Reflections on the state of perfume writing occasioned by my reading of
The Secret of Chanel no. 5:
The Intimate History of the World's Most Famous Perfume (2010), by Tilar J. Mazzeo
There is a serious dearth of books on perfume. Trust me, I've looked. A short stack of books are read and praised by perfume lovers because only that short stack exists. To be honest, most of the best of a bad bunch are not really up to snuff, if compared to works about other cultural phenomena written by serious critics with the appropriate theoretical background to support their claim to expertise regarding the topics about which they write.
Part of the problem in the area of perfume—aside from the gushing enthusiasm which seems to substitute in some cases for training and education—appears to be a general deficit of critical acumen among people who are really quite good at self-promotion but much less good at digging very deeply into the topic of perfume. They exalt themselves as experts and then, because there is no one around to dispute such claims, readers simply accept that the authors are what their publishers vociferously proclaim: the experts.
Perfumistas brush all of this aside. They don't care about credentials. “All you need is love” is what many apparently think. Guide groupies bristle at anyone's attempt to point out that personal attacks on perfumers and houses are not a form of valid criticism—and indeed exemplify fallacious reasoning. It all becomes ugly when critics attempt to criticize the pseudo-critics. That, it seems, is not permitted. We must love all perfume lovers who are attempting to elevate the object of our love—no matter how inept and self-defeating their efforts may be in the grand scheme of things, beyond the cloistered community of full-fledged fragrance fans.
Chandler Burr studied business and economics before studying, well, Luca Turin, after which Burr was curiously named the perfume critic for the New York Times. Was that appointment, too, like his current post as The Curator of the Department of Olfactory Art at MAD, his very own idea and a result of his own pitch to have himself appointed to the position? I ask because it has been years since Burr departed from The Times, and no person has yet been named to fill the “vacancy”. Is it that no one can fill his shoes? Or is it that no one else has dared to assert that their undying love of perfume qualifies them to bear the impressive title “The New York Times Perfume Critic”?
The nearly total absence of serious intellectuals directing their energies to the topic of perfume has given rise to what looks rather like a Lockean property first-dibs expertise schema, whereby the first people to have the bravura to label themselves “experts” become through that very act accepted by the ignorant masses as “the experts” about perfume.
There has been no need for intellectual rigor in writing about perfume to this point in history for the simple fact that there are so few perfume books in existence that virtually anything which anyone manages to get published will be praised as great by a small cluster of perfume enthusiasts—dare I say fanatics? In a culture which continues to regard perfume as a mere toiletry—or, at best, an accessory—anyone who cares (obsesses?) enough about perfume to be buying books about the subject is not going to be all that selective. They do not have that luxury, again, for the simple reason that perfume has yet to be taken seriously as an object of sustained intellectual critique.
There's a chicken-and-egg problem here: no one—aside from perfume junkies and geeks—seems to be taking perfume very seriously as a cultural phenomenon, one worthy of sustained critique, precisely because no one aside from juice-addicted perfumistas takes perfume seriously at all, with the notable exception, of course, of those who are in the business of perfumery for the bountiful profits which it reaps.
There are a few astute bloggers here and there, but in the published book category, not much has happened yet. Pseudo-intellectual drivel spewed out about perfume by slick public relations teams deployed in the service of a few aspirants to wealth and fame (and free perfume!) does not help in this regard. Outsiders, the non-perfumistas, cannot take diaphanous perfume marketing campaigns masquerading as high theory seriously. And why, after all, should they?
So there is Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, which portends to be a work of criticism and vaunts being the “only” book of its kind. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: the only book of its kind is both the best and the worst of its kind, and until better books come along, many people will continue to praise that work as great. In reality, Turin and Sanchez do no more in that book than to broadcast their own tastes and promote some perfumers and their creations, while demoting others in rude and sometimes vicious terms.
This point is obviously lost on many perfumistas, but in every other realm of inquiry there is a clear distinction between criticism, on the one hand, and slander and insults, on the other. Unfortunately Turin and Sanchez do not appear to recognize that distinction and brazenly and boorishly conflate the two, offering ad hominem attacks and personal insults in lieu of arguments or principles of aesthetic criticism. An abundance of passion and enthusiasm is not an effective substitute for reason, and being ready and willing to yell louder than anyone around does not imply that one is right.
Books for and by perfume lovers tend to show their bias—and pretension—on their covers. Turin and Sanchez allowed their musings to be published under the highly misleading title Perfume: The A-Z Guide, when it is nothing of the kind. The title is in fact triply mendacious. Fortunately, members of online fragrance communities are slowly becoming more savvy through their exposure to a wide range of reviews written by many different people. As a result, even some of the former Guide groupies appear to be coming to the recognition that, however passionate Turin and Sanchez (and Chandler Burr after them) may be about perfume, they are ultimately, at the end of the day, attempting to persuade readers that idiosyncratic and subjective values and tastes are objective truths.
Another Case in Point
Provocative titles sell books, as many consumers do judge a book by its cover. Tilar Mazzeo's The Secret of Chanel no. 5: The Intimate History of the World's Most Famous Perfume (2010) offers another example of the same. To sell books, one must have a claim to exclusivity and expertise—or pay deference to those who have made that their claim to fame. Chandler Burr's name is emblazoned prominently as the author of the first blurb on the back cover of The Secret of Chanel no. 5. Mazzeo thanks Turin and Sanchez on her acknowledgment page for having taken the time to speak with her. This is how the “expert” system works, too, in academia, where the back-cover blurb industry is frankly laughable, so perhaps I should not be surprised. The difference is that there are no checks and balances of any kind in the tiny universe of entirely self-appointed perfume critics.
What is odd about this book is not that Mazzeo is a true believer in the greatness of Chanel no 5—who but a true believer would bother to attempt to write the cultural history of a single perfume? No, what is a bit surprising is only that her preaching to the choir should be so very flagrant. Leaps of logic abound throughout the story of Chanel no 5 as told by Mazzeo, as she sets up what appear to be genuinely intriguing possibilities, and then in a short phrase resolves the question at issue with the bald statement, in effect, that Chanel no 5 is great, what is both the first premise and the conclusion of this work.
In this regard, Mazzeo provides a book-length example of the informal fallacy known as “begging the question”: to assume as a first premise what one is attempting to demonstrate. (As an aside, in the vernacular, “begging the question” has come recently to be used by people as a substitute for “raising the question”. So one often sees the observation that “this begs the question...,” after which a question is posed.)
Unfortunately, all of the leaps in Mazzeo's “history” lean toward the protectionist side, minimizing any detraction from the hypothesis of the greatness of this perfume and its creator, all of which leads one to suspect that this is not at all “The Unauthorized Biography,” as the inside jacket of the book enticingly boasts, but the “thoroughly approved by the suits at Chanel” version of the story. Devotees will complain (as did Guide groupies before them): "So what? If you want a better book, why don't you write one?”
This sort of response, according to which it is somehow gauche or inappropriate to criticize already published books, that the only acceptable response is to publish another one to replace it, misunderstands the nature of criticism. You publish a book, and you put it out there in the world to be read. Some people will disagree with what you say and call you out on your false, and in some cases fraudulent, claims. That's the chance that you take.
Is the solution to stuff critics' mouths with socks and duct tape them shut? No, it is not. Is the only acceptable response to a mediocre book to publish a better book on the same topic but which avoids making the same mistakes? No, it is not. A critic may not have the interest or desire to devote the years of research needed to get to the bottom of the question. That does not mean that she is required to accept as gospel whatever the shucksters say.
There is a genuinely interesting question here: why is Chanel no. 5 so popular and famous? Well, to anyone familiar with even the broadest contours of the business of perfumery—or business more generally—it might seem that the obvious answer, superlative marketing and hype, should indeed be the best explanation of this perfume's phenomenal success. But, no, Mazzeo “informs” the reader: it is not just marketing; it is not just hype. It is that Chanel no 5 is something somehow transcendent. But is it, even according to Mazzeo's own marshaling of the facts?
Gabrielle Chanel granted control of the perfume branch of her eponymous company to the Wertheimer brothers in exchange for a percentage of profits paid back to her. Why? Because she wanted to focus on fashion, not the production and distribution of perfume. When the perfume became more popular and profitable than her haute couture, Chanel came to experience seller's remorse. This sort of thing is not at all uncommon in the history of business. The person who came up with the idea of Victoria's Secret, a company amazingly devoted solely and unashamedly to lingerie, so that ordinary women could walk into the store without feeling like a whore, sold the idea to someone else who developed it to resounding success. The woman who masterminded the root idea of The Body Shop, also sold her rights, and we all know how that story ended, with stores in cities all over the world. Even Facebook is said to have derived from the root idea of a couple of Mark Zuckerberg's cohorts at Harvard. (See The Social Network (2010), if you are unfamiliar with the story.) What matters in all of these cases is not the bright idea, but how it is nurtured and capitalized upon. Bright ideas are a dime a dozen. Entrepreneurs take such ideas—wherever they came from—and run with them hard and fast.
