Today is Mother’s Day in the US, and I’m thinking of my own late mother and the perfume I associate most with her, Chanel No.5. No.5 is 100 years old this year, having been launched by the house of Chanel in 1921, which hardly seems possible! Here is the wonderful video Chanel released this year to celebrate No.5‘s centennial:
The version I have is the eau de toilette; in fact, it is the last bottle of No.5 that my mother owned. I brought it home with me, with its few ml of fragrance left, after her funeral and clearing out her home. Wearing a few drops now on the back of my hand, I can still smell how beautiful it is, and think peacefully of my mom.
I wrote about her and No.5 five years ago, in “My Mother’s Last Perfume“. She died in May of 2017; if she were still alive, she would be turning 90 this year — only ten years younger than No.5! We held her memorial service in July of 2017, so that all members of the family could be there, and a memory I find very consoling is that I took charge of working with the florist for the church service. I used to help my mother arrange flowers as part of the church’s “Flower Guild”, a volunteer role that she took very seriously, albeit with some humor. She loved to recount how long it took her to win the approval of the older women in the Flower Guild when she first wanted to join, in spite of her being a member of the church’s vestry! They only let her cut off the ends of stems and hand them the flowers for months.
Because of those companionable times we spent together arranging flowers, I knew her strong likes and dislikes — I don’t think my mom had any likes or dislikes that were anything but strong. I remember telling the florist that we could not have gladioli under any circumstances, because my mom hated them with a passion and she would return from the grave to haunt us all if we had them at her memorial. I was so pleased with our final selections: the roses and lilies she loved; Bells of Ireland, to recall her Anglo-Irish roots and her beloved aunts and grandmother, with whom she spent school holidays; eucalyptus as a reference to her birthplace of New Zealand; and other fragrant flowers, some of which are notes in No.5.
Because I started buying her No.5 in the 1970s, as a child, the version I recall most has the original notes (though I think by then the civet was synthetic): top notes of Aldehydes, Ylang-Ylang, Neroli, Amalfi Lemon and Bergamot; middle notes of Iris, Jasmine, Rose, Orris Root and Lily-of-the-Valley; base notes of Civet, Sandalwood, Musk, Oakmoss, Vetiver, Amber, Vanilla and Patchouli. I’m not sure of the date of the eau de toilette of hers I now have, but it’s probably from the early 2000s. And after an initial “off” opening, it is just lovely.
The aldehydes have survived the passage of time, as have the ylang-ylang and much of the neroli. Lemon and bergamot are no longer detectable. The notes of jasmine and rose are most prominent to my nose in the heart phase, with a gorgeous powdery softness provided by the iris and orris root. I can detect the lily-of-the-valley faintly, but just barely. The drydown is also lovely: it just keeps getting warmer, softer, and sexier, with those beautiful base notes. As many have noted, No. 5 is so well-blended, it is almost abstract. While it is possible to detect single notes, the overall impression is not of a particular flower, which is what perfumer Ernest Beaux and Mme. Chanel intended. No.5 is simply itself, and it is unmistakable to this day.
I don’t often wear No.5, as beautiful as it is, because I do associate it so much with my mom; but I use and love No.5 Eau Premiere as well as No.5 L’Eau. Blogger Neil Chapman of The Black Narcissus described the trio so well in his book “Perfume: In Search of Your Signature Scent” (which I highly, highly recommend!):
Chanel’s enduring, glamorous icon is a scintillation of aldehydes, rose de mai, ylang ylang, orris, jasmine and vanilla (among many other ingredients) — a caress of timeless, confident femininity…. Successful recent reiterations of the No.5 brand that aim to appeal to the younger consumer include Eau Premiere (2007) — which I like for its streamlined primness and muted, statuesque lightness that works convincingly as a chilled, contemporary flanker of the original — and No.5 L’Eau in 2016, which smells as peachy and rosy as the dawn.
I can’t think of another perfume that has had the famous Any Warhol portrait treatment, can you? Do you like No.5, in any of its current versions or flankers? And happy Mother’s Day to all who are celebrating it today!