Counterpoint: Chanel No. 5

Welcome to a new feature that I hope will appear monthly! Portia Turbo of Australian Perfume Junkies and I had so much fun doing “Scent Semantics” with some other fragrance bloggers in 2022 that we decided to launch TWO regular features as a new collaboration in 2023. The first, which we plan to post on the first Monday of each month, is “Notes on Notes“, in which we choose one note and write about it however the spirit moves us; our first Note was oakmoss. This second feature is “Counterpoint“, in which we ask ourselves the same handful of questions about a single fragrance and post our separate thoughts on it, on the third Monday of each month. We’re still experimenting with format, so comments on that are welcome too! This month’s Counterpoint fragrance is Chanel No. 5.

Bottles of Chanel No.5 perfume by Andy Warhol
Chanel No. 5 portraits by Andy Warhol; image from
  1. How did you first encounter Chanel No. 5, and what was your first impression?

Portia: CHANEL No 5 was my Mum’s evening out perfume. So my first impression was that it was the most glamorous smell of them all. About 20 minutes before Mum & Dad would go out our baby sitter would arrive. Mum would appear looking like a million bucks. Frock, makeup and hair. As she’d just spritzed, when we got our goodbye, be good hugs we would be engulfed. The smell would linger on my pyjamas. So many of my Mum memories are of her floating out of the house on a cloud of CHANEL No 5.

Once I started reading about Coco Chanel’s life which included a Nazi lover, the trying to divest her benefactors of their holdings through their Jewishness and her spy role in the war my love for all things CHANEL died. Then I read that the Wertheimers’ maintained their ownership and owned it still; long after the demise of Coco herself. It felt like the sun had dawned again on CHANEL for me and I re-embraced the brand and its fragrances wholeheartedly.

Old Herbaceous: Chanel No. 5 and I go way back. It was my mother’s favorite “going-out” perfume, when she and my dad would get really dressed up. It’s fun to think back now and remember how dressed-up people would get in the 1960s, flower children aside. Travelers dressed up to take airplanes; now some wear sweatpants and sometimes even pajamas. In the suburb where I grew up, women dressed up to go shopping; if they were going to fancy department stores (yes, there used to be such a thing), they would add a hat and gloves, with shoes and purse that matched. Men wore Brooks Brothers suits to work every day, with crisp white shirts and usually conservative ties. Children wore matching velvet outfits for special occasions like holidays and grandparents’ visits. Our parents went to cocktail parties most weekends, and they still attended black-tie events in New York City, where my dad still worked (in the Art Deco Chrysler Building!), and where they had lived before they moved out to Connecticut after having their first child.

When my mother was getting dressed to go out, it was a whole ritual. She would visit the hairdresser earlier in the day or even the day before. Then, in the late afternoon, she would choose her outfit and accessories, and lay them out on her bed. Usually whoever was going to stay with us children had arrived by then, and would start making us supper. My mother would take a bath or shower (she preferred baths), then dust herself with scented powder. She would put on a long “dressing gown” and open her vanity table to begin applying makeup. The very idea of a vanity table now seems so quaint, as I hurriedly apply makeup in front of my bathroom cabinet’s mirror, in the morning before rushing off to work. No, for my beautiful mother, applying makeup before going out was special. And I thought it was so special that I often lay on her bed to watch and chat before she left for the evening.

After makeup and hair were complete, she would put on a chic outfit; the final, finishing touch was a spray of perfume. In the 1960s, for my mother that meant Chanel No. 5. So for me, Chanel No. 5 is the epitome of old-school elegance and chic. And that, I believe, has been the challenge set before Chanel, the company. I don’t think most people would call No. 5 an “old lady” scent, but it is definitely retro, even for those of us who were children in the 1960s. But Mme. Chanel herself was the very soul of 20th century modernity, and No. 5 was a major innovation in its time, an abstract composition of 1921 in fragrance that coincided with abstract compositions in art and music. Hard to believe all of those modern creations are a century old!

Luckily for us, Chanel has kept pace with the times. It has updated the classic No. 5 regularly and it has its own Grasse growing fields of the flowers that form the basis of its formula. In recent years, it has also issued updated versions of No. 5: No. 5 Eau Premiére, created by perfume Jacques Polge and launched in 2008, and No. 5 L’Eau, created by Olivier Polge and launched in 2016.

I have the last remnants of my mother’s last bottle of No. 5 eau de toilette (which was launched three years after the original parfum). I also have No. 5 Eau Premiére, the 2008 eau de parfum, and I’ve sampled No. 5 L’Eau. Each one has its special charms, and each one is recognizably No. 5. L’Eau is a young woman’s No. 5, by design; I’ve given it to one of my daughters (the other is more into Dior fragrances). It smells lighter, brighter, than its predecessors. To me, No. 5 L’Eau is epitomized by Fleur Delacour in the Harry Potter series: so very chic, but also epic, as my kids would say. I think L’Eau is the signature fragrance of Beauxbatons; that’s probably what wafted through the Hogwarts dining hall when its students made their entrance:

2. How would you describe the development of No. 5?

Old Herbaceous: My mother’s eau de toilette, while undoubtedly not the same as it was in 1924 (and wasn’t carefully kept, so it has aged), smells more traditional. There is an animalic note to it, civet, that isn’t in Eau Premiére or L’Eau. It also has oakmoss, patchouli, and musk among its base notes, which L’Eau and Eau Premiére do not have. It also has a stronger dose of aldehydes, which I don’t mind at all, I quite like aldehydes. I rarely wear No. 5, because I associate it so strongly with my mother, but I love to sniff her last bottle occasionally, to think of her.

Of the progeny, I lean toward Eau Premiére, though I do like L’Eau very much. It has a lovely, warm, powdery floralcy. The bottle I have is the first, tall narrow bottle, not the more squat one now on the market. It also has a semi-stuck sprayer, which I managed to loosen up with a combination of very hot water on the sprayer, and a safety pin, as I hadn’t worn it in a long time. But what struck me when I recently tried it again is how soft and warm it is. I managed to get one tiny spritz on my neck when I first loosened the sprayer, so I thought I would return to it later. Well, for the hour between then and my second effort, I kept getting the most beautiful wafts of No. 5 from my neck, where I had sprayed the tiniest spritz of Eau Premiére. In addition to the classic aldehydes, jasmine, rose, and ylang-ylang, there’s a powdery vibe to it that I can’t associate with any of its listed notes; it’s not like iris, or violet or the other notes that might evoke powder. My eau de parfum lasts for hours; it’s not unusual for me to wear it in the evening and still smell it vividly on my skin the next morning.

To me, my own first impression of L’Eau is all about those citrus top notes, which make it so fresh and young. With No. 5‘s signature aldehydes, M. Polge has combined lemon, neroli, mandarin orange, orange, bergamot and lime. The opening is like sparklers, the small hand-held kind we used to be given for the Fourth of July. Then it turns into the recognizable child of No. 5, with its heart of jasmine, rose, and ylang-ylang. The base notes are also different: white musk, orris root, cedar, and vanilla. They’re very compatible with the other versions of No. 5, but much more modern than the base notes of the original.

Portia: Today I am swiping from an older extrait. The bottle, stopper and perfume written under the CHANEL on the label date it between 1970-87. It’s a New York one. There was a batch code once but I seem to have rubbed most of it off. 

I’m spritzing from a lipstick case 50ml and has been refilled at some point. Maybe 1990s? 

That opening! Sharply aldehydic, metallic, floral and powdery all at once. it doesn’t take long for this to calm down to the smell of CHANEL No 5 from my memories. It’s crisp and floaty, warm, glamorous and the essence of what my memory remembers as fancy. This is the smell of going out. The parts become unimportsant and I’m afraid that this short review will fall far short of actual scent experience because I’m so overcome with nostalgia.

The flowers are a bouquet, I’m smelling the whole and not individual flowers but I know rose and jasmine are there. The metallic sting of aldehydes makes it al smell a little like the first whiff of a carnation, if that carnation had fallen into a bucket of powder. The animalics are softly purring underneath and I’m surprised heliotrope isn’t listed in the notes. 

Hours in and I’m left with a wash, still noteable, of CHANEL No 5 and the base is still lightly floral and an amorphous meld of creamy woods and a hint of salty, furry, drying grass.

Yes, I know this is a terrible review. CHANEL No 5 smells like CHANEL No 5 to me.

Chanel No. 5 perfume bottle and purse spray
Chanel No. 5; image by Portia Turbo

3. Do you or will you wear No. 5 regularly? For what occasions or seasons?

Portia: CHANEL No 5 gets a few spritzes or swipes a year here but it’s so often ignored in favour of other scents from their range that I feel fit me better. Wearing it over the last couple of weeks I am reminded how freaking excellent it is. It’s not that the fit is wrong at all. CHANEL No 5 smells bloody amazing. It fits day/evening and can play casual or dressy. It’s summer here and it powers through the heat, leans in a charges. Funnily, I find it a very masculine wear and I bet if it had never been and was released today there would still be a feeding frenzy. As one of the most copied fragrances on earth it still holds its own against most, only being outgunned by Divine EdP in my books. 

So, short answer, yes.

I am now going to wear CHANEL No5 more often and revel in its historic divinity.

Old Herbaceous: I haven’t been wearing it regularly (stuck sprayer), but I should spend more time with Eau Premiere. It really is a year-round scent; I’ve enjoyed it this month in both cold and warm weather, rain and shine. It doesn’t feel as “dressy” to me as the original, but that’s probably more to do with my own memories than the scent itself. Both Eau Premiére and L’Eau are perfectly suited to the workplace, they aren’t loud or in-your-face fragrances and both are easy to modulate by lighter or heavier application.

4. Who should/could wear CHANEL No 5?

Old Herbaceous: As with all perfumes, anyone who wants to wear it should! I do think Chanel did a wonderful job creating a youthful No. 5 in L’Eau. I wouldn’t hesitate to wear it myself, but it’s a great option for younger perfumistas. My daughter tells me it still reminds her of her grandmother, but it doesn’t feel old-fashioned. OTOH, a young person who wanted to go against the tide a bit could happily wear the original or Eau Premiére. I often think of No. 5 as three generations: my mother (No. 5), myself (Eau Premiére), my daughter (L’Eau). Or you could think about the three in terms of formality: No. 5 is the one to wear with a full-length gown or tuxedo; Eau Premiére goes with a chic cocktail outfit or suit; L’Eau is a great choice for sundresses or jeans. On any occasion, in any outfit, you will smell fabulous!

Portia: It takes some confidence to wear le monstre. Whether you have it, or need it, then CHANEL No 5 is a perfect choice. There is an association of excellence and beauty held within its DNA. For many CHANEL No 5 is the pinnacle of glamour, wealth, history and elegance. The Wertheimers’ have done an excellent marketing job worldwide since day one. It has kept the company afloat through thick and thin. One of the most talked about ads ever done for CHANEL No 5 was the stupidity that Brad Pitt was made do. Suddenly it was open slather, men, women and everything in between would, could, should get their CHANEL No 5 on. I wholeheartedly concur. If it smells good on you then get it, wear it. Though it is still a tiny bit subversive to wear such an iconic women’s totem if you’re a man, stuff that, wear it and be as glam as you can.

Do you like No. 5? Do you have a favorite version? And don’t forget to hop on over to Australian Perfume Junkies!

