The smell of snow is one of the most ethereal smells on earth. It’s very difficult to catch, being essentially frozen water and ozone, and I can’t think of many perfumes that even try. Of course, one famous house did make the attempt.
The perfume is No. 5, the house is Chanel, and the scent was possibly incarnated once or twice before, as Rallet No. 1 and earlier as La Bouquet de Catherine, both composed by Ernest Beaux when he was in the employ of Rallet, then a fashionable perfume house in Russia.
The first of these three perfumes, initially conceived while he was he was on military duty, La Bouquet de Catherine, is now lost, however the guess is that it was an early version of No. 5, possibly not quite as we know it today, but including aldehydes.* The vast pearlescence of a Russian winter stayed in his mind , and when both the war and the Revolution were over, Beaux recreated it, once as Rallet No. 1, and then as No. 5 for Coco Chanel. The resulting scent was clean but chilly, and bottled the sense of unbounded space, of a broad ivory velvet landscape, embroidered with hoar frost, jeweled with ice, and silent under falling snow.
For those of us who haven’t ever seen the plains of Russia, only one scent really recreates this abstraction and it’s No. 5.
Is there another floral aldehyde that evokes the sensation of coldness and whiteness? Not to my knowledge. Le Dix is violets and so rather earthy, L’Aimant is wonderfully foody with what Mals calls the smell of warm peach pie wafting about it.
She’s right, but peach pie is a very material thing, you can’t claim it as the smell of Russian steppes.
Heaven Scent is pretty, and diminished these days, a blunted floral. Arpege is far too buttery, Antilope too animalic, Caleche too soapy, Calandre is like Rive Gauche and both are too green, Byzance too strong, and well, you can knock out all of the aldehydic florals of the last forty years from the running easily enough. Most are simply too floral.
As time went on, perfumers seemed to have used aldehydes to amplify other notes, so that roses and gardenias reach us through the equivalent of a bullhorn, and what No. 5 achieves is a hushed balance between what is floral and what is not anything at all, what is not there. It is the only complete abstraction.
You can make an attempt to get at the smell of snow otherwise to be sure. But aldehydes give – arguably – the best interpretation of it.
Except – you knew there had to be an exception, didn’t you? – the smell of cyclamens.
That is an extraordinary scent. You have to get very close to the cyclamen in question and practically stick your nose into the little space from which the petals blow back and then you get the coldest, most thrillingly high-pitched scent of nothingness that I’ve ever smelled. If ever a freezing wind swept over a steppe, this is its scent. The fragrance is enough for my idiot Brain to begin singing Lara’s Theme from Dr Zhivago.
“Ah this,” says my Brain, “is the authentic smell of wintertime, this is the smell of falling snow.”
*La Bouquet de Catherine is dated to 1913 and would therefore have come out a year after its initial inspiration Houbigant’s Quelques Fleurs. For more on the subject of Number 5, see Tilar Mazzeo‘s book The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfume.