Friday, February 15, 2013

A Tendentious History of the World's Most Hyped Perfume

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.


  1. Of course marketing keeps No5 alive but I will dare add that it has another quality that makes it likeable: the combination of aldehydes with the rest of the ingredients creates a combination that has been very easy to market and very appealing to female audiences in different eras. It smells trashy in an expensive way. The stereotype of the a girl behaving badly is simply white trash when it is cheap but rich bitch when it feels expensive. We are recently experiencing a come back of the rich bitch to the throne with perfumes (and marketing) like Prada Candy.

    Incidentally I got my hands on a bottle of ancient Chanel No5 Eau de Cologne and I can tell you that those nitro musks were not replaced flawlessly. The rich bitch was a lot bitchier back in the days :)

    1. Greetings, Christos!

      Thank you for this insightful addition: that "white trash" and "rich bitch" are two sides of the same coin. I believe that Anna Nicole Smith, may she rest in peace, demonstrates your claim! Even Gabrielle Chanel's own life suggests the same: from failed show girl to live-in concubine to ruler of a fashion empire...

      Prada Candy is an interesting case. I agree about the advertising, no question there. My reception of the perfume itself has been affected by the fact that I find it so similar to another creation with entirely different connotations: Trussardi Inside.

  2. Fabulous article Shera!! I defy anyone with a halfway decent nose to try and tell me that reformulation doesn't go on at Chanel! Bollocks!! i spent enough of my life endlessly spraying no.5 on wrist after wrist promoting the stuff to know that what comes out of the bottle today in 2013 is a far cry from what used to come out 20 years ago ... no.5 est mort ...

    1. Thank you, Couture Guru! (I'm very happy that you seem to have returned from your "three-hour cruise...")

      It occurred to me upon reading your comment that the ultimate history of this perfume should perhaps be an oral history of testimonies from the sales associates who peddled it. They, more than anyone else, know what was done to maintain the status of the perfume over the century during which it ruled. That would truly be an "unauthorized" biography and the ultimate "insider" story, filled with juicy details as opposed to marketing pablum...

    2. Now THERE'S an idea Comrade Sherapop!!! Teehee ... more like stranded on a not so desert Island LOL. It's nice to be home :).

  3. "You can't make cheap that smells like Chanel No.5" - unless it's Chanel No.5. This perfume IS cheap, always was, and once upon a time was something often found in drugstores and low-rent toiletry shops in Europe and the U.S. Now I can't say it was ever "dirt cheap" and on the bottom shelf, but a big-box hi-falutin' glamour girl signature? Questionable. People have always liked it, it's always sold well, but only recently (after Chanel's death) has No.5 really catapulted into the stratosphere of desirability. Commercial hype and the notion that something is old and time-tested, i.e., "classic", sells units more than any improvement in formula or newfangled packaging ever could.

    About the first part of this blog post - I'm inclined to think that when it comes to people like Chandler Burr, the best course of action is to consider their friends. Obviously Burr's position was not a serious one, because as you pointed out, he has not been replaced. There was no consideration that the newspaper needed Burr before he worked there, and while he worked there, no one worried about whether or not he would stay on, or they would keep him on, because when he exited stage left they had no stand-in waiting to fill his vacancy. Now that he's officially gone, there's no impulse to replace him at all, and the idea of a fragrance writer has been cut loose and set adrift into the great 20th Century Outdated Media Graveyard. So where does that leave Burr's credibility? Let's argue for a moment that the man actually is an art and perfume expert, with admirable academic credentials in both fields. His knowledge of New York School performance art, continental earth art, American and Western European conceptual art, and international Neo-Expressionism is as vast and bottomless as his understanding of organic and inorganic chemistry, natural perfumery, and gas chromatography. If you say, "Matthew Barney," Burr will instantaneously spit out, "Cremaster Cycle." If you follow that with Mark Buxton's most overlooked fougere, Burr will exclaim, "Taxi!" His knowledge is deep because, we can reason based on what he's shown us, he loves both subjects passionately, and his understanding of them is boundless. So he then writes for the New York Times about perfume, and the newspaper waves his credentials around at every opportunity, and what people generally begin to ascribe to Burr are characteristics of a tedious establishment figure with tedious tastes. He's not really interesting, because he knows all of this, and he can direct you to the textbooks (maybe even lend them to you) that he had to pore over while writing his thesis in art history, if you should ever corner him on the subject. Yeah he's got all the right dust-jacket frills, but there are dozens of guys out there like him with credentials that are similar, the same, maybe even more impressive. Ditto for the perfume knowledge. (continued in next post)

    1. But what happens with the actual Burr? The man has expertise in a field relatively unrelated to art and perfume. He then takes a shining to someone (Turin) and becomes his biographer, a fawning sycophantic sideliner who yearns to somehow make his own mark without looking like a fawning sycophantic sideliner in the process. So he talks a big talk to everyone he meets. He generates these half-original theories about the intrinsic artistic value behind perfume. He starts greasing the right monkeys and someone lets him write a couple of unofficial columns as a "perfume reviewer" that get panel-tested with readers across America. There's enough positive (and mixed) feedback to warrant a part-time gig, and Burr gets it. Now he has his soapbox. He continues to talk the big talk: "Perfume is art. Art is, by definition, artificial, definitively NOT of nature." And then suddenly readership starts to lag further than usual, the budget gets cut for the one millionth time in the paper's history, and Burr's column and his comfortable like paycheck cut the axe. Now we must take it into something that transcends the pedestrian newspaper - the ART WORLD. We must take up with a museum that will take up with us, just after we talk to them about everything artistic by citing the first sentences of every chapter of our neice's art textbook, thereby impressing upon paycheck issuers our boundless knowledge of art. The museum says, "well, the NYT published him for a couple of years. he must know what he's talking about." and so they give him a show, as long as the perfume brands help foot the bill. Voila, now we have officially entered into the sweepstakes of the art world, without knowing a precious thing about art, or perfume. We talk big. We post videos of blind-sniff reviews (just like hundreds of other guys from their apartment bedrooms), and we hold fancy dinners and galas to which all sorts of impressive folk in the art and perfume worlds go. But when pressed for details by the people who are interested in perfume, what happens? We get crickets chirping. The reviews across the blogosphere are tepid at best, scalding at worst, and few are honestly good (there's the occasional obvious fluff piece here and there).

      The effect on the zeitgeist: another know-nothing has influenced a hemisphere in which only the know-somethings stand to lose. The fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants guy named Chandler Burr, on the other hand, continues to sell one thing above the theories that perfume is art, art is artificial, neither world is mutually exclusive - he sells himself. Presto! Fame. Fat paychecks for doing nothing. Few personal critics. Even more friends, some of them sycophants (a perfect circle!), and the reality gets skewed away from what's really true, into what Chandler Burr has posited is true. Two very different things. It takes panels of people and years of rehashing to make sense out of this. You, Sherapop, and I, are the kinds of people who foot the bill for that.

    2. Brilliant, Bryan!

      I had to read your post twice (once à haute voix) because it was so beautiful. I think that this text would make excellent lyrics for a rap song, actually. ;-)

      Obviously I was referring to you as one of the astute bloggers. Please consider publishing a book to help to tamp this tide of nonsense...

    3. You wrote:

      "the notion that something is old and time-tested, i.e., "classic", sells units more than any improvement in formula or newfangled packaging ever could."

      This is an excellent point which many people overlook. Human beings appear to be conservative by nature. They also exhibit many sheep-like qualities. They want to be told what to do, what is good, what to buy. "Tradition" and "withstanding the test of time" are accepted uncritically as evidence of value. Of course, they do represent a type of value: survival of the fittest. But "fittest" does not mean "best" in any sort of metaphysical sense. No, it's a practical survival in the business jungle.

      Thank you for this insightful observation, Bryan!

  4. Great review! I really hated this book, but really don't remember a whole lot of it, other than it needed a serious fact checker to reign in Mazzeo's lazy scholarship and fanciful history (not only did WWII-era women want nothing more than a bottle of No. 5, they also shopped at the local PX for... pantyhose!). It did pique my interest in the Wertheimers, I'll give the book that. Are there any Wertheimer biographies out there?

    As for Turin/Sanchez's Guide, once you figure out their personal friends and grudges, you can gauge their reviews accordingly. I see it as a Jokes for the John... about perfume.

    1. Thank you, Furriner! It's great to read you here again.

      I cannot say that I hated the book, but it definitely was not a page turner. In fact, I had to check the book out twice and exhaust all renewals both times in order to slog my way through it. Every time I bumped into one of the marketing plugs, I rolled my eyes and closed the book. Unfortunately, it happened many, many times.

      Yes, the Wertheimers seem like a worthy and no doubt fascinating story to delve further into. I wonder whether everything which they ever wrote and did is now sealed off forever in a vault at Chanel? I'll see whether I can find anything on them, but I have to confess that I am not optimistic...

      It's quite clear, even from Mazzeo's version of the story, that the fame of the perfume should be credited to the Wertheimers, not to Gabrielle Chanel. For decades she had nearly nothing to do with its production or distribution, aside from selling it in her Paris boutique. During precisely those decades the perfume ascended to international icon status.

      In fact, Gabrielle Chanel's decision to sign away her rights to the perfume demonstrates that she regarded it as an ancillary product—much like today's designers who produce perfumes as accessories of sorts. In most cases, the perfumes end up serving to market the couture, not the other way around.

      Designers continue to regard perfume as a form of accessory or toiletry. That's why people who could never afford even one piece of Pierre Balmain haute couture can fill their armoir with Balmain perfume!

  5. Hi Sherapop - I think it's interesting that some obvious characteristics of both No. 5 (the perfume) and no. 5 (the marketing project) are often overlooked, in any history. I recall as a young kid watching the No. 5 television commercials on TV and being completely mesmerized, asking myself, 'What did I just see?' Those short experimental films are still in my memory, and were probably my first exposure to surrealism. There was a decision somewhere along the way to advertise Chanel No. 5 with incredibly abstract images, sounds, and there was some genius in that.. it was almost a way of admitting that scent is SO abstract that there is no way to portray it literally. I think that anyone who doesn't link the marketing of No. 5 with the success of the scent is really dismissing the power of images, and, for better or worse, the power of advertising.

    The fact that many women enjoyed the smell of No. 5 certainly positively boosted the longevity of the perfume, but there's no question that a mystique was actively created around the perfume. I really see the two as permanently entwined, and in this particular case it's not a bad thing - No. 5's advertising was and still remains fascinating.

    The larger question you raise about the relative scholarship of perfume writing, perfume history, is certainly a big one, and probably one that doesn't have a direct path to clear set of criteria. I recall with MUCH amusement a epic argument between a filmmaker boyfriend and I about the subject- or objectivity of art criticism; I'm sure we argued for both sides at least twice. Basically, because we came from different cultures and different schools of thought, we spent most of the argument just trying to FRAME the argument and agree upon terminology. By the time we were more or less ready to REALLY argue, we were exhausted, and ended the discussion. I keep thinking of that when I think about the question of scholarship in the world of scent. I wonder if many of us are witnessing just the beginning of this larger discussion, and therefore it will be a while before we get out of the woods.

    Something that might enter into the discussion here is the exponential rise in the amount of writing about scent that has appeared on the web in the last 5-10 years. I think the sheer volume of opinions, interpretations, writing styles, modes of communication, has both helped and challenged the task of scent writing and scent understanding. The human sense of smell has some aspects that could be called objective (i.e., there are some smells that are universally perceived as foul, and some as delightful) but not all. It seems that the 'not all' territory is the place where dissection occurs. How do we talk about it? What do we expect others to already know about it? How vast is the subjectivity about that oud, eh? ;-)

    Perhaps the experts of this field will emerge through some time-tested methods: trust, reliability, dedication, good scholarship, etc. Also, maybe the experts will actually be people who wear very different hats. I know some people, for example, who have an amazing recall of the history of perfumery, but who don't know much about essential oil sourcing, and vice versa. I would get so much by talking to both of them for each of their expertise. Do we need more generalists? Or more subject matter experts? These questions fascinate me, and I think we're lucky to be at the beginning of this exploration. Thanks for asking the questions!

    1. Greetings fellow Bostonian Johngreenink!

      It's very nice to see you here at the salon de parfum. I recently read your excellent piece at Fragrantica on the Serge Lutens Boutique in Paris. Bravo! Here's a link or those who missed it:

      I agree with you that image creation is inextricably connected to the success of Chanel no 5, and I also agree that there is nothing shameful or wrong about it. The advertising campaigns have been masterful—so masterful, in fact, that they have created “true believers” such as Tilar Mazzeo, who are willing to go to the mat to deny that the success of the perfume derives primarily from the images associated with it. So, for example, when she discusses Marilyn Monroe, Mazzeo interprets the star's love of the perfume as yet more evidence that the perfume is inherently, intrinsically “sexy”. In fact, it seems quite obvious that Monroe, too, was affected by the image of sophistication and glamour surrounding the perfume. Let's face it: Marilyn Monroe is another example of what Christos observed above (in the first comment to this post): that “rich bitch” and “white trash” are two sides of the very same coin!

      You are also right, of course, that the perfume smelled good to the women who came to adopt it as a signature scent and bought it over and over again. But the fact remains that the act of acquiring the very first bottle was often—and I believe usually—not motivated by the properties of the perfume itself. If the perfume was acquired as a gift—as Mazzeo herself explains in her discussion of the distribution to troops abroad—then it had to have been the image, the allure, the enticing luxury of the very idea, which sold the perfume.

      Human beings are creatures of habit, so possessors of bottles quickly become accustomed to whatever perfume they initially wear—provided that it is not repulsive, which of course Chanel no 5 is not. It smells very good to many people, but part of what made it smell so good to the early users was precisely what makes luxury objects more generally desirable: the sense of satisfaction which one feels upon joining an elite group able to indulge in such “special” items—in this case, undoubtedly enhanced among Americans (and others) by the fact that it was “French”. The fantasy of believing that one is like the glamorous models who advertise the perfume, that one shares their “glamorous” taste!

      Thank you also for your comments on the state of perfume writing. Yes, we are at the beginning of perfume writing history, it seems, so it's really up to us to develop and apply the needed standards lacking up to now. You ask: "Do we need more generalists?" "Or more subject matter experts?" These are excellent questions, worthy of further reflection and discussion.

      What I am convinced of is that we do not need frauds, people who purport to be what they are not. We do not need people who pose as critics but effectively serve as shills for megacorporate perfume industry interests. The online fragrance communities are bound to help in this regard. As you say: the sheer volume of writing about perfume has been increasing quite rapidly. In fact, the volume of writing may be increasing even faster than the volume of new perfume—and that's saying a lot!

      I hope that we will read you here again soon, Johngreenink, your comments are most insightful and very welcome!

  6. Thank you for the welcome to the Salon, and also many thanks for reposting that link, that's very kind. There is much to read here, and I'm happily making my way through!

    I think we are of very similar minds on the sell/smell inseparability of No. 5, and in a way, it's a shame that THAT isn't the subject of a biography - and what a case of fascinating historical study that could be! Take for instance even the absolute minimalism of Chanel No. 5's packaging - the white box, the black printed edges. It practically begged the buyer to bring his or her own fantasy to the perfume that was already in the mind. So, indeed, the perfume did not really sell itself, and I think it's a general disservice to all of us if we lead ourselves to think otherwise. Ah, the problems that are created when we mythologize!

    But indeed, as you say, we are completely creatures of habit, and there's no question that Chanel No. 5 became a habit for women the world over. I will say that I have not read the book, although I'm a bit loath to do so if it's not really an objective view of the perfume. I don't mean that to come off as pretentious or snooty, but it's just that a book-length pseudo-history/love letter is not really my idea of research. That would be a novel. But I'm jogging onto a tangent there...

    I also agree that if there is to be some kind of scholarship, criticism, or even just slightly-more-objective writing, it can't be tied to the very industries that create the stuff; nor can it really be created by random, self-appointed seers. The optimist in me says that perhaps the web might allow for a bit of meritocracy here - that good analysis will 'rise to the top'. I'm not a hundred percent sure of that, of course, but it would be a pleasantly organic way for true experts to emerge.

    But your blog post also got me thinking about an important quality to any writing and criticism that's going to be worth it's weight out there. It has to be constructive. I can count many cases of running across writing in this realm where many names are mentioned, lots of hot words tossed around, but nothing truly constructive came out of the whirlwind. There has to be some kind of take-away that resonates for the reader, something that will also instill some kind of cohesion between reader and author. THAT would build trust, and hopefully the trust creates some credence. Mutually, an expert is born! Then again, maybe I'm being naive... :-)

    And now I will venture to some other rooms in the Salon...


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