Counter/Point, a monthly blog collaboration

21 thoughts on “Counterpoint: Chanel No. 5

  1. I don’t have childhood memories of No5, I don’t think my mom had any. I spent my first summer during college in France with a host family. The last night, I went out to a club with the host older brother, who had spent the summer with my parents in Iowa. Met one of his friends and hit it off. He sent me a splash bottle of no 5 EDC for Christmas that year. It was way too big for a college student who didn’t wear perfume, but I kept it and every now and then tried it before it was accidentally tossed during our last move (lost an entire box which included 3-4 bottles – before I was “into” perfume.) I now have a small bottle of the edt for old times sake. Rarely wear, it’s just not really me, but it evokes a fond memory.

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  2. No 5 came to me in my 40’s. I have no memories of my parents going out together & certainly not getting gussied up to do so. Mum did get dressed up to go shopping & to the hairdressers every Saturday. She also visited the library, a very old fashioned library without a section for children. Silence WAS observed. Mum wore Femme but only a dab. I envy you your glamorous mothers & attentive fathers.
    My collection of No 5 is missing only the EdP. Somehow the EdP doesn’t fit the No 5 DNA. To me it is not beautiful.
    I seem to have a random memory from a 70s teen magazine that Bolan wore No 5 & Jicky. Nothing about it on the web but I like to think of the feyest fairy of glam rock floating round in his cloud & spraying his sequinned wings & lopsided halo with No 5

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  3. No one in my family nor any of our friends or acquaintances wore Chanel No. 5. I’m pretty sure no one in my family could have afforded it. I think I first sniffed No. 5 in college. I love the current version of No. 5 Pure Parfum concentration and No. 5 L’Eau. No. 5 Eau Premiere is also nice, but my favorites are as stated above.

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  4. How fabulous OH that both our Mum’s were No 5 aficionados. Love also that you included the range of No 5s, what an excellent idea.
    It’s now one my desk so it should get a lot more wear in the near future.
    As always, lovely to work alongside you. Can’t wait to work out what we’ll do next month!
    Portia xx

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  5. No 5 is the scent of my childhood as that was when I wore it. I had the black lacquer case with gold rim featured in Portia’s photo ( had a similar case in silver metal for no 19 and white lacquer for no 22). I was a real Chanel fan back in the day and Cristalle was the closest to a signature for me in those days. What I also loved was that it was affordable glamour. The refills for the cases were around $35 for 50ml of EDT. My strongest scent memory was an older ballerina asking me if I was wearing no 5 before our ballet class started on 79th Street and Broadway. When I replied Yes her response was “ it’s a bit too mature of a fragrance for you”. I think I was 14 years old at the time. In the late 90s I had the extrait but have since thunked it. I kind of stopped wearing Chanel as a protest for when the company discontinued no 22 only to resurrect it as an exclusive for ten times the price. I wouldn’t be surprised if the did the same with Cristalle, now that it’s discontinued.

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  6. Nobody in my family wore No. 5 but I had a friend who had it when we were 13 or 14. It didn’t move me then, though I was amazed that she owned it (she was rich family, I wasn’t). It still doesn’t do anything for me today, though I could see myself wearing L’Eau. Part of my mum’s getting ready for out was talc. There would be a cloud in the air before she got dressed. Then she’d spray whichever perfume she had at the time. My parents were social animals and went out regularly so their room always smelled nice.

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  7. Whilst I was writing that description I was chuckling & thinking “I wonder what Mlle would think of the cartoonish manipulation of the female body today. She who, single-handedly freed women from the prison of exaggerated female curves of the corset & bustle?”
    I suspect her public reaction would be no more than a Gallic shrug & that “Tthhssk” noise the French do so well. Privately I’m guessing “Déclassé!”

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  8. I love Chanel No. 5. I am 71 years old. I got my 1st bottle of it when I was a Senior in High School. It is still one of my favorites. I also love Chance Eau Tender. What I can say is that I am a Chanel lady❤️❤️

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