Suzanne's Perfume Journal

Vintage Chanel No. 5 Parfum Extrait: Like Skin And Beads

I recently had a compelling desire to seek out a vintage bottle of Chanel No. 5 parfum extrait—despite the fact that I never particularly favored No. 5.  In my memory, it was a rather cold and imperious perfume that couldn’t hold a candle to No. 22, my favorite Chanel.  Yet with all the reformulation issues currently affecting perfumery and imposing not-so-wonderful facelifts on many of its most grand and classic scents, it suddenly seemed imperative to nab a bottle while it’s still possible to own such a thing: the world’s most iconic fragrance as it was in the days before some of perfumery’s most important aroma-materials were restricted.

So I did my research, plunked down a tidy sum of cash on a 30-ml bottle that dates back to when Catherine Denueve was the “face” of the perfume (sometime in the ’60s), and am ever so glad I did.  It has totally changed my perception of the fragrance, to the degree that when I first tried it on I was perplexed: Could this really be the right juice? The furthest thing from cold and imperious, this vintage Chanel No. 5 is warm, purring and animalic.  What really threw me upon first smelling it is that it’s leathery too: honeyed leather that has a suede-like softness, but is leather all the same.  While I was loving what I smelled from first sniff, and while I could still smell the recognizable elements of Chanel No. 5—the aldehydes are still intact, though age has certainly rendered them less crisp, and the base, in particular, has that distinct Chanel signature—the fragrance seemed so different from how I remembered it that I jumped to the computer and did a Google search on “vintage Chanel No. 5” and “animalic.”  I soon came upon French perfume blogger and historian Octavian Coifan’s authoritative post of May 2008 (unfortunately, no longer on the Internet), in which he compares the vintage extrait with the modern, and knew right away that the vintage bottle I bought on Ebay was indeed the right juice.

How fitting, then, that the celebrity we most closely associate with Chanel No. 5, at least here in America, is Marilyn Monroe, who catapulted the fragrance to the top of the perfume pedestal when she famously answered a reporter’s question about what she wore to bed.  There is so much sexy warmth, and the feeling of a womanly body, in vintage Chanel No. 5 parfum that, coupled with its sparkly aldehydes and intensely girly floral heart, it seems only natural to couple the star to the fragrance.  Wearing it, I can’t help but think of Marilyn Monroe in the gown she wore to the nationally-televised birthday salute for President John F. Kennedy in 1962.  Marilyn called it her “skin and beads” dress, this flesh-colored gown sewn with 2,500 rhinestones and a fit so tight she had to be sewn into it.  Even reading the description of the “Happy Birthday Mr. President” dress from the Christie’s auction house (where it sold for $1.26 million in 1999)—“a full length evening sheath dress of flesh-colored soufflé gauze encrusted with graduated rhinestones embroidered in a rosette motif”—is like reading an accurate description of Marilyn’s favorite perfume.

The fragrance notes for Chanel No. 5 include top notes of aldehydes, bergamot, lemon and neroli; middle notes of jasmine, rose, lily of the valley and orris; and base notes of vetiver, sandalwood, vanilla, amber, civet and musk.  The citrus top notes are gone from my vintage bottle, though as I mentioned, the aldehydes are still quite detectable, if not as crisp and bright as they once were.  Undamaged by time is the unmistakable jasmine-rose heart of the fragrance and its sandalwood base, which at times possesses a faint birch (almost rootbeer) smell and is incredibly smooth and long-lasting.  What’s most surprising and unique—in addition to the leather aspects of the fragrance that I mentioned above—is the lusty, even somewhat urinous smell of the musk in this scent.  It leads me to believe that real musk was used in this vintage, though more likely it was Musk Ketone, one of the nitro-musks that smelled most like the genuine article, but which is now restricted under the EU cosmetics directive because it is thought to cause photo-toxicity.  It also leads me to make the decision not to decant this bottle for sale on my website—for I can easily imagine this particular aspect of the fragrance raising question marks in other people’s minds.

As to my own mind, I love this naughty nuance of the perfume.  It couples it all the more to its doomed, but undeniably eternal, movie-star ambassador.  “When she came down in that flesh-colored dress, without any underwear on…” said Time magazine reporter Hugh Sidey, of Marilyn Monroe’s birthday salute to JFK, “you could just smell lust.”

That and a whole lot more!, I believe Marilyn Monroe would say if she could whisper to us from her grave.  That and a whole lot more is what I smell in her fragrance, vintage Chanel No. 5.

Images: Photographer Bill Ray's photos of Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday to JFK on May 19, 1962.

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May 17, 2010: