Sunday, April 17, 2011

Tilar Mazzeo "The Secret of Chanel No.5": Fragrance Book Review

Partly a biography of Gabrielle Chanel (nicknamed Coco) and partly a biography of the famous perfume she co-authored, Chanel No. 5, Tilar Mazeo's book is one I knew about right when it was being authored, because I had been approached to assist with a couple of fragrance history questions. That might be why I was so inexplicably late in actually reviewing it, hesitant to deconstuct that beautiful narrative into info and personal opinions on style. Yet, because it is a book that is a real page-turner and which deserves a place in the library of perfume enthusiasts, I find myself thinking about it very often since its release and needing to relay my thoughts in black & white; much like the aesthetics of this iconic bottle dictate.

Cultural historian Tilar Mazzeo, after her best-selling The Widow Cliquot, has written a new book about Coco Chanel's legendary scent, The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World's Most Famous Perfume. In it, she skillfully interweaves facts about Chanel's life based on accredited biographers, such as Edmonde Charles Roux's biography Chanel and Her World, and musings recorded by memoir note-keeper perfumer Constantine Wériguine who kept a record of Ernest Beaux's souvenirs (Beaux being No.5' s illustrious perfumer). The inextricable struggle for survival of Coco, who went from orphanage in Aubazine to the cabaret and then on to the fashion atelier, aided by powerful men (Arthur "Boy" Capel, prince Dimitri and von Dincknlage among others) who loved her and aided her, and of her most famous creation, Chanel No.5 is fascinating to unravel.
I can guarantee you that you will be reaching for your bottle of Chanel No.5 every few chapters, in a desire to refresh your memory of what makes this fragrance truly an icon. If you're truly obsessive like myself, you will be putting all your vintages and concentrations imaginable from Eau de Cologne to Eau de Toilette, via Eau de Parfum, all the way to Extrait de Parfum in various dates on the desk and inhaling furtively to catch the secret of a commercial mega-success as recognisable today as Coca-Cola and Nike.

Among the merits of Tilar Mazzeo's book is its fast-paced rhythm which makes it a real page-turner; its wealth of documentation, amply showcased in the Notes section, where yours truly appears twice, no less; in the careful style of language that is engaging and joyful to read; and in the small astonishing facts that appear throughout. Several facts will make perfume enthustiasts perk up their ears and take note, like the notion that Beaux didn't create the first draft for No.5 on command of his patron, nor did he just employ his former recipe for Rallet No.1 which was a Russian Court favourite, before the Bolshevik Revolution which cost Ernest Beaux his stay in the mother land. Beaux was actually questioning prisoners in a location in the remote Archangel port of northest Russia when he noticed the scent of icebergs, wishing to capture this elusive, fleeting odour into a fragrance that could be worn on skin. It will be also interesting to see how Chanel herself was No.5's worst enemy, as she had signed away most of the rights to her fragrance early on to the Wertheimer brothers, and how she spent over 50 years fighting to get it back or destroy it. Indeed if one thing becomes apparent to the knowledgable reader who knew some of these secrets is how the meticulous care and consistent savvy business decisions of the Wertheimers, like smuggling jasmine concrete from Grasse fields to New Jersey laboratories during Nazi-occupied France in WWII, and putting the perfume for sale in Army sale points, have resulted in making Chanel No.5 the legend that it is to this day: the world's best known perfume!

If there is a "flaw" in The Secret of No.5 it is that the author intent on merging the designer with her famous masterpiece narrates the story as if every past deed in Coco's life bears a significance in the creation of the perfume by perfumer Ernest Beaux. It did not, as Beaux was certainly busy composing several first and second and upteenth drafts of his sperm idea years before he met Coco Chanel. But in retrospect everything falls into place and it is this which probably make the author choose this type of narrative style. The composition resonated with Chanel because it embodied everything she and her past stood for: a true classic yet perenially modern; the smell of "Boy" Capel who stood for cleanliness and safety, of fresh laundry & scrubbed skin reminiscent of the Cistercian orpahanage in Aubazine and the fervor of the demi-mondaines, young cabaret performers & societal fringe-living, less-respected women who wore heavy, sweet jasmine and musk scents; a bridge between the risqué and the lady-like, all in an emballage that spoke of Spartan deco restraint and mucho class. So much class and desirability in fact, that GIs were standing in line to get the goods back home during WWII and even Marilyn Monroe publicly proclaimed she loved it without being paid one dime to say she did.
In that regard it reminds me a bit of the cultural approach led by Jennifer Craik in The Face of Fashion: Cultural Studies in Fashion, another recommended read.

Bottom line: The Secret of Chanel No.5, despite its relative lack of pictures (there are a handful but not many), is a perfume book that will not tire or confuse less seasoned/less knowledgable perfume enthusiasts and, at the same time, it will not disappoint those who are more immersed in the aficion. Can I say it is recommended without appearing prejudiced?

The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World's Most Famous Perfume
By Tilar Mazzeo
Hardcover, 304 pages
List Price: $25.99

Disclosure: I bought the book with my own money, even though I was offered an advanced copy at the time of writing.


