May Melange Marathon: Mother’s Day and No. 5

May Melange Marathon: Mother’s Day and No. 5

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!

Bottles of Chanel No.5 perfume by Andy Warhol
Chanel No.5 portraits by Andy Warhol; image from Fragrantica.com.
May Muguet Marathon: Neil Chapman’s “Perfume”

May Muguet Marathon: Neil Chapman’s “Perfume”

If you have read the excellent fragrance blog The Black Narcissus, you have already encountered the writing of Neil Chapman. Neil published, this spring, his first book, called “Perfume: In Search of Your Signature Scent.” You can buy it on Amazon.com! It’s a great book, full of his unique insights, impressions, and life experiences, enriched by his knowledge not only of perfume but of the literature of various cultures. Case in point: his introduction of the section in his book that discusses lily of the valley as a fragrance note.

In Natsume Soseki’s 1909 novel Sore Kara (‘And then …’) the main protagonist, Daisuke — a fraught, pretence-addled, indolent ‘aesthete’ whose descent into madness forms the core of the novel — has a predilection for sleeping in the aroma of delicate flowers in order to negate life’s sordid realities. Overly affected by the ordinary physical world, this nervous book collector uses a faint, lightly sweet floral scent at night to reduce his contacts with the world to a minimum: snowy white lilies of the valley, with their stems not yet cut, flowers that form an important motif in the novel, but not only for their pristine beauty and virginal whiteness.

The muguet fragrances Neil reviews in his book are: Diorissimo, Muguet du Bonheur, Penhaligons’ Lily of the Valley, Don’t Get Me Wrong, Baby, I Don’t Swallow, Muguet Fleuri, Muguet Blanc, Quartana’s Lily of the Valley, and Muguet des Bois. His reviews of those are as distinctive and individually nuanced as his writing quoted above.

I highly recommend Neil’s book, whether you are new to the exploration of fragrances, or you are a perfumista with dozens (or hundreds!) of bottles of your own. There are eleven main chapters, named generally for scent groupings of his own, like “Green”, “Gourmand”, “Eros.” You will learn a lot, no matter where you are in your perfume journey; and even fragrances you know well get “The Black Narcissus” treatment, in which Neil weaves his own extensive knowledge with his personal observations, impressions, and experiences. His story of his close encounter with Japanese incense (he and his partner live in Japan) and the accompanying ceremony is hilarious and worth the price of the book for that alone.

But in line with the theme of this month, I especially recommend reading his thoughts on lilies of the valley and the fragrances listed above. And as a bonus, you can read the end of his summation of that Japanese novel! Have you read Neil’s blog The Black Narcissus?

Japanese woman wearing traditional garb with lily of the valley headpiece

Traditional Japanese outfit with ‘lily of the valley’ kanzashi; image from http://www.donatale.com

Fragrance Friday: Neil’s Book “Perfume”

I am in awe of the fact that Neil Chapman, author of the blog The Black Narcissus, has written and had published an actual BOOK! It is called “Perfume: In Search of Your Signature Scent”, and it just came out in the US (it came out a short time earlier, in March, in the UK). You can buy it on Amazon, where I had pre-ordered it; I came home from work earlier this week to find the package waiting on my doorstep. It is also available online and at booksellers such as Blackwell’s and Barnes & Noble.

As others have written, the book itself is beautiful, a hardcover volume with an Art Deco cover design in black, gold, and silver, and gold-edged pages. If you have ever read The Black Narcissus, you know that Neil is a wonderfully gifted writer with wide-ranging interests. His posts about fragrance include many cultural references and observations from his years living in several countries, from his childhood and youth in England, to his current home in Japan. He studied Italian and French literature at Cambridge University, and he now teaches English to Japanese secondary school students. His literary sensibilities suffuse his writing, but he also includes deeply personal reminiscences and a vast knowledge of perfume: history, ingredients, creators, etc.

Neil’s individual reviews of specific perfumes are grouped into categories such as “Green”, then by notes like “grasses, leaves and herbs.” (As a lover of green fragrances myself, I was thrilled that this is the first chapter!) It is a remarkably user-friendly format with an exhaustive index if one just wants to read one review of a specific fragrance. Neil has a poetic sensibility and lifelong love of perfume, both of which his writing reflects. As he says, “In its wordless abstraction, a beautifully made scent can encapsulate an emotion; smell, with its visceral link to the unconscious, is unique in its emotional immediacy.” His short reviews of individual fragrances combine information about their components and creation with his own reactions to wearing them, or memories of times when he wore them. Since his own perfume collection must number in the thousands, including many rare vintage perfumes, even the most profligate collectors of perfumes will find surprises and revelations. However, the book is also a very accessible guide for those who are just exploring fragrance, or, as he writes, “a guide through a world that can at times seem overwhelming.”

Bravo, Neil! I’m wearing Vol de Nuit in your honor today! To learn more about Neil, check out this interview on the blog “Olfactoria’s Travels.”