The Non-Speaking Perfume

What if you want to affirm your elegance in a work-a-day world without revealing anything else about yourself?

It sounds like a pretty familiar proposition. Anonymity can be a powerful thing, come to think of it, and that’s why in contrast to the speaking perfume which I wrote about previously, you also need to have the silent one.

Chanel was the first company really to foster the conceptual in scent.  Whether this was the choice originally of Ernest Beaux, Chanel’s Russian émigré perfumer, or her own preference, we shall never know.  No. 5 is famously at once specific and general, flowers and aldehydes, a snow covered landscape, an empty urban space.  It was probably the variant of a perfume Beaux had already created in Russia, but its most salient characteristic was its abstraction.  It was like Malevich’s painting White on White, something new, something which defied category, something which referred only to itself.

There had been new perfumes before: Francois Coty’s Chypre, Paul Parquet’s Fougere Royale.  The difference though was that where both perfumes created new categories of scent, both seemed to reference something natural.  This was an important distinction because it recognized the fact that while consumers would accept innovation, they still wanted their scents to smell like something recognizable. You could sell the public new combinations and chemicals but you had to suggest a natural model, an island say, or a fern.

But No. 5 was unprecedented because it was indefinite and unidentifiable.  Chanel, in giving it a number rather than a name, stressed this quality, and she caught a profound change in public taste at exactly the right juncture for success.

Just as Cubism was introduced in the visual arts, or atonal music inaugurated by Stravinsky, so the world bought what it had never before dreamed of: a perfume that was about nothing at all.   This was a scent which could suit every climate and every woman because it had no previous known associates.  It was a number and a faultlessly modern faceted bottle design and a blast of jasmine modified molecules which defied description.  The wearer brought identity to the perfume and not the other way around.

Over the decades, No 5 has held on to this remarkable innominate character.  If today, people were polled as to what qualities the wearer of No 5 exhibited, I’ll bet they couldn’t come up with much.  It remains the elegant trench coat scent, the one that says the very least about you.

That somehow remains remarkably desirable, perhaps especially in a world in which personal privacy may be going the way of the dodo.

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6 Responses to The Non-Speaking Perfume

  1. Angie Jabine says:

    V. interesting — Chanel No. 5 as the first abstract perfume. By the way, do you know about The Perfume House, just a couple of miles from me in Portland? Chris Tsefalas opened it nearly 50 years ago and it is well-known among your ilk for its serious, global collection. For example:
    Do come see me, visit The Perfume House (oh, and no sales tax, either) and write the whole thing off.

    • admin says:

      Oh yeah I know about that place and I would go there like a shot! Love to visit Portland one of these days. We can dump Himself at Powell’s and pay homage to Mr Tsefalas.

  2. Deb Watson says:

    A fascinating insight to one of the truly great fragrances of the world.
    For many years I have wondered at the unobtrusiveness of No.5, the indefinable fragrance of. .what? I have never been able to describe it successfully, it reminds me of nothing and no one, it raises no emotion within me and yet it sits as an enigma, the epitome of luxury on my dressing table. . . waiting to be chosen.
    This must be why I always called it my ‘power perfume’ – It is elegance without being revealing yet it catches attention when I wear it. Interestingly, when I try and recall the fragrance it completely evades me until I open the bottle and smell it again. Perhaps that is part of its ‘non-speakingness’ that makes us come back for more?

    • admin says:

      It’s one of the marks of a truly wonderful perfume, that quality of making you forget what it smells like between applications. For me, once upon a time, Guerlain’s Chants d’Aromes did it. Now of course it has been re-formulated and no longer smells the same. You were wiser than I and chose something classic.

      • Deb Watson says:

        Well, that classic ended up all over the dressing table courtesy of a small 3 year old elf like creature who rejoiced and danced in the fine droplets he scattered around him – 15 years later I still perceive the ghost of No.5 when I open a drawer.
        I should be grateful, his tastes in fragrances and scents is exemplary, unlike some of his peers, and agonising hours are spent deciding on the right perfume for a girlfriend.

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