  1. One of the perfume bottles that have a permanant place in my perfume collection. It is one of those perfumes that is wearable year round. It's my 'I don't know what I want to wear' perfume.

  2. Alexandra12:20

    I like the perfume a lot, but I do not approve of Coco's illicit relationship with Boy (he was married)and then Stravinski who was also married! I would like my perfumes to reflect noble love, not built at the expense of others(partner's families). I know that I am a creature full of flaws myself, but if I was to admire a perfume for its myth, I wouldn't choose the particular one, for the reasons I explained above.

  3. Alexandra12:22


  4. Fiordiligi16:57

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book, even though I'm not a Chanel No 5 fan. I'm endlessly fascinated by Gabrielle Chanel's life, good and bad, and no-one can deny the astonishing success of this scent. Recommended to all perfume fans, definitely!

  5. Anonymous17:34

    Hi Elena!

    Completely off topic here..... Will you direct me to your link that had discussed the different honey notes used in perfumery that sometimes give off a urinous scent?

    Thanks in advance.

    Hope you are well and enjoying the early stages of the Spring season.



  6. Eleonore18:52

    I've just finished reading Justine Piacardie's book on Coco Chanel and I have always been fascinated by Chanel's struggle to be independant, to earn her own money, to achieve something beautiful and to succeed, though in the end she acknowleged she was lonely and that was her failure...I love N°5 (Allure too and Coco and Cristalle...except n°19 which doesn't smell nice on me, I'm a Chanel perfumes fan)and I'll try to find Tilar Mazzeo's book, I am sure I'll learn a lot of beautiful things Thank you for drawing our attention to it:-)

  7. Yes, Elena, I did reach for my No. 5 every few chapters! I enjoyed the book a lot but found it could have been padded out a bit more. I got a good insight into Gabrielle Chanel - the person- better or worse- I am not quite sure !
    Thanks for your stellar review . :)

  8. Dawn,

    I believe you're refering to my Perfumery Material post on Honey. Scroll down to honey notes in perfumes to see them all and peruse the list of fragrances below to check.

    I'm very well and preparing for much needed repose. It's absolutely lovely at this time of year, even though it chilled a bit yesterday. HOpe you're also well!

    Good people, will return to your comments replying very soon!

  9. Dawn, forgot to link this one as well:

    Scent vocabulary: what note produces which effect?

    Might be helpful to you as well.

  10. Anonymous19:47

    Thank you so much! I'm going to link it those to a post on Facebook where the honey / urine subject came up with my test of Andy Tauer's Zeta. I get a VERY subtle urine smell in Zeta and someone had mentioned that the Linden Blossoms in her yard have a naturally occurring pissy smell. I thought that was interesting. I have never smelled a Linden Blossom and never knew that. In Zeta that scent does feel like it is naturally occuring. But in other scents that I detect a much heavier urine note ie; Miel de Bois and Cologne Pour le Soir, it does not smell naturally occuring.


    Thanks again.



  11. Eld,

    it's definitely a year round scent to me as well. Part of its success, I'd wager. ;-)

  12. Alex,

    I think you might be even more disillusioned to find out she was simpatico to Nazis! But then, many haute brands have a very seedy past (witness Dior's niece video which surfaced after the Galliano fiasco).
    Sometimes the oeuvre and the people are miles apart...

  13. D,

    indeed it was a very engaging read, because it highlighted many aspects of Chanel's life. I suppose those who have an interest in her will like it very much indeed.

    Hope you're very well!! I have been rushing these days, trying to get everything done before leaving.

  14. Eleonore,

    thank you, the pleasure is all mine.
    It's a nicely paced read and highlights many of Chanel's less well known life factoids. I had read Roux's biography of course, but still enjoyed it. The Picardie book is also enjoyable.

  15. Mimi,

    indeed us perfume lovers would love for it to relay more perfume information. For instance, how the process went even without/before Chanel (as the concept began in Beaux's head, not Chanel's). Instead we learn few things on that score. But I suppose the general audience wouldn't appreciate too much technical information, judging by my correspondence with Tilar.

  16. Dawn,

    very interesting about Zeta. Yes, there is a honeyed note and yes, it can read as slightly urinous (tho I'm lucky myself). I do get lots of urine in Miel de Bois though!

  17. Hi E,

    how are you lately? Long time no see. I have just started to read this book, it is indeed very well written and full of information, I went through 60 pages on the first day. There were a couple of things that I was wondering about though.

    The author mentioned the meeting between Cleopatra and Anthony, where she said that Cleopatra dosed herself in sandalwood, cinnamon, myrrh and frankincense. However, I have read at various places that she was using either roses or jasmines. Do you know which was the documented version?

    There was also the passage about big white flowers were not for the good girls at the beginning of 20th century. Among the "allowed" flowers for the ladies from good families there was also gardenia, which I would consider to be as white flowery as tuberose and jasmine. So why was gardenia ok? Was it because gardenia was still an exotic flower from far-away-lands at that time?

    Happy Easter!

  18. Anonymous03:52

    I need to stop by more often. I didn't know you had reviewed this book. :) I just read it last week. I craved No. 5 the entire time. It was a fascinating read. - Lilybelle


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