greatest longevity. As noted in this site’s description of No. 5, “aldehydes” are top notes in the composition and sandalwood is one of its base notes. More on aldehydes will follow later on in the paper. Since perfume formulas are closely guarded secrets and most ingredients today are artificial, notations of formulas should be assumed to be inexact (exact proportions are never offered anyway) and ingredients should be understood as referring most often to chemical compounds created to smell like the natural ingredients being named. Additionally, fragrance formulas are often subjected to subtle shifts or even overt re-designs over time, especially if they remain in production for decades. These shifts may be put into effect by a change in composition or in the substitution of alternative ingredients. Similarly, different versions of the fragrance may be slightly different in composition in order to best suit the varieties of concentrations: perfume vs. eau de toilette vs. cologne etc. Some companies will offer variations of a successful perfume: a lighter version, a spicier version. To my knowledge no serious reformulation has ever been attempted with No. 5, although it does come in a variety of concentrations and products such as bath oil.

5 Chanel No. 5 has consistently remained a strong performer in the field and occasionally still tops fragrance lists as the world’s best-selling fragrance; it is almost always ranked high.

6 Some sources date the perfume’s launch to 1922 or 1923; I have opted to use the date most often given.

7 Chanel was such a formidable presence in the field that she was often simply referred to as “Mademoiselle.” Additionally, her nickname “Coco” is often used in place of her given first name.

8 Coco Chanel’s birthday is August 19th.

9 Guerlain and Coty are two of the oldest fragrance houses; both originated in France and both are still in existence. Aftel is an independent perfumer (her business may be found at whose work represents two current trends in the fragrance marketplace which seem counter to all that No. 5 symbolizes: a new niche for small-scale, high-end boutique perfume houses and a throw-back to perfume-making with natural essences. While Chanel No. 5 may originally have been a “boutique” product when Chanel first sold it in her store it is currently considered to be mass-market, given its wide availability, and its various formulations are priced more moderately than custom-made scents from small houses like Aftelier.

10 While the use of perfume can be documented back to ancient civilizations, the origins of the modern perfume industry lie in the evolution of glove-making industry in France, especially in Grasse, which used fragrance to mask the smell of fresh leather. Similarly, scent was used to mask a variety of malodors, both human and industrial, and artisan perfumers serviced a variety of clients for this purpose. For a more extensive history, see Pybus, 1999, Chapter Two, entitled “The History of Aroma Chemistry and Perfume.”

11 The perfume Chypre (meaning “Cyprus”) spawned the perfume category of “chypre” which is generally described as mossy or green in character; although “green” is often listed as a separate category. I would amend Turin’s comment to note that Chypre was still clearly experienced as related to nature in some way, while No. 5’s overall composition defies any easy identifications of natural elements.

12 Burr and Turin will appear again in the section on the perfume’s formula. A few comments about these two personalities: Turin is a biochemist whose who first became interested in perfume as a fan and collector. He then published a collection of perfume reviews, which first brought him to the attention of the fragrance industry. He subsequently developed a theory of smell that had the potential to revolutionize the industry but which failed to get a broad reception in scientific academic circles. Burr’s book, The Emperor of Scent, recounts the story of Turin’s attempts to find a receptive audience for his theory. Turin is also notable for a different talent: his descriptions of scent are original and lively, combining scientific knowledge with aesthetic flair; this is part of why his reviews had such a different reception from his theory. For a while Turin kept a perfume blog, but he closed it down earlier this year, citing the professional demands of his job. The blog is archived at Since the writing of the book Burr has continued to develop an interest in perfumes. His Web site includes his own perfume reviews and subsequent pieces on the subject, some of which have appeared in the New York Times.

13 This quote is for Harvey.

14 Grojsman works for the mega-firm International Flavors and Fragrances, which is based in New York City.

15 “Nose” is the term used formally in the field to describe someone who creates fragrances.

16 The trend of anonymity is changing. More and more perfumers are becoming well-known in their own right and being recognized as artistic designers. It is not clear to me what has caused this change. One interesting company that reflects this is Editions de Parfums by Frederic Malle ( Malle invited nine of the most prominent “noses” in the business to create “fantasy” fragrances for his company – without thought to cost of production. These perfumes are produced and marketed by Malle’s company. Another example is Chandler Burr’s recent article for the New Yorker (March 14, 2005) on Jean-Claude Ellena, who had just been hired in-house by Hermes. Burr notes that Hermes was inspired to do so because the company had noted that the practice was being successfully employed by its rival design company, Chanel, whose current in-house perfumer has created recent successes such as “Allure” and “Coco Mademoiselle.” In the first paragraph of this article Burr refers to Chanel No. 5 as the company’s “eighty-three-year-old warhorse.” I can only imagine that Coco would have been wryly pleased.

17 The other three (Gardenia, Bois des Illes, Cuir de Russie) are specialty fragrances typically available only at select Chanel outlets. Beaux worked with Chanel for five years after the debut of No. 5; No. 22 appeared a year later. Subsequently, other perfumers worked with the company to produce others perfumes, including those that have debuted in the past few years under the Chanel name.

18 In the interim only two other perfumes for women were produced: Glamour in 1933 and Mademoiselle Chamel in 1948. Chanel Pour Monsieur appeared in 1955.

19 The quote is from “Chanel’s Modernity” and appears on p. 20 of the Korda book, the catalogue published to accompany the exhibition of “Chanel” which was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the spring and summer of 2005.

20 In terms of fragrance classifications, Chanel No. 5 is often placed under “aldehyde,” a category that it pioneered. In some systems it is classified as type of floral, sometimes as a “powdery floral.” Many perfume categories reference natural scents: “green,” “floral,” “Oriental” – a category that classically reflects the inclusion of vanilla or other spices as essential ingredients. No. 5 clearly contains a predominance of floral and aldehydic notes. Examples of perfume classification systems can be found in Devereaux, La Dolce Vita, and Scents of Time from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (all are listed in the bibliography,)

21 One may often purchase solid compacts, dusting powder or other such product versions.

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