In the case of Chanel no 5 perfume, the Wertheimer brothers were incredibly savvy at business, more so even than Coco Chanel. The brothers, being Jewish, expatriated right before the German occupation of France to avoid—well, extermination—having sold the majority of the company to an Aryan partner, Félix Amiot, under whose management the company, too, could continue to survive. Under the law at the time, Jewish persons were not permitted to own businesses, and Coco Chanel was ready and willing to do what she needed to regain control of what had by then become a thriving perfumery business. But she was not quite as savvy as her partners, for they beat her to the punch, selling the company before she wrote her infamous letter to carry out her “civic duty” by reporting the Jewish ownership of the perfume branch to the appropriate authorities.
Working in the United States, the Wertheimers continued to devise ingenious marketing strategies. They got the needed Grasse jasmine smuggled out of France and delivered to humble Hoboken. Mazzeo describes how the brothers also decided to stop advertising in the 1940s in order to cut costs. As she tells the story, the natural materials needed to keep the perfume top quality required that corners be cut elsewhere. Of course, they did not reformulate—that would have been to ruin the perfume! Let's see, what would the Chanel company line on reformulation be, I wonder? I believe that it would be in their best interests to deny that the perfume was ever reformulated in any way. Until, of course, that becomes impossible. With the end of the use of natural musk in perfumery, reformulation became ineluctable, but Mazzeo assures the reader near the end of her tale:
Chanel No. 5 fans need not worry, though, because Chanel No. 5 still has those rich, warm scents of skin and that note of intense sensuality that Coco Chanel always wanted. As Christopher Sheldrake explains, while those nitromusks were wonderful, powerful, and inexpensive, they were not irreplaceable. There are ways to re-create their warmth and powdery textures in a perfume. It's just that they can't be replaced on the cheap, and most fragrance houses aren't prepared to spend the money. And, as perfumer Virginia Bonofiglio quips, "You can't make cheap that smells like Chanel No. 5."
In discussing the restrictions imposed by the IFRA regarding the use of jasmine in perfume, Matteo assures the reader, again:
New IFRA allergy restrictions won't threaten the perfume either, because for several years researchers at Chanel have been committed to finding a permanent solution. Among those hundreds of molecules in natural jasmine, it is only one or two that have the potential to cause even the most sensitive among us any problems. Creating a synthetic jasmine as nuanced and subtle as the natural jasmine of Grasse would be an impossible undertaking, but breeding just one or two molecules out of a plant or finding a technique to remove one or two molecules from an extract is entirely possible. Soon, Chanel hopes simply to have resolved the problem of jasmine sensitivity entirely. They hope that, eventually, the jasmine from Grasse will be something anyone can wear without hesitation—no matter how daringly high the doses.
For now, the legacy of the perfume is safe. Despite changes around it, the world's most famous fragrance remains essentially unchanged and timeless.
Goodbye scholarship. Hello, marketing text! And three cheers for GMOs!
To return to the World War II scenario, Matteo explains that rather than compromising the quality of the perfume through cheapening its formula, the Wertheimers instead undertook an initiative which made Chanel no 5 not just profitable, but universally loved: they distributed the perfume through the same channels—the military commissaries or PXs—which delivered food and cigarettes to the troops abroad, wherever they were stationed. Soldiers bought up the perfume for their mistresses or their loved ones back home, and by the end of the war, every woman, it seems, as Mazzeo tells the story, wanted nothing more ardently than a bottle of Chanel no 5—perhaps even more than world peace!
The question which Mazzeo does not answer is this: if it is true that the Wertheimers were so keen to sell as many bottles as possible, and if they knew that their new and vast client base had no perfume sophistication whatsoever, then why in the world would they not reformulate, so as to cut costs further and dramatically increase profits? No, Mazzeo insists. They would never have done such a thing.
Throughout the book, Mazzeo deflects any worries about any possible compromises to the formula of Chanel no 5 in exactly the same way: by flatly denying that they ever took place. Unfortunately, her grounds for this denial appear to be no and more less than her own fervent belief in the continuous integrity of the perfume, through thick and thin, and even at its low point, when the perfume had come to be broadly distributed through American drugstores.
As we all know, the other perfumes which went the drugstore route—consider the sad case of what once were the Coty classics—were horrifically reformulated and never restored. Reformulation in other cases has been a one-way street. Mazzeo simply denies that it ever took place at all in the case of Chanel no 5—despite the fact that it was being sold alongside other ghastly reformulations at the drugstore at the same time.
It is true, of course, that Chanel no 5 is in much better shape today than, say, Coty Muguet des Bois or Emeraude or Nina Ricci L'Air du Temps or... the list goes on and on. But that does not show that Chanel no 5 was never being sold in an inferior formulation while being mass-marketed at drugstores. Instead, it suggests that under subsequent management, the perfume was brought back to its luxury status—and, one surmises, was re-reformulated to the point of at least approximating the original perfume.
What can the grounds be for Mazzeo's insistence on the perfume's uninterrupted integrity beyond the fact that the company denies that reformulation ever took place? The Wertheimers were businessmen, not believers in the sacred immortality of the product which they were peddling. To them, it was a commodity like any other, so why would they cut into their own profits by producing Chanel no 5 at a quality level likely to go altogether unnoticed by the sorts of people—soldiers and their lovers—to whom it was being sold? No answer is given to this question by Mazzeo, because it should be obvious to any of her readers—most of whom are no doubt already true believers—that such an aesthetic crime would be tantamount to murder.
To return to the question of how Chanel no 5 ascended to universal icon status, what Mazzeo does not address is whether the distribution of the perfume to emotionally fraught and love-starved troops—allied and axis alike—would not have done the same for any other perfume distributed in that way. This was what catapulted Chanel no 5 to its status as the number-one selling perfume, where it has stayed since World War II, and what secured what Mazzeo seems to think will be its eternal fame. In truth, the wild popularity of this particular perfume could be explained by the ingenious distribution scheme alone—the creation of this perfume as a coveted object replete with profound significance as a symbol of survival and the scent of victory and relief.
After spending the entire book beating back any possible suggestion to the effect that Chanel no 5 might not be a sacred and transcendent object worthy of our eternal worship—akin to a religious totem—Mazzeo waffles in her final chapter, ascribing the greatness of this perfume to its legion of fans and attempting to anchor it in individual wearers' subjectivity. She writes:
Instead, the secret at the heart of Chanel No. 5 and its continued success is us and our relationship to it. It's the wonderful and curious fact of our collective fascination with this singular perfume for nearly a century and the story of how a scent has been—and remains—capable of producing in so many of us the wish to preserve it. Think of that number: a bottle sold every thirty seconds. It is an astounding economy of desire.
The root problem with this account is that the author simply ignores what would seem to be the real reason why throngs of fans wore and continue to wear this perfume. They were lured by marketing and hype to buy the perfume, or their lovers or husbands were seduced to purchase it for them. Once a bottle of the perfume had found its way to their vanity tray, these women wore Chanel no 5 and then, of course, it did become their own—for many it was and remains a signature scent.
The problem with Mazzeo's logic is that she supposes that the inherent properties of the perfume are the explanation for the perfume's fan base. If that were the case, why in the world would Chanel need to pay Brad Pitt $7 million to jump start sales? Clearly Chanel no 5 does not sell itself. It requires a huge marketing outlay and ingenious schemes for its continuing success. The first generations of wearers are now dead or moribund. What to do next?
Today, in the twenty-first century, as World War II fades from people's memories, the company is trying once again to drum up enthusiasm for a perfume whose time may have come. An overdose of aldehydes combined with precious essences of jasmine and rose was new and exciting in 1921, and the popularity of the perfume was renewed with each successive marketing scheme, but as the last World War II soldiers and survivors take leave of this world, so will the profound existential significance with which Chanel no 5 was infused throughout much of the twentieth century. We still associate this perfume with images of Marilyn Monroe, dead now for more than fifty years, and the models who represented it in subsequent decades: Catherine Deneuve, Carole Bouquet, Nicole Kidman, Audrey Tatou, and now Brad Pitt. Perhaps Pitt will be the nail in this coffin.
Needless to say, I am not a believer and was not converted by Tilar Mazzeo's book to the view that the resplendent success of Chanel no 5, a good perfume to be sure, has more to do with its allegedly divine beauty than with how it was promoted and distributed throughout the twentieth century. If you are a true believer, then you'll surely read this book as the welcome revelation of gospel. You may enjoy Mazzeo's attempt mystically to link the pristine white sheets at Coco's orphanage to the glacial plains of Siberia and the prominent aldehydes featured in Chanel no 5. No harm in that—don't we all like to read what we already believe? But for everyone else, the most plausible answer to the question What is the secret to Chanel no 5's success? remains unchanged by the publication of this book. The answer, in a phrase, is: marketing and hype.