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No.5 and the rationalist revolution

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While it retains the traditional elements of the floral, No.5 does something radically new with it and in doing so it undermines the nineteenth century trope of a 'natural' or empiricist perfumery based on observing and imitating nature. In this essay I will attempt to outline how No.5 is different and why this change in perfumery came about.

The most basic of floral tropes is the soliflor, a more or less straightforward attempt to replicate the scent of a flower. But No.5 is obviously not a soliflor - being a bouquet of rose jasmin and ylang ylang. Even though it contains these notes, none of them are readily identifiable, the blending is so perfect that the rose jasmin and ylang ylang merge into a single abstract tone, unlike anything found in the real world. This abstract quality distances the scent from any empirical foundation it would otherwise have if we could relate the odour to an experience of real flowers. But we can't match the odour with certainty to any flower we have smelled, and so No.5 becomes in a sense non-representational, like an abstract painting.

Merely being an abstract floral would not in itself make No.5 radical; after all, Quelques Fleurs had already been around for nearly a decade. It could then be argued that, as an abstract bouquet, No.5 could be regarded as a romantic interpretation of nature, like a soft focus floral medley wafting on the breeze of a summer garden. This might have been the case if it were just an abstract floral bouquet, but there's more to No.5 than that and it's this other element that makes this perfume so different.

What distinguishes No.5 from previous floral bouquets is the incongruity (and intensity) of the aldehydes it contains. There had been aldehydic florals before of course, but these contained but a nuance. In No.5's case things were of a completely different order. With it's apocryphal 10x overdosing of the formula the aldehydes function as no mere modifier, they dominate the scent. The mechanistic odour of aldehydes, which in my opinion smell variously like a varnish carapace and snuffed candlewick, rule out any naturalistic interpretation of the profile. They not only smell like nothing in nature but they are also thoroughly unromantic.

With a perfume like this, which smells like nothing that went before, the old paradigm can no longer serve. We cannot read No.5 in the old way - the way we read the empirically based, or nature styled pre-modern perfumes. By virtue of its abstracted and un-natural quality No.5 is doubly different from traditional scents and it forces us to see it in a new light; as a new type of fragrance, conceived of in a new way.

Gabrielle Chanel was quite unlike any previous client couturier. She had very strong ideas about the perfume she wanted and was adamant that it shouldn't be like the other's. It wasn't; in the year that No.5 was launched Guerlain put out Guerlinade, which is described by more than one reviewer as a lilac soliflor, and the following year - appearing oblivious to the earthquake that had just rumbled through the foundations of perfumery - Caron released a flanker called Narcisse Blanc.

No.5 is based on Chanel's idea of what a woman is and how she should smell : 'a woman should not smell like a flower, she should smell like a woman' she said, she was no romanticist... This radically new conception of perfume derives from the same philosophy that can be seen behind the work of Chanel the couturière, where abstraction and geometry (eg the box jacket) are applied to the body of a woman, rather than as in other styles where the garment design is derived from being draped around the body. In a similar manner, Chanel's perfume was not based around the scent of flowers but on a rationalisation of floral odours : an abstract representation of flowers, not the flowers themselves.

When she was introduced to a French Russian emigré perfumer by the name of Ernest Beaux, Chanel thought she had found the right man to create her perfume. With someone of such strong ideas and determination there can be little doubt that after being briefed, Beaux was clearly aware of what Chanel was looking for and - as chance would have it - he was in the ideal position to deliver.

After a visit to the arctic while he was still in Russia, Beaux had become fascinated by what his assistant called its melting winter note and he worked this up into a sketch with aldehydes. He also had an unused formula that he had worked on when he was perfumer at Rallet in Moscow. Now he had the opportunity to put the two together. When the abstract floral of the Rallet sketch and the melting winter note were combined it opened the way to a new type of fragrance, one based on abstraction and ideas, not on natural forms and flowers. The powerful dose of aldehydes, in conjunction with a thoroughly abstracted floral accord such as that found in No.5 created an altogether new effect which had been quite unknown before; a bouquet unlike anything found in nature with a feel like the direct gaze of a hard headed woman. An exquisitely beautiful yet self consciously artificial scent, this new and powerful aldehydic floral was a totally new proposition to the market, and as we know, an enormous success.

The release of No.5 represented a paradigm shift that would sweep away the old nature-inspired and natural materials methodology of perfume creation. From this time on, unbound from nature and liberated by synthetic chemistry, perfumers were free to create works of abstraction - perfumes based on ideas. They could now follow the lines of their imagination and no longer had to toe the line down the garden path.

With this masterpiece of French rationalism Chanel and Beaux broke through the barriers of empiricist perfumery : with No.5 perfume entered the modern world.

Updated 14th April 2018 at 07:57 PM by Wild Gardener




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