Twelve Smells of Christmas – Day Two: The Smell of Falling Snow

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.





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14 thoughts on “Twelve Smells of Christmas – Day Two: The Smell of Falling Snow

  1. To approximate the smell of cold air and snow, I’ll volunteer a couple of other fragrances: White Linen, which possibly has more aldehydes dumped into it than No. 5,; and Diorissimo. There is definitely a cold note in the latter. It reminds me of getting down on my knees in the dirt to smell the first lilies of the valley, and also smelling that breath of winter cold still clinging to the earth.

    1. White Linen, arguably yes, but it’s always struck me as flowery, maybe a bit too pretty to be abstract?
      Diorissimo is like early, early Spring, with those patches of snow still on the ground. Like March, except we don’t get lilies of the valley until April around here. If snowdrops smelled like Diorissimo wouldn’t that be perfect?

  2. I have a tiny bottle of Caswell-Massey cyclamen essential oil (complete with that rough brown hand-applied apothecary labeling with the word “cyclamen” literally typed in). I concur utterly with all you say about it here: it is a gorgeously cold scent, almost ominously quiet. I bought it together with bottles of bitter almond and stephanotis, both of which also seem very cold, white, and silent to me. Who needs Laurax to reconstruct the Ice Age?

    1. “Ominously quiet” is a very apt way to put it. The smell of cyclamens to me, is like the scent of the sky when the wind drops and the snow begins. Anyway, I’ve always loved the silence of snowy mornings-don’t you?
      Stephanotis and bitter almond are white fragrances for sure, never thought about whether or not they are cold, but I do agree they’re quiet.

  3. For a long time, Christoper Brosius, of CB I Hate Perfume had a snow smelling room spray that I really wanted to try. Of course, I waited too long and now I don’t see it on offer – drat! But he does have a perfume called Winter 1972 that is snow related. Have you had a chance to try either of these fragrances?

    I love the smell of cyclamens and must smell them soon with a “winter nose”!

    1. Funny you should mention that, because I just spent today in Brooklyn and stopped in at the CB studio in Williamsburg. They still sell the specialized accords, and two: New Fallen Snow and Snow, do capture that scent of a snowstorm. The young man helping us said that those accords are available for the month of December, but not afterwards as carrying them is not cost effective. Winter 1972 and Walking in the Air are both very airy and cold smelling but faint to my nose, and The Fir Tree smells like out door snowy air on a Christmas tree farm. But it might be worth giving them a call and asking for what you want, they’re pretty helpful, and most of these bottles go for about $40, from what I saw. We’d have bought one, but we got sidetracked by In the Library and Gathering Apples.
      If you don’t want to go that far there are always the cyclamens!

  4. One of these days I’m going to order a few more of the CBIHPs accords. I didn’t really get on with any of the ones I tried (they just sat there, not talking to me), but Winter 1972 really appeals to me. Perhaps one of the Snow accords will sing of white flakes to me.

    Malle’s L’eau d’Hiver smells like snow to me – or, rather, the smell of the Fox Glacier on the South Island of New Zealand. And yes, No. 5, but I like it best in vintage parfum, which is so crammed full of flowers that it’s less wintry and more glowy floral.

    A favorite piece of music: Loreena McKennitt’s “Snow,” based on a poem by Archibald Lampman. Like some soft minister of dreams…

    1. Now you would think that I’d have smelled L’eau d’Hiver wouldn’t you? But I just never do, something else always gets my attention at F. Malle displays, Le Parfum de Therese last time, which smelled -grumble- like melon soup to me.
      Certain flowers, as Fleur pointed out, do smell snowy so I guess that doesn’t disqualify No 5 in vintage parfum as snow evocative.
      Some of those accords over at CB smell very atmospheric, he had a whole shelf labeled “water” which included the aforementioned Snow and Snowstorm and Wet Pavement and oh drat, I just wanted to buy the darn place out but didn’t. Posting next time about his Christmas scent which is anything but snowy.
      Love the song, by the way, very beautiful,very wistful. Winter is so lovely, and such heck on schedules, school drives, all the “mondanities” of life, but what a shame never to experience it!

  5. Chanel No 5 has been recently on my mind: while I do not like it (well, at least the modern EdP/EdT versions, I haven’t tried extrait yet) I’m scared it’ll disappear or will be changed beyond recognition so, despite Mals wise thoughts that it’ll be available long after being changed/discontinued on eBay, I’m thinking about buying myself a bottle and your article just makes it even more appealing. And also I can’t think of any other perfume more fitting your “day two.”

    1. No 5 does catch that winter smell doesn’t it? And I couldn’t resist including it. Although actually it’s not my favorite either, it is a fave of my daughter’s, and I’ve begun to wonder if I should get her a little bottle? Bottom line, I guess I’m in no position to preach moderation in adding to perfume collections.

  6. L’Eau d’Hiver is what came to my mind as well. My winter scents are typically the warm, spicy snugglies, but there are days when L’Eau d’Hiver just hits the spot. There’s an airiness in it that fits that brisk feeling in the air.

    There’s actually a Canadian fragrance called Neiges that’s quite popular up here, and now I want to go give it a whirl just to see if it fits. (Really cute bottle, too.)

    1. Neiges sounds lovely, and does have a really cute bottle with those snowflakes on it.
      Having read The Perfect Scent and read JC Ellena’s description of composing L’Eau d’Hiver(taking out all that stuff from Apres L’Ondee. Stuff? What stuff? There is bad stuff in Apres?) and Chandler Burr’s description of the resulting perfume as smelling like fresh crab…? I never know what to expect from bottles of L’Eau d’H. One of these days I will smell it, but I have to dismiss my memory of that passage first!

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