Friday, October 26, 2012

Chanel No.5: Precious Ingredients Lore

At the heart of Chanel No.5 marketing lies the lore of prized perfumery materials. Fragrant jasmine from Grasse, real ambergris as precious as gold, the choisest foundations on which to build a masterpiece... It can be argued that the significance -and indeed definition- of a masterpiece doesn't rely on the materials it is made of necessarily, but on the way it is made and the intellectual/emotional message it conveys. Yet, as with anything, a closer examination of any legend brings on its own interesting revelations.

Let's start with the ambergris part. Let's start with a diversion. Have you ever wondered: Why have top U.S. perfume houses either stopped using ambergris as an ingredient or stopped talking about it?

 “It’s illegal to possess ambergris in any form, for any reason,” says Michael Payne at the National Marine Fisheries Service, a U.S. federal agency in Silver Spring, Md., regarding the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Even picking up a stray lump from the beach is prohibited, according to Payne. However, there isn’t a lot of precedent for prosecution. “I know we’ve issued warning letters,” he says. “It was probably a very long time ago. It hasn’t been since 1990.” European companies don't have such a risk-taking hindrance in the way, so the lore  continues  unfazed.

Tilar Mazzeo, the author of The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfume, says that “historically Chanel No. 5 certainly did use ambergris.” The original formula leaked in the 1930s, she says, and “the copies I have seen include ambergris or ambrein—the essential scent element of ambergris—as an ingredient.” Not so, says Philip Kraft, a German chemist who creates scents for Givaudan (GIVN:VX), a Swiss manufacturer of fragrances. “There never was any ambergris in Chanel No. 5,” he says. “Not in the formula from 1921, nor in the one of today.” A representative from Chanel declined to comment. [source]

Ambrein smells like ambergris, true, but actually comes from purified labdanum!

Jasmine is also a semi-accurate affair at best in what concerns the communication of Chanel No.5. You will often hear brandished the term "French jasmine" as a denoting of superior quality. Grasse after all has been made famous thanks to its natural products, jasmine out of which is most notorious. The cultivation of the jasminum grandiflorum variety came from the Arab trade route. The Grasse jasmine is sweeter than most and more refined than the bulk of commercial jasmine essence that comes from Egypt (more than 3/4 of the total production comes from this area), Morocco and India (where jasminum sambac is the traditional product). Due to extreme costs to obtain this precious extract only a few companies have been able to use Grasse jasmine in their perfumes. This traditionally included Chanel (who use Grasse jasmine in their extrait de parfum of No.5 and the rest of their jasmine-listing extrait de parfum fragrances) and who have bought their own fields of jasmine and tuberose in the region of Grasse, France since a long while. French jasmine is at the heart of all marketing stories of Chanel. Yet the perfumery restrictions imposed (and condoned by many major companies, Chanel included, in the RIFM organisation) in 2009 specify such a low ratio of jasmine grandiflorum allowed (0.7% under the 43rd amendment of IFRA) that it must mean we're being had on...


  1. This is disappointing, but not actually surprising. Personally, I think current extrait, though still very good, smells different from vintage.

  2. Actually I own an extrait de parfum from the early '70s and I guess it wasn't passed time enough from Gabrielle's death to allow Chanel reformulating it. So I assume this can be the closest one to the 1921 formula I have smelled and let me tell the base is all about musk ketone. Surely it contains also real mysore sandalwood and probably just a touch of ambreine, but it doesn't feel that ambery. About the jasmin, well just sniff it and compare it to the nowadays one (the same can be done with Joy) and you'll immediately realize what a great art we have lost.

  3. what Payne says it not true :)
    ambergris is not illegal, many use it but don't speak about.

  4. Thanks for the link to my post. I probably could use some perfume or at least a good bar of soap.
    Since the perfume side of this is thoroughly covered maybe I should concentrate on the whale turd side of it.
    thanks again and happy whaling.

  5. D,

    most definitely.
    But I wonder how much of this is evident to those who buy based on the perception of the brand. Chanel has built the highest brand recognition among designers in the world and it's hard to beat the desire of people advertising their good taste when buying something off its racks.

  6. Magni,

    I agree with you on the whole, though I don't quite agree that Chanel being alive would mean that the formula wouldn't be changed either. I bet that it has been changed (subtly) quite a few times in her lifetime as well, as necessitated by change in the crop of natural materials, new formats available (cologne vs. parfum) and new regulations concerning some ingredients (it's not just a recent phenomenon, there were some changes done even in the 60s)

  7. Giovanni,

    Payne I believe talks ONLY about the US. If you read the paragraph again it transpires he's referring to the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (which is US law).
    Yes, people do use real ambergris and don't exactly advertise it nowadays, though it's not harming the animal in any way. But the point is they're artisanal perfumers and they don't sell to millions of people like Chanel does.

  8. Bill,

    you're welcome!
    I think there's lots to whale turds to be discovered yet. Imagine if they could sustain life in the Antarctic. Surely we haven't exhausted the -ahem- grey matter just yet :-D

  9. ...which is why I've amassed several bottles of No. 5 extrait at least before the last cut of jasmine. And if I'll feel that way, I guess that a drop of jasmine absolute into the bottle of extrait could do a thing or two (yes, mad scientist I am).

    And speaking of long-lost beauty, when will Chanel bring No. 46 back? It would be a great addition to Les Exclusifs.

  10. L,

    I don't think Chanel will reissue no.46 any time soon. I believe it's a period of their history they're intent to leave behind (though the Wertheimers have nothing to be ashamed of personally, but it corrodes the myth of Coco). Nor would the formula present itself readily to a repackaging under another name for Les Exclusifs.
    Personally, after the last couple of years and accompanying releases, I don't see Chanel regaining its sacrosanct status in perfume circles.

  11. What do you think about Beige?


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